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Vladimir Jabotinsky

A Politician Who Missed the Boat

MAVERICK, MILITANT, MAXIMALIST Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky was in many respects a pioneer, proposing policies others would adopt only years later. In some ways though, he was a man of his time, no more visionary than his opponents, or even less so. His views of the United States were both more and less perceptive than those of other Zionists. Like them, the spiritual ancestor of Israel’s right-wing Likud Party found he could not ignore the New World in the interwar period; but he became seriously interested in North America only in his dying days, long after others had established a foothold there. Although he knew a great deal about America and had an affinity for aspects of its politics and culture, he put little stock in that country’s potential for Zionism.


Most of the early eastern European Zionists grew up in traditional Jewish surroundings; Jabotinsky came from an assimilated family, although his mother was Yiddish-speaking and rather observant. As a child he received a Russian education but little Jewish education; one of his American antagonists, Zionist leader Louis Lipsky, remarked that “he had a goyish head.”1 Jabotinsky spent some time in an Italian university. His early interests in literature and politics put him in touch with America.

Among his early heroes Jabotinsky counted Abraham Lincoln, “the most straightforward, the most noble, the most honest statesman in the world,” a person who, like Garibaldi, Victor Hugo, and Theodor Herzl, “believed in the natural goodness of man” and was willing to fight for his principles.2 Although he was known to describe himself as a Jeffersonian democrat, “first on . . . [Jabotinsky’s] list of American presidents” was Theodore Roosevelt, “a sober man with a simple, healthy, straightforward mind,” one of the most “famous lion hunters” of the world.3 Admiration for Roosevelt, the “rough rider,” was less common among Jews than adulation for the “great emancipator” Lincoln, but not unknown, especially among Zionists.4 Roosevelt represented to the young Jabotinsky the American dream of adventure and daring, the conquest of uncharted lands. Not only Roosevelt awakened in Jabotinsky the pioneering spirit. Among his favorite early authors were the American writers of the frontier, James Fenimore Cooper and Bret Harte, as well as the Englishman, Mayne Reid, who also wrote about the American West.5 For Jabotinsky, a pioneer was a “person who did not accept boundaries,” who desired “to keep on going, to investigate and to experience God’s creation from the other side of the border.”6 And it was that spirit which he believed to be characteristically American. He found Jules Verne’s tales of undersea and space adventure “American” and appealing.7 While still in his teens he was drawn to Edgar Allan Poe, the pioneer of the spirit, the explorer of the dark side of the human psyche, whose poem, “The Raven,” young Jabotinsky translated into both Hebrew and Russian.8 And he read Mark Twain, undoubtedly attracted both by Huck Finn’s search for spiritual freedom and by the later, darker tales of psychological searching.9

Jabotinsky’s interest in America was not based on blind affection. From the press, the movies, and from literature, he became familiar with “the American dilemma.” Like almost all of Zionism’s founding fathers he read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the single “book which most directly influenced history.”10 D. W. Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation, impressed upon him the complexity of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods;11 but he never overcame the conviction that there was not “anywhere in the civilized world,” including Russia and Rumania, “the kind of inequality” that “democratic” America imposed upon its black population.12

He was appalled by the race riots that broke out following the Johnson-Jeffries prize fight in 1910.13 Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion, and within hours of his victory seven blacks had died at the hands of whites in various parts of the United States. White bands had “formed apparently for the sole purpose of beating up whatever negroes they could get their hands on” to revenge the defeat of the popular Jeffries. In the days following there were more deaths and injuries, and in many places movies of the fight were banned in order to prevent further violence.14 Jabotinsky wrote in 1910, that American lynchings were worse even than the barbarous pogroms in Kishinev, which had shaken the world only a few years earlier. He attributed the behavior of white Americans to a perverse physical-psychological revulsion for blacks, as opposed to European feelings about Jews, which he found more rational, although no more acceptable.15 In a bizarre story set in the pre-Civil War era Jabotinsky attempted himself to explore the aberrations inherent in black-white relations. “Virginia” is the tale of a Southern woman raped by a black during a slave rebellion, whose Swedish husband comes to loathe her for having been defiled by a black.16 Here was an aspect of the underside of American psychological “exploration,” which led Jabotinsky ultimately to regard Poe and some other American writers as “unhealthy,” perhaps worthy of rejection.17

As a young man, Jabotinsky shared some of the negative views of America held by many early twentieth-century European intellectuals. Americans could be forgiven their off-putting, nasal pronunciation of English, but other unpleasant characteristics, such as their penchant for empty-headed “entertainments” and “soul-less,” assembly-line uniformity, were less pardonable. The United States had not produced even “one true genius,” he asserted in 1910.18 Its “melting-pot” ethos, a by-product of the impulse to standardize life, was contributing to the country’s ruin. That ethos, he said, stressed “America before all, America after all, and America in between, as well, America and nothing else”; he believed it stifled creative powers, which only individualism and ethnic particularity could release. It was an ethos especially dangerous for Jews and other small minorities. In this respect, he felt Jews were better off in the Russian empire before 1914 than in America.19

All of these notions were developed before Jabotinsky had met many Americans and with relatively little reference to Jews. War brought him into contact with Americans. The opportunities it offered for altering the situation of Jews in Europe and the status of Palestine presented an occasion to test some of his earlier views about the United States.


When the war broke out, Jabotinsky became a correspondent for a Russian newspaper. He soon found himself in Alexandria, Egypt, where he met the Jews who had been expelled from Palestine by the Turks. A veteran of several years of active involvement in the Zionist movement, Jabotinsky consulted with a number of people in Alexandria in search of an appropriate response to the crisis facing the Jews of Europe and Palestine. He settled on a plan, which he believed should become Jews’ principal war effort: the creation of a Jewish fighting force to serve in a campaign to free Palestine from Turkish rule.

It was in connection with this scheme that Jabotinsky’s interest in America was aroused. Undoubtedly, he was drawn to the idea of a fighting force for the same reasons he was attracted to the frontier, to American pioneering, to Theodore Roosevelt. Not in psychology and emotions, however, but in politics lay the rationale of his project. He believed that Jews’ participation in the armed struggle would give them a claim to the spoils of war. In fact, they would have participated in the battle for the one prize they wanted, the land of Israel. It took almost three years of single-minded effort on Jabotinsky’s part and of much agitation on the part of others to bring the Jewish Legion into being. In that initiative American public opinion played a role which has, until now, been virtually unnoticed by historians of the period.20

The Legion was not intended by Jabotinsky to address only the issue of the ultimate disposition of Palestine. On both sides of the lines in World War I Jews rallied to the colors with the same enthusiasm as other citizens. In neutral countries, and principally in the United States, opinion was divided. In eastern Europe, Germany was liberating Jews from Russian oppression; in the Jewish world, in general, Germany had long been admired for her “superior culture”; and in the United States there was considerable sympathy for Ottoman Turkey to which the American government had posted two Jewish ambassadors over the years, including the incumbent. On the other hand, German ambivalence regarding Jews was well-known, while Turkey opposed Zionism and was treating the Jews of Palestine harshly. Britain, however, had been politically active on behalf of beleaguered Jews for many years and was considered most likely to promote the goals of Zionism. And it was known as a very hospitable country to Jews and Judaism. But the British were allied with Russia, the country most oppressive to Jews, and the place from which a large number of North American and British Jews had fled. Both the Germans and the British expended considerable effort in trying to overcome their negative image and in wooing American Jews, partly because of an exaggerated estimation of Jewish power.21 Jabotinsky envisioned the Legion as a valuable propaganda weapon for the British, whom he favored in the war, as well as a desirable political instrument for the Jews.

By the spring of 1915 Jabotinsky was in London lobbying for the Legion. A relentless campaigner, he badgered politicians, fellow Zionists, people of the press, and others likely to help. In December 1915, he wrote to C. P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, Liberal politician, and friend of Zionism, that among “the Jews of America . . . the Jewish Legion would be . . . a powerful means of propaganda for the Allies.” He reminded Scott of Jews’ “influence” in the United States and went on to suggest, that “the only way to counter-balance their ill will towards Russia was to appeal to their attachment to Palestine.”22 A copy of that letter with a covering explanation was sent a few days later to Lord Robert Cecil, the parliamentary undersecretary for foreign affairs.23

Early in the new year Jabotinsky spelled out his case in full in his yet imperfect English to C. F. G. Masterman, the director of Wellington House, which oversaw Britain’s war propaganda. In what sounded like a veiled threat, he invoked the specter of Jewish power, rather as Ambassador Morgenthau was doing implicitly in Turkey to defend the embattled yishuv. Jabotinsky recounted to Masterman American Jews’ alleged power, not only in their own country but also in “international politics. I have to remember here,” the journalist wrote, “only one fact: it was their influence which led to the rupture of the commercial treaties between the United States and Russia.” He described the “Jews of America” to Masterman as “utterly democratic and pacifist . . . [and] by nature essentially anti-Russian.” Still, he claimed, they were drawn to Britain because of her long-standing support of Zionism. And that was the only possible “lever” England might use to win them over wholeheartedly to the Allied cause. Jabotinsky offered to organize Allied propaganda among American Jews, if the British government would agree to form the Legion. By 1917 Chaim Weizmann was using similar arguments in his negotiations with the British government. Zionists in America, such as Jacob De Haas and the Palestinian Eliyahu Lewin-Epstein, confirmed the claims.24

