Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The "Etzel" -- Ze'ev Jabotinsky

On our last planned full day in Israel, Vivian took Eric for the day (I went with him to the Tel Aviv "Safari Zoo" yesterday) and I took some time on my own to explore Israel's political history, especially the Revisionist Zionist movement led by Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

This stuff will definitely be arcane to someone unfamiliar with Israel's political history, but Jabotinsky's legacy is important today in connecting the dots for the peace process and potential future conflicts.

I went to the main Jabotinsky museum to be entertained with four video presentations; then headed to a second museum near the entrance to Jaffa, the formerly Arab port town now part of Tel Aviv, depopulated by a mass departure just before Israel obtained independence in 1948. Jabotinsky's followers take the credit for this depopulation, though the explanations of how it happened differ. Interestingly, the Jaffa-area museum in a modern building is operated by the Israeli Ministry of Defence.

Jatbotinsky could be considered the founder of the 'right wing' of Zionism. Born in Odessa (Ukraine), he started out as a journalist/writer, but evolved to a more activist approach to Zionism. His "Betar" youth group has disturbing similarities to the similar style uniformed youth oriented groups on the right -- specifically, the Nazis and Fascists (notably he formed many of his ideas in pre-Mussolini Rome). Jabotinsky saw Hitler's European threat before most believed the Holocaust possible -- and travelled the continent in the 1930s pleading with Jews to get out while they could and head to Palestine. Most didn't follow his advice; but his disciples managed to load several ships over a number of years and brought about 20,000 illegal immigrants to Palestine under the British Mandate.

Jabotinsky's organization in Palestine evolved to become the Zionist Underground -- the Irgun, which engaged in a variety of audacious guerrilla-war activities, including the King David Hotel bombing and attacks on British institutions and prisons. They also engaged in daring prison escape projects -- including one where Jabotinsky disciples managed to arrange a break-out of a prison in Kenya in East Africa, and bring everyone back home to Palestine.

The Irgun's radical activities disturbed the Jewish mainstream. Some suggest the Irgun and its spin-offs, especially the Stern Gang, engaged in terroristic behaviour -- our tour guide a few days ago said they used terror techniques to drive the Arabs out of Jaffa. This image is (not surprisingly) not portrayed in the official museums -- the suggestion there is that the Arabs were plotting dangerous things and Jabotinsky's soldiers defended and protected Tel Aviv from the Arab danger. Regardless, you wouldn't want to be at the wrong end of the gun barrel if you met an Irgun, Lehi, or Stern Gang member. The Stern Gang carried on its terror against the British authorities even during the height of the Second World War, when the overall Jewish 'resistance' including the Irgun agreed to work with the British to defeat the Nazis.

When Israel achieved its independence in 1948, Jabotinsky's organization represented a perceived threat to the unity and security of the new Israeli state, resulting in the Altalena Affair , in which