On occasion Jabotinsky used a somewhat different approach. The pacifism of American Jews—including prominent Zionists, such as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Henrietta Szold, and Rabbi Judah Magnes, later the founding president of the Hebrew University and a leader of the movement for a binational, Arab-Jewish state—was well advertised.25 (In 1929 Jabotinsky would assert that Magnes’s “whining” pacifism, steadfast even in the face of Arab terror, “nauseate[d]” him.26) In England the unwillingness of Jewish immigrants of Russian origin in London’s East End to volunteer for service in either the Russian or the British army became less and less tolerable to public opinion as the war dragged on and losses mounted. The resourceful lobbyist argued that if Jews were marked as pacifists or as lukewarm patriots, then antisemitism would increase in both the United States and Britain. Jews would then be increasingly unwelcome immigrants to America. That, he implied, would make their evacuation from Britain after the war less likely and might result in more Russian Jews immigrating to Britain rather than to the United States.27

Even after the entry into the war of America, Jabotinsky was asserting that only the Legion and the promise of Palestine could overcome American Jews’ deep-seated pacifism.28 He informed British policymakers that “the Zionist Organization in the U.S. . . . under the chairmanship of Mr. L. Brandeis (Judge of the Supreme Court), is the strongest of Jewish organizations in the world.”29 And there is evidence to suggest that his rhetoric carried some weight.30 Later, he would claim to British politicians, with some exaggeration, that the Legion together with the Balfour Declaration and the campaign for Palestine had won over American Jewry to the Allied cause and propelled the United States into the war.31 Implied, of course, was a reminder of the debt owed to him and to Zionism by Great Britain, a debt the British became ever more reluctant to repay.

The Legion was the first issue in which America figured as a major political factor for Jabotinsky. It also provided his first extensive contact with Americans: one of its three battalions of Royal Fusiliers was manned largely by North Americans, most of them immigrants without Canadian or American citizenship, a number of whom had come from Palestine. Although no exact figures are available, it seems that some 1,500 Jews from North America served.32 The Legion, in which Jabotinsky held the rank of lieutenant, participated in the latter phases of the Palestine campaign as a unit of the British army, just as he had originally imagined.

The cessation of hostilities, however, brought disillusionment to its founder, who had imagined that the foreign Legionnaires would settle in Palestine after demobilization and that the Legion would remain as a Jewish unit within the permanent British force there.33 But the battalions were disbanded. Neither the British government nor the Zionist Commission, which had come to Palestine to administer the yishuv on behalf of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), was of much help in promoting the settlement of discharged soldiers.34 Most of them returned to Britain and North America, leaving behind in Palestine a sense that “the most magnificent vision of our times had come to an end.”35 A few months earlier the Legionnaires had been greeted with eager expectation. Now they were regarded by many veteran settlers as having committed an act of “national treachery.”36

Even before the soldiers began to return, rumblings about them could be heard among Palestinian old-timers. David Ben-Gurion found his soldier comrades from America too doctrinaire in their socialism and too immersed in Yiddish culture for life in Hebrew-speaking Palestine. Columnists in HaPo’el HaTza’ir, the Palestinian Labor journal, complained about the “childish,” “whining” Legionnaires from America, who “wanted the table set for them, so they could ‘make whoopee.’”37

Although he had to deal with the Americans at their most difficult, Jabotinsky usually refrained from criticizing them. In the spring and summer of 1919, with Palestine secure, with the British ever less enthusiastic about the politics of a Jewish fighting force, and with the separation from family becoming harder to bear for the men in uniform, several nasty incidents occurred, including two mutinies that resulted in courts-martial and unreasonable punishments. Jabotinsky acted as lawyer for the accused, almost all of whom were North Americans. He had counseled the soldiers to endure the harshness of military life for the good of the yishuv, but he did not fault them for rebelling against what he described as “the anti-Semitism which has been cultivated for so long a time by higher ranks [and which] seems to have now reached the private soldier.”38 If anything, Jabotinsky appreciated the Americans’ unwillingness to tolerate British racism. He agreed that they had been duped into a “swindle” of the American-Jewish public, who believed that the British unequivocally backed the Jewish cause, when, in fact, many of them harbored deep-seated animosity towards Jews.39

Jabotinsky greatly regretted that more of the North Americans did not remain in Palestine. Nonetheless, he later recalled them as an admirable lot, in contrast to the British Legionnaires. The American volunteers, he said, were rather like the pioneers of whom he had read in his youth: quickwitted and “strictly practical,” eager to fight, “of a high order of intelligence, of bravery, and of physical development.” On the other hand, the British Jews, who were conscripts, had a Latin, “mañana” mentality and preferred training for battle to fighting.40 When they returned to North America, many of the ex-Legionnaires remained close to Zionism and to Jabotinsky personally. A few, such as Elias Ginsburg, eventually formed the American nucleus of the militant Zionist-Revisionist movement. Others could be relied upon for donations to Revisionist causes, to form an honor guard when Jabotinsky came to town, or a bodyguard to strong-arm his opponents, as proved necessary during his 1922 visit to Toronto. Even people peripherally involved in the Legion assisted their charismatic lieutenant in his later ventures. Some of the veterans eventually returned to Palestine as settlers.41

There were other North American twists to Jabotinsky’s involvement with the Legion and his acquaintance with the North Americans in its ranks. At the outset he had sensed how America might be used as a stick with which to beat the British into forming the Legion. Still in 1919 he was reminding the peacemakers that the English-speaking peoples had no moral grounds on which to oppose Zionism, since Jewish colonization of Palestine was no less just than British colonization of Canada, Australia, and the United States. At first, the American argument had been a stick used to complement a number of carrot arguments in favor of the Legion. Later, American support became vital to the very life of the Legion. Jabotinsky solicited funds in America for soldiers’ welfare. He pleaded for the support of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) in pressing Britain to remove antisemitic officers from their commands and to compensate its American soldiers at the same rate as British soldiers to prevent their disaffection. He wrote to Brandeis that the Legion could become a significant institution, a real instrument of Zionist policy, only if it were “openly supported by American friends.”42 When that support was not forthcoming, the Legion indeed ceased to exist.

There were other blows dealt by Americans in these years. In early 1919 in one of several changes of the guard at the Zionist Commission, Jabotinsky was pushed out of his position as head of the Commission’s political department. Although Chaim Weizmann seems to have orchestrated the change from London, those who carried out the orders were two Americans: Dr. Harry Friedenwald, the acting chairman of the Commission, and Robert Szold, who replaced Jabotinsky as Commission spokesman. When Brandeis visited Palestine in July 1919, Jabotinsky met him together with Szold. The soldier tried to convince the jurist of the need for speaking out forcefully against the incipient hostility to Zionism of the military authorities in Palestine and of the government in London. Brandeis was not persuaded. Inclined still to trust the British, he declared the warrior unfit for Zionist service in Palestine.43

A year later another contretemps further poisoned relations between the two. Jabotinsky, Ginsburg, and a number of others had been imprisoned for participating in the unauthorized armed defense of Palestine Jews during Arab riots. The American Zionist journal The New Palestine called for their release, as did a special meeting of the ZOA. Philanthropist Nathan Straus offered Jabotinsky a loan for the support of his family. Louis Lipsky and others proposed that American Zionists organize mass protest meetings. The British ambassador in Washington, sensitive to public opinion, reported to the Foreign Office that Jabotinsky’s release would make “an excellent impression” in the United States. Brandeis and his followers, however, objected to the protests, fearing that the mob might get out of hand. Then the new British high commissioner, Herbert Samuel, eager to appear even-handed, decided to amnesty the Palestinians together with Arabs who had been convicted of raping Jewish women during the riots. Jabotinsky wanted Brandeis, then chairing a conference of world Zionist leaders in London, to protest Samuel’s equating Jewish self-defense with Arab rape and terror. Apparently Brandeis never received Jabotinsky’s request for help; but Jabotinsky assumed the judge had ignored it. Relations between them would never again be cordial.44

Jabotinsky was a manic optimist and a forgiving man, who took account of political realities when it suited him. Although American Jews had let him down, he remained an admirer of their virtues and accomplishments. He championed the American Zionist Medical Unit, which, like the Legion, was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm by the war-ravaged population when it arrived in Palestine. Its arrival was looked upon as a sign of the growing commitment of American Jewry to the Zionist enterprise. Within a short time, however, the Unit and its sponsoring organization were embroiled in local politics, in particular with the socialist Zionists. The Americans were accused of medical imperialism and of the arrogance typical of Europeans bearing the “white man’s burden” in what was not yet known as the “Third World.” Jabotinsky agreed that local control of medical institutions was desirable; but he recognized that the local doctors, practicing as they were in a provincial backwater, had lost touch with recent medical advances and lacked the resources to establish an effective health-care system. The Unit, or Hadassah Medical Organization, as it came to be known, represented, Jabotinsky asserted in 1919, “a very great step . . . forward” for Palestine; both the Americans and the Palestinians ought “to be proud” of it. For the moment, at any rate, it was irreplaceable.45

Jabotinsky was generous in his postwar evaluation of the United States and its role in the momentous events of the recent past. He believed the American Senate’s refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and to permit the United States to enter the League of Nations signified “the moral collapse of America” and rendered her participation in the war no more than “a strange mistake, a laughable misunderstanding.” But he recognized that some Americans opposed the League out of noble motives. Leftists, he wrote in a late 1919 essay in Ḥadshot HaAretz, the Palestine daily, wanted a peace based on mutual forgiveness, not on the submission of Germany. He presciently agreed with their assessment that the treaty, as it stood, did little more than sow the seeds of future war.46 Some years later he wrote even more magnanimously, if rather naively, of America’s role in World War I, perhaps recalling her early interventions in Palestine. America went to war, he said, “in an exemplary fashion. There was no material aspect to her act, neither economic nor political. America entered the war because of the pure, passive pressure of the masses: because of a sense of ‘mission,’ because of an undefined but powerful desire for sacrifice, for making the world a better place.”47 America, for Jabotinsky, was still the land of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. And its Senate, if it sometimes acted foolishly, wisely isolated America from “the riff-raff of other nations” by limiting immigration, and from the encroachments of foreign countries by enforcing “the Torah of Monroe.”48


It was not without preparation, then, that Jabotinsky boarded the ship for America in early November 1921. He went, not as a tourist to view the frontier that had occupied his imagination, nor as an old soldier to renew contact with his former comrades in arms, but as a member of both a five-man fund-raising delegation of the Palestine Foundation Fund (Keren HaYesod) and the WZO executive. It was less to the land of the pioneers that he set out than to the land of dollars.

Money seems to have been one aspect of American life that occupied Jabotinsky but little, before he assumed an official position in the Zionist movement. As a member of the Foundation Fund board of directors, however, he shared responsibility for finding the resources to finance the rebuilding of Palestine, a hoped-for £25 million by 1925. In addition, the WZO sought $12 million to cover its expenses in Palestine and London between 1921 and 1924.49 These were sums unprecedented in Zionist fund raising. They were needed desperately and quickly, and there was little chance of finding them anywhere but in North America. Russian Jews were without funds and lived under the Bolsheviks, who were unsympathetic to Zionism. Poland was impoverished. German, French, and British Jewries were beginning to recover from the war but were still—and, as it turned out, permanently—weakened. Jabotinsky wrote to his mother in Jerusalem from the ship taking him to New York, that the WZO “would have had to declare bankruptcy, if it were not for the opportunity” in America.50 At least three-quarters of its budget would have to be raised there “for obvious reasons,” and as large a proportion of the Foundation Fund.51 Jabotinsky and the other members of the delegation spent about half a year at their task. They followed on the heels of Chaim Weizmann and Albert Einstein, who had devoted their efforts to the Foundation Fund just a few months earlier.

In an exhausting series of one-night stands across America from Omaha to Norwich, Connecticut, in synagogues, homes, and New York’s huge Lexington Avenue Armory, “Jabotinsky, the orator, the linguist, the publicist, the poet, . . . the statesman,”52 spoke effectively in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English to young people and adults, in mass meetings and intimate gatherings. Naḥum Sokolow headed the delegation; and it was he who was received at the State Department and at the White House by President Harding, perhaps rankling the ambitious and more dynamic junior delegate. Jabotinsky was also absent from a national ZOA convention in Philadelphia in March 1922.53 Wherever he did go, however, the Legion hero was “received with enthusiasm” by the Jewish public. In Chicago, “the audience rose to its feet and greeted . . . [Jabotinsky] with shouts of ‘Hurrah!’ and prolonged, stormy applause.” Among the admirers of his performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall in November was Berl Katznelson.54

Jabotinsky found fund raising preferable to sitting in his London office. Like others before and after, however, he was disappointed by the results of his labor.55 Donations were forthcoming, but “not nearly enough.” The “world crisis” that had also depressed the American economy was part of the problem, as were “the inertia and lethargy which . . . had reigned supreme for so long” in American Zionism.56

Another difficulty was posed by civil war in the Zionist camp. Weizmann had just succeeded in deposing Brandeis and his associates from their offices in the ZOA. Many of the potential major donors and the best fund raisers were allied with Brandeis and were not now inclined to cooperate wholeheartedly with the Europeans. An important aspect of the struggle between the Weizmann and Brandeis forces, moreover, had to do with the management of funds. Weizmann and his American associates were regarded by their opponents—and others—as having little competence in that area.57 Jabotinsky supported the Weizmann coup, in part, no doubt, because of his earlier encounters with the judge. More to the point, he very strongly disagreed with Brandeis’s conviction that in the post-Balfour Declaration era, Zionist political activism was outmoded; and he feared the domination of the movement by the Americans, who were expected to provide some 80 percent of Palestine development funds.58

Still, he tried during his visit to establish a liaison with Brandeis and his friends through Julian Mack and Rabbi Stephen Wise. An opening was provided by his agreement with the judge on the strict construction of the Zionist mission, in opposition to Weizmann’s vision of the WZO as the representative body of world Jewry on all matters of national importance. Brandeis, however, would have nothing to do with the “Jewish Garibaldi.”59

A political problem of his own making also plagued Jabotinsky. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, Ukraine enjoyed independence for a short time, always under Russian siege. The protracted fighting was marked by a series of bloody pogroms, for which Jews held the nationalist leader, Simon Petliura, responsible. By 1921 the Ukrainian nationalists had been defeated, but it was thought that with Western aid they might stage a comeback. Shortly before sailing for the United States, Jabotinsky entered into negotiations with a representative of Petliura of his acquaintance, to ensure that any future Ukrainian army would include a Jewish self-defense force. Many Jews, especially on the Left, felt it was inappropriate to negotiate with the perpetrators of pogroms. The American Labor Zionists waged war against Jabotinsky in their new Yiddish-language daily, Di Tsayt, urging him to resign his post on the Zionist Executive. By early 1922, the acrimony had abated somewhat, although the effectiveness of the hero of the Legion in Labor circles had been seriously undermined.60

A further complicating factor was the fund drive itself. What must have been most painful to Jabotinsky was that he had foreseen many of the technical problems. A year before coming to America, he had cautioned the directorate of the Foundation Fund against “planless and confused appeals.” He insisted that no campaign get under way before the method of collection and the manner of distributing the proceeds had been decided upon.61 He urged that propaganda and fund raising be separated; that house-to-house canvassing be instituted as the chief means of collecting money; and that the innovative methods used successfully by the Hadassah organization in the United States be adopted by other Zionist groups.62 Instead, his trip was plagued by “the same old mistake with which we have to struggle in England: relying on propaganda, public meetings, and banquets instead of personal canvassing . . . all our experience here has amply proved that in America, more than anywhere else, only the fringe of the Jewish population can be reached through these methods.” Jabotinsky submitted to the Fund a detailed plan for house-to-house solicitation in the New York area, which was later implemented partially with some success; and he conducted at least one workshop for volunteers.63 He conceded that in America large public meetings might be necessary “to create an appropriate atmosphere.” But he remained generally dissatisfied with American planning and methods.64

Especially unsatisfactory was the approach to the “business class” of American Jews. “The reason,” the swashbuckling Legion veteran reiterated to his London colleagues, was “the way in which our Palestine work is being carried on . . . without system and without understanding, in an old-fashioned, romantic and disorderly way.”65 Similar complaints would be voiced in subsequent years by many of the Palestinian emissaries to North America: Yitzḥak Ben-Zvi, Arthur Ruppin, Golda Meir, and others.66 Those who directed the campaigns in America and Europe and those who spent the money in Palestine, however, preferred receiving less to succumbing to American efficiency. For them, Zionism was a romantic enterprise, not a business. The solution to sluggish fund raising offered by Louis Lipsky, the new head of the ZOA and Weizmann’s lieutenant in America, Jabotinsky found chilling. Lipsky thought a spring pogrom in Palestine would be just the thing to “increase the collections.”67 Jabotinsky, who professed to “believe in private enterprise in Palestine,” preferred the establishment of a club of one thousand merchants and industrialists, each of whom would donate one thousand dollars to the Foundation Fund; and he looked forward to the success of “the Brandeis Group and other [business] groups.” He also proposed a policy he would soon repudiate: alliance with the wealthy, acculturated non-Zionists.68

Besides his fund-raising tasks, Jabotinsky found time for other activities during his first North American visit. He participated in the negotiations between the American Zionists and his friend Pinḥas Rutenberg, who was raising capital for Palestine’s first hydro-electric station.69 Politics were always his concern; and he discovered that his notion of America as a lever with which to move the British, and now the League of Nations, was still useful. It was Weizmann who urged using the ploy during the debate in Palestine and in Britain, which culminated in the issuance of the white paper of 1922. That document reiterated the Balfour Declaration but limited its application geographically and politically. Its proclamation was part of the process of gaining League ratification of the Mandate. Jabotinsky wrote Weizmann that the ZOA should “inform” the British ambassador that the situation in Palestine was harming fund raising in the United States and causing antagonism towards Britain. A delegation to President Harding was planned, as well as mass meetings of sympathetic gentiles and acculturated Jews to stir up American public opinion. In April Weizmann requested that Jabotinsky marshal all the support he could for American adherence to the Mandate. The politicking included lobbying for the pro-Zionist, Joint Congressional Resolution, which was passed while Jabotinsky was in the United States in 1922. The usually dauntless Jabotinsky had at first been “uneasy” about the resolution, fearing that it might “do the cause more harm than good,” should it fail.70

His official duties left Jabotinsky little time for private affairs. But he was by now a family man with a wife and son in Europe to support and a mother and sister in Palestine whom he helped from time to time. Before the war he had earned his living as a journalist. Under the Bolsheviks, however, Russian papers would not employ him; and the émigré press to which he contributed did not pay. In early 1918, when he was still in uniform, he had been approached by the Morgn Zhurnal, one of New York’s largest Yiddish-language dailies. He turned the offer down, partly because he felt it might contravene military regulations.

By early 1920, however, he was endeavoring to make contact with American papers in the hope of putting his personal finances in order. During his imprisonment in Palestine, he had begun a Hebrew translation of The Divine Comedy at the request of a New York publisher, but the project was stillborn, because his knowledge of Hebrew was inadequate. Toward the end of his North American visit, he received an offer from Dr. S. M. Melamed, editor of the Chicago Daily Jewish Courier. Melamed agreed to accept his submissions, provided they were “not a learned and socialogical [sic] treatise, but a series of interesting stories.” Jabotinsky did not usually produce light-hearted stories. Melamed’s words undoubtedly reminded him of his earlier perception of Americans as addicted to frothy “entertainments.” He commented disdainfully that every issue of every American newspaper had an interview with “some Peaches,” but seldom a full account of affairs in Washington. Some time later Jabotinsky referred to Melamed as a “tasteless, slum language” journalist. A year after his return to Europe, Jabotinsky accepted an offer from New York’s Di Warheit. After three articles, however, the editor canceled the contract, complaining that Jabotinsky was recycling his essays, which were, in any case, too difficult for the paper’s readers.71

All in all, Jabotinsky’s first visit to North America ended on a low note. Of the United States he remembered little that was positive. He met with old friends in California and Texas; he was greeted in many places by Legion veterans, attended a Legion ball in New York, and addressed a reunion in Philadelphia. But while the former Legionnaires displayed warmth and nostalgia, they failed to heed his call to erect a concert hall in Palestine as a memorial to the fallen of the World War and to settle the country’s dangerous border regions.72

Most American Jews he found dull and provincial, except for a few, like Brandeis and Mack, with whom he did not get on. American Zionism he thought disorganized, no better than that of prewar Odessa. And it was being destroyed by its overwhelming concern with fund raising, which was not even that successful. He saw no chance of American aliyah, the supposed goal of Zionists everywhere.73 He visited Mormon leaders in Utah and was impressed with their system of tithing. But he knew Jews were too individualistic to submit to it, despite its biblical origins. He took note of Prohibition and other Blue Laws, which he read as retrograde inversions of America’s pioneering spirit and willingness for sacrifice. Jabotinsky had never forgotten his reservations about the United States based on the treatment of blacks. In prison in Palestine in 1920, he had lectured about it to fellow inmates. Now in Texas he witnessed a parade of the Ku Klux Klan, which convinced him that both Jews and blacks in the United States would one day have to undertake their own physical defense.74 About a year after he returned to Europe, Jabotinsky pronounced the final judgment on his trip. He declared that future visits by Zionist leaders would be “futile” and doubted that even “a successful tournée . . . in America” could save Zionism “for long.”75


Jabotinsky’s pessimism regarding North America was, no doubt, partly a function of his growing misgivings about the Zionist movement in general. In early 1923 he dramatically resigned not only his executive position but even his membership in the WZO, in disgust with Weizmann’s leadership. Subsequently he resigned as a director of the Palestine Foundation Fund, as well. In time he would become the leader of the main opposition to the Zionist establishment. For now, however, he was a free man; and the freedom allowed him to reassess some of his political and intellectual positions. Included in the reassessment were his views of America. It is probably not unfair to say that Jabotinsky’s temperament was better suited to opposition than to team play, and to leadership rather than power sharing. Some of his long-held notions, moreover, fitted well into the framework of his new political stance.

One area in which he revised his views was economics. For a time he had been quite close to socialism in his essential outlook, although he sometimes nodded in the direction of free enterprise. Now he developed a thoroughgoing appreciation of capitalism and the bourgeoisie, partly in reaction to developments in Russia. “The real beggars’ kingdom,” he wrote, “is in Soviet Russia, not in England, nor in France, nor even in America.”76 He maintained that the bourgeoisie was the only creative element of society. To prove that dubious thesis, he rewrote Jewish history, depicting the ancient Israelites as shopkeepers rather than the farmers and shepherds portrayed in the Bible and other sources.77

The American business ethos looked better from this new perspective. Sinclair Lewis’s quintessential bourgeois boor, George Babbitt, Jabotinsky described as “lively, thriving, [and] vigorous.”78 American “pioneering,” he asserted, “had not come to an end, it had merely taken on another form,” big business. Years after the inner circle of President Harding—all businessmen and their associates—had been exposed as corrupt mediocrities, Jabotinsky, without a trace of irony, extolled those “self-made men” and the system that had propelled such “excellent people” to the fore. On the eve of the Great Depression, he acclaimed Herbert Hoover as a stalwart opponent of “both socialism and that public phenomenon known in America as radicalism.” Hoover, he said, like Harding, exemplified American individualism at its best. While socialism and autocracy stifled the individual and, therefore, production, the American business ethos allowed a person “to develop his aspirations . . . and his mind” to the full. In 1987 the Wall Street Journal enshrined Jabotinsky in the capitalist pantheon by reprinting his sixty-year-old essay, “We Bourgeois.”79

His new esteem for American capitalism promised to make the United States a more congenial sphere of activity, especially since wealth there was now also buying culture. By the early 1920s, Jabotinsky noted, the United States had well-endowed universities with some 600,000 students and “some of Europe’s best professors”; New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was one of the finest in the world; and its Metropolitan Opera boasted “all the best voices of Europe” including Caruso.80 American Jews might, perhaps, be weaned of their mindlessness.

Jabotinsky was not prepared to embrace capitalists unconditionally. Once he had thought that the “Yahoodim” of America, the prosperous, acculturated Jews of German extraction, were different from “the assimilating Jews of Europe,” more “prepared to work for the rebirth of the land of Israel even though to a man they fail to understand the concept of nationalism.”81 Now, perhaps because of his objections to Weizmann, he declared unalterable opposition to his former colleague’s pet scheme, an enlarged Jewish Agency for the development of Palestine, which would include in its directorate wealthy Jews, most of them Americans. Jabotinsky argued that coopting money moguls, who were prepared to finance the rebuilding of the Holy Land although they opposed political Zionism, was an antidemocratic measure that would result in relinquishing control over activities in Palestine to the non-Zionists. Although his objections were chiefly political, his perfervid rhetoric, sounded like that of an angry Marxist.82 He inveighed against the fat-cat “mulattoes and mongrels oscillating between ‘pro-Palestine’ and ‘contra-Palestine’” positions, the “Fifth Avenue ghetto” crowd, as he would later call them, who, he suggested on one occasion, “should drown themselves together with their banking accounts.”83

He began to articulate a philosophy of financing the yishuv that called for investment on a business basis rather than charity and for the aggressive marketing in North America of Palestine products. Earlier he had come to the conclusion that the unbusinesslike behavior of Zionist leaders was self-defeating. Now he began to move close to the Brandeis-Mack position on financial matters, which he had rejected by backing Weizmann only a few years before. By the late twenties he was arguing that “the secret of successful colonization” in Palestine lay in attracting private capital. These notions were not unique to him. Socialist Zionists were also beginning to move in some of the same directions in these years. And, like them, Jabotinsky maintained that the WZO “should have a monopoly on the management of natural resources” and communications.84

But it was less in economics than in culture that Jabotinsky saw America in the “roaring twenties” taming the frontier and leading the way for the Old World. He took note of Mantrap, a novel by Sinclair Lewis set on the “northwest frontier” of North America, in Canada. The book’s characters he perceived as rugged, old-fashioned American heroes, “extraordinarily brave, noble, and strong.”85 In American music, dance, and film, new frontiers were opening up; undreamt of boundaries were being crossed; old codes of behavior could be broken publicly. “Jazz, the fox trot, and Harold Lloyd” he saw as expressions of “a philosophy . . . not far from that of . . . the pioneers,” a philosophy of breaking through established norms. Once the purpose of the dance had been to suggest the erotic; in its latest American versions, Jabotinsky the culture critic wrote, it had become itself an erotic act.86

To be sure, such revolutionary energy could be dangerous. The forces loosed might never be harnessed. America was a country “looking for some dragon, some evil witch” to slay, “some battlefield on which to venture” forth. She had no direction yet and could easily be led astray. Her “tremendous ethical ardor” was already being channeled in frivolous, sometimes ominous, directions, like the Scopes Trial, Prohibition, vegetarianism, and the Ku Klux Klan. That fervor inspired the imaginations of Europe’s young fascists, stirred by the world they viewed in American films, to demand a bigger slice of the economic pie; and it led them to believe that brute force was a morally acceptable way of achieving their goal.87 On the whole, however, American adventurousness, which encouraged opposition to traditional and received wisdom, was promising for the world, Jabotinsky believed.

In the eagerness to disregard old norms and break through into uncharted terrain he perceived a lesson for American Zionism and, through it, for the Zionist movement as a whole. He had “complete faith in ‘the third generation’ of the American Diaspora.”88 Youthful leaders of American Zionism, unfettered by hoary tradition, could “play a leading part” in revivifying the WZO, and “not only in financial matters.” Conditions in America were right. “The very atmosphere of this country, the magnificent sweep of its initiative ought to prompt the American organization to lead . . . every movement intended to rejuvenate Zionism, to instill courage instead of timidity, to broaden the avenues we have to trudge.”89 America was “the richest, the youngest, the most vigorous” of the world’s countries, with “a tremendous amount of energy.”90 Just as American film had become “the greatest revolutionary influence in the world,” so American Zionism could again “actively encourage . . . revolutionary propaganda,” which he saw as vital to a stagnating movement.91 There was danger for Jews, too, in the cowboy spirit. The pragmatism and “the flexibility” of American Zionism had so far amounted to little more than a lack of principles. The movement lurched from program to program, from ideal to ideal, embracing each in turn with intense but misplaced and thoughtless vigor. Often, he said, it threw its “spineless” weight behind causes of little merit in a destructive way. On balance, however, the American spirit of rebellion offered hope to the “tired and weary” Jews of the Old World, just as it did to the gentiles.92


By the end of 1923 Jabotinsky had returned to the political fray and within a few months was organizing a new movement soon to become known as Revisionist (and later, New) Zionism. Although he regarded North American support as “pivotal” to the success of Revisionism, he had not maintained his contacts there and needed to seek out allies.93 As might be expected, he began the search among Legion veterans.94 Probably through the auspices of one of them, Joseph Brainin, he received an offer from impresario Sol Hurok to tour North America in early 1926. The reborn politician was so eager to garner support there that he accepted Hurok’s offer in preference to one for the same honorarium but only half as many lectures in Poland.95 A number of establishment Zionists eager to inject some “excitement into the[ir] quiet, complacent camp” helped to underwrite the trip.96

Jabotinsky’s five-and-a-half-month-long itinerary included meetings with old friends and a few media celebrities, and visits to the movies and to the theater “to see nude girls,” who, he felt, were not presented “as well . . . [in New York] as in Paris.” He corresponded with a Jewish inmate in New York’s Attica prison.97 Apparently he cooperated with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who also “toured” North America in 1926, in the procurement of arms for the nascent Jewish self-defense forces of the yishuv.98 He was invited to address a Jewish National Fund mass meeting in New York along with Chaim Naḥman Bialik. Years before he had translated some of Bialik’s poems into Russian; and as a welcome for the bard he published an article on his “poetic range” in The New Palestine, the English-language organ of the ZOA. In a public debate in New York’s Town Hall, however, the two clashed over the role of Hebrew in the Diaspora; and Jabotinsky’s opponents had good reason to believe that Bialik had joined their ranks.99

The most time-consuming of Jabotinsky’s extracurricular activities were connected with publishing and journalism. He negotiated with American firms regarding the publication in English of some of his own works. He sought backing for Hasefer, a company he hoped would publish Hebrew translations of some of his favorite American authors, such as Cooper, Harte, Stowe, and Zane Grey, whose books he had “really understood . . . felt [and] . . . digested” as a young lad. His goal was to provide for youngsters in the yishuv muscular role models different from the more pacific heroes of rabbinic literature. His “pet project” was the Hebrew Geographical Atlas, on which he collaborated with Dr. Samuel Perlman of the Boston Hebrew Teachers’ College, whom he had first met in Alexandria during the war. Jabotinsky passionately solicited support for his publishing ventures from “notables,” such as Nathan Straus, and Rabbis Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise; but Hasefer went bankrupt even before he left America.100

The lack of an alternative led Jabotinsky to regard the American-Jewish press as his “last [possible] source of [a secure] income.”101 Journals, including the The New Palestine, Der Tog, Der Morgn Zhumal, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Bulletin, now sought him out; and he successfully concluded long-term agreements with the latter two. Even before the editor of the Morgn Zhurnal whittled down the agreed-upon fee, however, he had noted that the arrangements were not likely to make him “a rich man.” Still, they provided some income during the remainder of the decade and an American platform for his views, not only on Zionist politics and world affairs but also in the broad area of culture, about which he so much enjoyed writing. From time to time he commented insightfully on aspects of American Jewish life which would not have interested a less curious and wide-ranging visitor, such as Hebrew-speaking summer camps.102

The chief motivation for this second American tour was the lectures arranged by Hurok; and Jabotinsky devoted most of his attention to them. At first, he sent upbeat reports to his mother and sister in Jerusalem that the “lectures [are] going well [and] paying me well, [and the] press [is] treating me well,” that his appearances had “been very successful, more so than in Europe.”103 To his wife, however, he admitted the truth: he was being greeted by “empty halls.” At the opening lecture in New York only one seat in three was filled. He complained to Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of Cleveland, that “nobody [in your city] seems to want me.”104 Hurok lost money on the tour; and Jabotinsky did not make much, which he greatly regretted. He had hoped to use the proceeds of the lectures to put Revisionism on its financial feet. In March he cabled his wife to tell his coworkers that there was “no money here.”105

The explanation for his poor reception lay partly in the fact that many American Zionists were unnerved by outspoken opposition to the Zionist establishment. Robert Silverman claimed, albeit after the fact, that in sponsoring Jabotinsky’s visit, he and his friends had “not intend[ed] to become parties to . . . a new movement to talk out Dr. Weizmann [sic] from the leadership of the World Zionist Organization.”106 At times Jabotinsky and his supporters complained of a “boycott.” And, indeed, a number of people—including David Remez and Avraham Harzfeld, Palestinian labor movement leaders then on their own “tour” of America—lobbied against him. So, too, did Louis Lipsky, who, according to Jabotinsky, was “too slippery” and just “didn’t understand which way the wind was blowing.”107 Shmuel Katz claims that ZOA stalwarts pressured potential supporters into backing off and cites the case of Nathan Straus. According to Katz, Straus had promised twenty-five thousand dollars for the New Zionist Party but reneged after being convinced of the danger to Zionism of Jabotinsky’s maximalist plans and intemperate language.108

But the visitor recognized that his lack of appeal in America also had something to do with his not having done his homework before coming. Most American Zionists, he felt, were callow “youths or people of the past generation,” who were simply unprepared for his message. They were not cut from the same yard of cloth as his literary and historical heroes. They were, as he put it some time later in a retrospective evaluation of the tour, “less Jewish” than Europeans, who understood him more readily, and “less Jewish” than he had expected.109

After fulfilling his obligations to Hurok, Jabotinsky, who was never down for long, turned renewed energies to political organizing. He detected encouraging signs, only some of them products of his imagination. In fact, Zionist officialdom had not been unalterably opposed to him until he attacked its “blind and stupid bosses” head-on. As one observer noted, prominent ZOA members “coquetted” with Jabotinsky until he posed a threat to them all.110 Although Katz suggests that the flirting was designed only to prevent the establishment of an alternative Zionist organization,111 opposition had smoldered in the ranks of the ZOA since the days of the Weizmann coup. As time went on, Lipsky’s lackluster leadership fanned the flames of discontent. By 1926 the Brandeisists were emerging from their long sulk and starting to reassert themselves. Jabotinsky thought that Mack “and his friends were beginning to draw close,” that Maurice Samuel and Meyer Weisgal, two well-known Zionist figures, were on the verge of an alliance, and that even “Lipsky more or less” agreed with his program.

In the years immediately following, cooperation with the Brandeis Group seemed increasingly to be a possibility. Revisionists participated in Group conferences. The weak response by Britain to the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine prompted several Brandeisists to express preference for Jabotinsky’s more forceful style to Weizmann’s wishy-washy leadership. Brandeis himself now thought the “Revisionists . . . right in . . . much.” He still doubted Jabotinsky’s judgment and urged his followers “to go slow on hitching up” with him. But he refused even to discuss a proposal for Arab-Jewish power sharing suggested by Judah Magnes with the backing of Felix Warburg and other non-Zionists active in the enlarged Jewish Agency.112

In a surge of hopefulness, Jabotinsky wrote to his wife in 1926 that he was looking forward to “a Zionist revolution greater than I achieved in Europe.” But he conceded more realistically, that he might be “mistaken.” A few Zionists, most of them old cronies, who “treated [him] . . . with respect,” provided “the opportunity for organizing a [Revisionist] party” in America.113

Jabotinsky’s major triumph came with the Sons of Zion, a Zionist fraternal order and mutual aid society, which had been founded some years earlier and already served as a focus of dissidence within the American Zionist movement. Following his own prescription for success during his first American tour, personal canvassing, Jabotinsky doggedly campaigned in the local lodges of the order. Although its annual convention at which a formal vote on Revisionism would be taken was to be held only in June, he was reporting to family and associates in Europe and Palestine as early as April that he had succeeded in capturing the group.114 When convention time came, he was proved right. By an overwhelming vote, and despite the very strong objections of Lipsky and others, the Sons of Zion elected a Revisionist executive of which Jabotinsky was made an honorary member. The exultant politician reported to his wife that he “was happy as a kid, not just because of winning over [the order to Revisionism], but because I was able to give . . . [Lipsky] a bop on the head in his own country. I was a hero.”115 Ironically, the pacifist Judah Magnes had been the founding chairman of the Order in 1907, and Lipsky would become its nasi or president in 1944. Jabotinsky expected the Sons of Zion to provide a springboard for a takeover of the entire American Zionist movement. Lipsky and his supporters were so fearful of such a development that they prevented the interloper even from speaking at the convention of the ZOA, which took place just after that of the Sons of Zion. But even without appearing, Jabotinsky exerted a considerable presence at the later convention.116

Winning the Sons of Zion was important because the group added several thousand members to Revisionist ranks, because it might serve as the catalyst of further North American conquests, and because it offered the prospect of a substantial, regular subvention to underwrite Revisionist work. Of “primary importance” were the activities of the order “in Palestine, which consisted of sponsorship of the Tel Aviv Exposition and the Judea Insurance Company,” the sort of middle-class, business investment that Jabotinsky was beginning to promote as essential to the development of the yishuv.117

Friends and enemies alike warned him that a threat of scandal hung over the Judea. Weizmann suspected that the company was not “a good business” and thought it “a great pity that Jabotinsky [had] . . . linked himself up” with it. Accusations of fraud and mismanagement would soon prove to be well-founded.118 Hard-pressed for funds, however, and perhaps a bit naive, Jabotinsky accepted the offer in 1928 to become Judea vice-president and managing director in Palestine at an annual salary of six thousand dollars, enough to restore the fortunes of his family. He was also desperate to return to Palestine; and it is doubtful that the British would have granted him a visa if he had not been employed by the American firm.119 Most important to him, his contract allowed him to participate freely—after working hours—in publishing and political activities.

Two months after his arrival, he became editor of the daily Do’ar HaYom, replacing Itamar Ben-Avi, one of the country’s foremost journalists and literary figures, the son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. An ardent admirer of Jabotinsky, Ben-Avi had toured the United States earlier in 1928 promoting fascism “as a new plan for upbuilding Palestine.”120 He stepped aside to provide a platform for the Revisionist leader, perhaps motivated in part by the fact that the Judea was a major advertiser in the paper. During his short tenure, the new editor used the paper, which had previously covered American affairs rather fully, to propagate American culture and to tout the virtues of American free-enterprise and the pioneering spirit.121 He was less generous towards American Jews. He catalogued the weaknesses of American Zionism; he argued strenuously against the enlarged Jewish Agency during the visit to Palestine of Felix Warburg, one of its architects; and he aimed barbs at Lessing Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck, one of the “fat cats” he hated, for giving munificently to causes in Egypt and Lebanon but parsimoniously to Palestine.122 The paper avoided mention of the American connections of the Judea and of its editor’s ties to it, but perhaps such public information required no comment.123

Jabotinsky’s career as insurance executive and editor was cut short after a year by the Mandatory government, which refused to renew his residence permit because of his political activities. He had been in the country long enough, however, to reassert a personal presence and to catalyze the local Revisionist movement. And American Zionists had made those developments possible!124 That one result of his 1926 North American tour justifies his only positive (prophetic?) assessment of it as “the most successful [visit] to any country to date.”125

For a time in the mid-twenties, then, Jabotinsky seemed to have become intimately connected with America. His long-standing intellectual interests dovetailed with his political aims. Some American Zionists found his talents and program appropriate to their needs and goals. The American Jewish press became a mainstay of his income and offered a prominent platform for his views. A company owned by American Zionists enabled him to return to Palestine. On the face of it, the second tour of North America, which had begun inauspiciously, seemed to have turned to gold in the land of dollars. For a brief period, Jabotinsky became dependent—at least financially—on America.

What is rather surprising about Jabotinsky’s 1926 American visit is his failure to follow up his gains. He recognized even before leaving America that making the victory permanent or enlarging its impact would necessitate returning in subsequent years.126 At his parting dinner, he spoke explicitly of “next season’s campaign in America.” By early 1927 he had laid out plans for apportioning the proceeds of such a trip, following his early dictates for successful fund raising.127 But the next year he headed for Palestine and refused to visit North America on the way. In 1929 he once again contemplated a North American trip and rejected the idea.128 In fact, he would not set foot there until 1935, by which time the achievements of 1926 had largely dissipated and an entirely new situation in North America and in the world in general formed the background of his visit.

The reasons Jabotinsky elected not to consolidate his 1926 victories are not entirely clear. Undoubtedly they have partly to do with his mercurial temperament. He began more projects than he could ever hope to complete. It may be that he was reluctant to commit scarce financial resources to an American trip. And, as already noted, in the 1920s he could earn more money and gather larger crowds in poverty-stricken Poland than in affluent America. In Poland, where Jewish life was increasingly bleak, many more people were open to his strong rhetoric and his seemingly simple solutions to their suffering than in the land of George Babbitt and the Jewish “all-rightnik.”129 But it seems also that Jabotinsky reverted at this time to some of his early negative notions regarding America. Despite his attraction to aspects of American culture, he still tended to feel, like so many intellectuals in Europe, that America had no soul and only half a brain. It was a place where all too often “ideas are manufactured, and vital decisions can be produced by machine methods.”

For Jabotinsky, reading and theorizing about America was more congenial than dealing with real-life Americans. In the United States people with Revisionist leanings did not follow their heads and hearts but held back, waiting “for the bandwagon.” The American Zionist movement had much potential but for the moment seemed to be realizing none of it, while Revisionism by 1927 was nowhere “in a more . . . dishevelled state of no cohesion . . . [than] in America.” Even the Sons of Zion, he felt, were lapsing into “passivity,” their promising enterprises mired in controversy.130 David Levinsky and Sammy Glick, he discovered, were only distantly related, at most, to Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn, to say nothing of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. And if American Jews listened to jazz and danced the fox trot, such “revolutionary, pioneering” deeds barely affected their attitudes to Zionism, if, indeed, to anything other than getting ahead and having a good time. Pioneering had given way to decadence on the cultural frontier.

Jabotinsky took to comforting from afar his few loyal American supporters, who were growing dispirited, and to urging his European stalwarts not to despair entirely of the Americans. But he did not come to terms with the fact that his own absence from America contributed to demoralization in the ranks. At times he grew impatient with the Americans, who now seemed to him a whining lot. He wrote to one of his closest followers in New York in 1927, that the Americans’ troubles were

just child’s play compared to the difficulties with which we [in Europe] are confronted. Busy as all of you are, you are none of you “refugees”—and if you do not realize what it means in terms of dollars and cents and every second’s worry, the better for you. Yet we carry on. . . .

We in Europe are doing our duty under the bitterest of handicaps. But the worst of the handicaps, the one that paralyses [sic] our influence even in the remotest Orient, is the absence of a Revisionist organization in America.131

Jabotinsky felt strongly, then, the need for an American support group. He knew that the way to build such a group was to attract “indigenous” Americans and to garner influential allies. But either he did not know how to do these things, or he preferred to spend his energies on more congenial tasks.132 At the end of the 1920s he seemed no further along with his program in the United States than at the start of his career in opposition to the Zionist establishment. And he seemed less interested in the American government or public than he had been during World War I, when he had first recognized the potential usefulness of their intervention in Zionist affairs.


The last decade of Jabotinsky’s life was also the most turbulent. Opening with the economic collapse of western Europe and North America and closing with the early battles of World War II, it marked the beginning of the end of the Jewish world as it had been for centuries. By 1945 European Jewry would be decimated, a development that neither Jabotinsky nor anyone else had foreseen. In these events Zionists found confirmation of their convictions and reacted in a variety of ways. Most grew increasingly impatient and radical. In Palestine the Arabs staged anti-Jewish riots in 1929 and a full-scale revolt starting in 1936. The British responded by backing away from their commitment to Zionism, closing the doors to the country just when Jews were most in need of a place of refuge.

Even more restive than other Zionists, Jabotinsky and his followers adopted as their models in style and, to a degree, in substance the fascists of Europe. In 1932 they seemed poised to gain control of the WZO in the not distant future. Yet Jabotinsky led them out of the organization and down a separate path, although some of their policies were less exceptional than he and his followers cared to acknowledge. From 1934 the Revisionists promoted a scheme for a worldwide petition to the British government for a Jewish state. In Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe they backed a plan for the large-scale “evacuation” of Jews to Palestine, in pursuit of which they allied themselves with fascists and antisemites eager to rid their countries of Jews. In the late 1930s they were active in assisting illegal immigrants into Palestine, although others, especially the labor parties, led the movement. In conjunction with a government academy in Mussolini’s Italy, the Revisionists conducted the Jewish Marine School to train seamen for the future Jewish navy; and in a number of places, they trained youngsters for the future Jewish army and in the meantime for local self-defense. In the United States, they recruited as a trainer a Jew on active duty in the army who was threatened with court-martial for his extracurricular involvements.133 After the invasion of Poland, Jabotinsky dusted off the World War I Legion plan and renamed it “the Jewish Army.” Somewhat earlier he had begun planning a coup in Palestine to be financed by donations from America, an idea he abandoned when war broke out.134 In Palestine militant Revisionists acting independently of the leader declared war on the British notwithstanding the crisis in Europe; and others plotted a coup in alliance with the Germans. Everywhere young party members—and sometimes adults—attended official functions in uniforms resembling those of the Italian and German “shirts.” Within the New Zionist Organization itself the leader refused to tolerate opposition.

Jabotinsky’s view of the United States in these years matched his mood: crankier, more somber, and less sanguine than before. The “colossal work which both we and the period demand from Revisionism” was, he wrote to his old comrade in arms Elias Ginsburg in 1932, impossible “without a great deal of money.” He “demand[ed]” that Ginsburg “undertake the raising of funds,” even though associates had warned him that “the Jews of America . . . [were] flat” broke.135 He still found Americans “energetic . . . fervent . . . and capable,” but in a mid-1930s essay published in Palestine, the United States, and Poland, he echoed the racists of Europe in attributing those qualities to Americans’ “superior blood”; elsewhere, he noted that “the chosen of . . . twenty Aryan races” were blended together in the American “race.”136 Earlier and later in the decade he sounded more like his former self, criticizing American racism directed at blacks, Indians, Okies, and Jews.137 In a 1940 review published in a Tel Aviv Revisionist paper of recent works by American Jewish novelist Edna Ferber, Jabotinsky described the characters in her Cimarron as genuine pioneers,

not in any way resembling the pioneering race of this generation [in Palestine, who are little more than] . . . silk stocking[s] or yeshiva student[s]. . . . The whole content, tone, and climate [described in Cimarron] . . . are closer to those of the biblical book of Judges than to the account books of the Palestine Foundation Fund.138

But this was surely rhetoric, meant less to praise America than to damn his Zionist opponents, both the Laborites in Palestine and the WZO officials.

A review of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in the same paper was less disingenuous. There he praised the American Weltanschauung, which he perceived as similar to the Jewish in its “idea of social justice [and] hatred of [both] poverty and . . . wealth,” and distant from that of gentile Europe which, he said, values “order, beauty, and logic” above all.139 In Jerusalem’s HaYarden, also a Revisionist paper, and elsewhere, he described Franklin Roosevelt as “an American . . . looking for his own individual Mount Sinai [from which] to rescue the world.” But he saw the president as one of a multitude of American reformers, many of whom, such as Aimee Semple MacPherson, Huey Long, and Father Charles Coughlin, were eccentrics, charlatans, or villains. He found the New Deal old-fashioned compared to Europe in its approach to social legislation and overblown in importance. “The more [he] read about it, the less . . . [he could] understand it.”140 And he had little use for the Jewish—and gentile—“tuxedo leftists” who abandoned their capitalist ideals to support it.141

Jabotinsky’s one unequivocally positive assessment of a Roosevelt policy turned out to be based on a misapprehension. Like most people outside of government—certainly most American Jews who tended to trust the president more than almost any other politician of the day—he took for granted FDR’s good intentions in calling the conference at Evian-les-Bains, France, in 1938 to discuss the plight of refugees from Nazi Europe. Its failure he attributed to “powerful interests” in Europe, especially “official London . . . [with its] deliberate policy of scuttling the chances of Jewish salvation.” In fact, however, the Americans had all along intended a smoke-and-mirrors conference which would give the appearance of concern without requiring them or any other country to admit Jewish refugees.142

Roosevelt’s most prominent Zionist supporter was Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. An erstwhile Brandeisian of independent mind who served as president of the ZOA between 1936 and 1938, Wise often differed with Weizmann and his associates, preferring a firmer stand towards the British. In the mid-1920s Jabotinsky came to see him as an ally and even thought of him as a possible president of the WZO, although he harbored “misgivings [as] to the durability of Dr. W.’s moods.”143 When the rabbi turned sixty, Jabotinsky eulogized him as

a man constantly seeking justice . . . proud of our own Jewish Torah but at the same time . . . ready to understand the spiritual value of other religious doctrines . . . a builder of a Jewish State and at the same time one of the best citizens of the “youngest State of God” . . . a passionate political fighter and a pure humanist.144

Wise seems to have liked Jabotinsky, as well; he invited him to speak at his rabbinical seminary, the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York; he and his wife sent him not inconsiderable donations (Ben-Gurion was also a recipient of their largesse); and for a time, Opinion, a journal founded by Wise’s son James, gave him favorable publicity.145 By late 1934, however, the relationship was cooling, as the Wises became more and more “deeply concerned and unhappy about the Fascist tendency in Revisionism.”146 In 1935 Jabotinsky paid his third visit to the United States; and Wise lent his name to the reception committee. But his real greeting was a withering attack in a sermon to his New York congregation, the Free Synagogue, which met in Carnegie Hall. In the talk, which was reported in the American-Jewish press and in Palestine, Wise compared Jabotinsky to Father Coughlin, the antisemitic “radio priest” and demagogue. He described Revisionism as “a species of Fascism in Yiddish or Hebrew” and pronounced it “immeasurably imperilling . . . to the future of the Jewish people,” contrary to their “every ideal and idealism.”147

Vladimir Jabotinsky (fourth row center) with a group of supporters in Toronto, 1935. The young people are all in Betar uniforms. (Courtesy of Harry Frimerman, Toronto.)

Jabotinsky responded with an ad hominem attack on Wise, calling him a liar and a “führer,” a man “who says what he thinks, but unfortunately never thinks,” rather startling comments in light of the encomia he had heaped upon the rabbi’s head less than a year earlier. The ZOA’s other leaders and the rank and file the Revisionist firebrand dismissed as “salon socialists.”148 The break with Wise was total and irrevocable.

Brandeis and the Palestinian Laborites rejoiced. In the early 1930s Jabotinsky’s enemies were apprehensive about a possible “big victory” for Revisionism in America.149 The Labor Zionists feared that as economic conditions worsened, American Jews might go the way of their Polish cousins. In the Brandeis camp, Jacob De Haas, Abraham Tulin, and others, in addition to Wise, were becoming increasingly disgruntled with the leadership of Weizmann and Lipsky, and warming to Jabotinsky. De Haas, an early intimate of Theodor Herzl who had helped to bring Brandeis to Zionism, coauthored with Wise The Great Betrayal (1930), which detailed the stages of Britain’s backing away from her commitment to Zionism. In 1935, he formally joined the Revisionists.150

The 1935 tour might have given Revisionism a major boost. Instead, it was a dismal failure. In New York nearly four thousand people overflowed the Mecca Temple to hear Jabotinsky; and in Montreal the hall was full. Elsewhere, however, half the seats were empty, he reported to the Revisionist Executive Committee in Paris. In Detroit, Ben-Gurion was told, half of the small audience left in the middle. Jabotinsky achieved “neither moral nor financial success” and sailed from “America disgruntled, tired and depressed,” although he was soon revived in “the fountain of youth”: Poland, Lithuania, and Czechoslovakia, where he was greeted with “incredible . . . rejoicing.”151

Familiar excuses were offered to explain the debacle: no organizer had traveled with Jabotinsky; the few American Revisionists lacked influence; the Brandeis Group was “tired, inactive, and largely inclined to flirt with the left . . . thanks to Roosevelt”; America was “the hardest place . . . to conquer,” because the approach of Revisionism was “extraordinarily serious [and] . . . intolerant of [the kind of] recreational or consolatory Zionism . . . [that views] nationalism . . . as a flower show.”152

Jabotinsky’s American followers were, indeed, “second-raters.” That, however, did not mean they could not accomplish their goals, as he himself noted.153 More of a hindrance was the atmosphere of “relative paradise” in which all Americans lived. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, they were too optimistic and too safe to comprehend the hopelessness and desperation that thrust eastern European Jews into the arms of Revisionism, or the pessimism that propelled other Europeans into the arms of fascism and Nazism.154 And as one of his apologists has pointed out, although Jabotinsky “realized the tremendous political, economic, and cultural significance of the great American Democracy,” he was unwilling to tailor Revisionism to suit the American market.155 Abraham Tulin tried to convince him in 1931 that the “psychology and methods” of the Revisionists were “foreign to America, just as young Moseley is foreign to England,” that the style and approach “of continental Europe . . . simply cannot take root in an Anglo-Saxon country.”156 Illustrative was a resolution adopted at the New Zionist congress held in Vienna shortly after Jabotinsky returned from the United States in 1935. The congress voted to establish “an international army to combat oppression of the Jews throughout the world.” The American Revisionists “retained some last glimmering of sanity” and voted against the provocative proposal, which had no hope of being implemented.157 The eastern Europeans, however, would grasp at any measure which offered a ray of hope, even if that hope was no more than fantasy.


Had he been able to do so, Jabotinsky would probably have forgotten about the United States after his experiences there in 1935. He conceded that “there would not soon be” a viable American Revisionist movement and lost patience with his followers who fell to squabbling.158 By 1938 he had virtually ceased publishing in the United States, preferring instead friendly journals elsewhere in the English-speaking world. On occasion he still read American novels and scholarly works; and he remained a fan of American movies, such as Gone with the Wind and Northwest Passage.159 But the bloom was off. In 1930, in response to a suggestion of Wise that the WZO headquarters be moved from London to Washington, Jabotinsky had demurred: “If we decide that we are done with England, we should make sure of her successor before we process the divorce.” By 1936 he was thoroughly disillusioned with England, but the United States did not appear to him a likely bride.160

And yet, the last act of Jabotinsky’s dramatic life was to be played on the American stage. By the end of 1939 he was shut out of his accustomed theaters of operation: in eastern Europe by Germany and Russia, in Palestine by England. Only in the United States was there a possibility of raising funds and of recruiting replacements for the “prisoners of war” behind the lines. Only in America, he wrote in March 1940, was there “a chance to . . . rebuild our lost fortresses of Poland.”161

Even before the onset of hostilities, Jabotinsky had begun again to acknowledge the importance of America in the volatile world political arena. As early as 1937, the Revisionists under his direction were actively lobbying American diplomats and politicians with regard to their scheme for the mass evacuation of Jews from eastern Europe to Palestine (the Nordau Plan). As with the Legion in World War I, the hope was that Washington would pressure the British to cooperate. Also, he pointed out to Americans and other Westerners that their desire to bar Jewish immigrants from their countries would be more justifiable “from a moral perspective” if they supported Jewish immigration to Palestine.162 Interestingly, during a discussion of the Nordau Plan with a Revisionist lobbyist, Herbert Feis, a Jewish academic who served as an advisor in the American State Department, offered the “dark prophecy that the Jewish question in Europe may be liquidated simply by the Germans’ killing out all the Jews.” This was a much more bleak vision than that of Jabotinsky, who spoke only of the displacement of unwanted Jews in eastern Europe.163

With war came the unwelcome realization that “the center of our national political activities has shifted to America.”164 The Revisionists were still “zero,” and it might be “no use to attempt anything there”;165 but Jabotinsky hoped to reverse that situation. He arrived in the United States in mid-March 1940, without his wife, for whom he was unable to secure a visa. It was to be his last journey.

His political objectives were to build an American party, to raise money for Revisionist work in Palestine and Europe, and to promote the Jewish Army. He instructed Elias Ginsburg to lay the groundwork for his visit and to ensure there would be follow-up, otherwise he would not come.166 To a supporter in Haifa, he wrote that he planned “to begin [political organizing and fund raising] . . . with a propaganda campaign of major proportions.”167

His correspondence regarding that campaign reflects wild mood swings, perhaps manic depression. He suffered frequent “grey and sad” moods, but at other times was “full of big hopes.”168 Soon after his arrival, he noted that it had been “colossally wise and lucky that we did not ask for any financial help from here,” that “the boycott in the usual circles . . . [was] tighter than ever,” and that even Tulin had not phoned.169 A week later he reported to his wife: “the Jewish press is all with me.”170 In mid-June, he wrote to supporters in Buenos Aires and Johannesburg that American Jewry would surely accept Revisionist ideas and leadership in the near future, that he had been

met with [an] incomparably greater welcome than ever before . . . that here in the United States . . . our possibilities are vast and solid. There is almost unanimous dissatisfaction with “all and everything” of the present leadership in the Old Zionist ranks.171

Vladimir Jabotinsky (standing) talking to Colonel John Henry Patterson at mass meeting in New York’s Manhattan Center in support of a Jewish army, 19 June 1940. (Courtesy of UPI-Bettman.)

And just ten days later, he told his wife there was no use “lying, . . . the whole New Zionist Organization and I together are not wanted by anyone” here.172 The reality according to Benjamin Akzin, one of Jabotinsky’s closest collaborators during this period, was that he was able to do virtually nothing for the party; and no money could be raised.173 In America there was affection for Jabotinsky, the man, and attraction to his charismatic personality. His organization and many of his quixotic policies, however, were not popular. And perhaps the source of his contradictory readings of his reception lay in that dichotomy.

A particularly bedeviling aspect of the party work was unaccustomed rebellion within the ranks. Since 1938 tension had been growing between the National Military Organization (the Irgun), the Revisionist military arm in Palestine and Poland, and the veteran politicians, including Jabotinsky. Although the Irgun leaders agreed not to act independently of the New Zionist Organization leadership, by late 1939 they had set out on their own course, establishing independent offices in Geneva and New York, raising funds in competition with the party, and ignoring Jabotinsky’s counsel.174 In March he “had a long talk with the American Friends” of Jewish Palestine, as the New York Irgun group was called, and came away convinced that there was no need to “fear any separation on their part.”175 Yet by early June, the Friends were “not behaving as they should.” They not only rebelled against their beleaguered putative leader, they treated him shabbily. Requesting that his old war buddy Colonel Patterson not address an American Friends’ gathering, he complained that “Neither I nor any of my colleagues have been invited to that convention, nor to the dinner to which they sent out dozens of invitations. It matches with the fact that the only Jewish publication in the USA which did not mention my visit was the ‘Friends’ bulletin.” Jabotinsky forbade the Irgun “to engage in any [further] independent political action” in America, but he had lost his authority over them.176 After his death the Irgun representatives would have considerable success in garnering support in the United States and collecting funds for their program, although most mainstream Zionists shunned them as terrorists.

Jabotinsky’s efforts on behalf of the Jewish Army also failed. At times there seemed to be hope; the Laborites also favored the scheme. But it was not quite the case that “American public opinion [was] literally seething with [the] Jewish Army plan,” as the Johannesburg Jewish Herald, a Revisionist paper, claimed in June, and as Jabotinsky and Colonel Patterson cabled to Churchill.177 Akzin and Patterson lobbied in Washington and Ginsburg in Ottawa. Jabotinsky corresponded with American, British, Canadian, and French government officials and contacted the Polish and Czech governments in exile.178 Some of the arguments were identical to those used twenty-five years earlier on behalf of the Legion: Here was a ready supply of needed manpower; antisemites would be won over by Jewish soldiers; American Jews would be moved to sympathize with the British, and their gentile countrymen would be swayed by them.179 The old soldier spoke of the army as a “challenge to America’s Jewish manhood.” Volunteers, some of them veterans of the American forces or of European armies, presented themselves at Revisionist offices. Influential gentile journalists, such as Claire Booth (later, Luce) and John Gunther, expressed sympathy. (Gunther’s wife was a Jew who had earlier been won over by the Revisionists.)180 Lord Lothian, the British ambassador in Washington, was quite positive at first, but Rabbi Wise and others persuaded him that the Revisionist Army plan would sabotage the unity of American Jewry just when it was most necessary.181 Late in the war the British would include in their European army the Jewish Brigade, which had been raised in Palestine. That force, however, owed little to Jabotinsky, except, perhaps, the precedent set by the World War I Legion.

Not only political rebuffs but trying personal problems plagued Jabotinsky in his last months. Perhaps fearing that he would attempt to remain permanently, the American authorities refused until shortly before his death to grant Mrs. Jabotinsky a visa. His son Eri had been imprisoned in Palestine by the British for his role in Aliyah Bet, the illegal immigration movement. And the wolf was at the door. As Eri later wrote, in his last days in bounteous America his father lived with only “pennies in his pocket . . . [worried about] his wife in London which was being bombed and about me in prison needing legal defence.”182

Jabotinsky died on August 3, 1940, while visiting a summer camp for Revisionist youth in upstate New York. It seemed an incongruous end for “one of the heroic fighters for the honor and the future of the Jewish people.”183 He died far from the action in Europe and Palestine, in a country where he had enjoyed little tangible success. To be sure, he was not unloved in America. Thousands “of ordinary” New York Jews, “long-time residents and recent refugees,” attended his funeral. His antagonists mourned, as well. Lipsky came, although Akzin made it known that Rabbi Wise would not be welcome.184 Labor Zionists remembered a man “who naively believed, above all, in the basic goodness and dignity of the individual human being.” Socialist editor Abe Cahan “sincerely admire[d his] . . . talent.”185 He was a man whose temperament and ideas had led him out of the mainstream. Perhaps it was not altogether inappropriate that he should die on the periphery.

Jabotinsky, the man, appealed to pragmatic Americans more than his ideas; and the idea of America appealed to the dogmatic Jabotinsky more than real-life Americans. He understood—and appreciated—American culture better than most European and Palestinian Zionists, better, for that matter, than many well-educated Americans; and he identified with American historical experiences and heroes. He wrote about American literature and culture, making them familiar to his followers, especially in Palestine. I “am, in the final account,” he declared in 1926, “an American!”186 More than most other Zionists, he recognized the political, financial, and cultural potential of the United States and American Jewry for Zionism. And on occasion, during World War I with the Legion and in the late 1920s with the Judea Insurance Company, he exploited that potential. On the whole, however, for reasons of ideology, temperament, and expediency, unlike his political rivals, he neglected the United States and American Jewry until it was too late. And he rigidly refused to pander to American sensibilities by altering his message, methods, or tone. In late September 1939, Jabotinsky met Berl Katznelson in London. It was a moment of truth. “You have won,” Jabotinsky conceded. “You have America, the rich Jews. I have only Polish Jewry, and now it is gone. I have lost the game!”187 His successors would eventually learn how to play the American game; and in his own reluctant and contrary fashion he had taught them the rules.

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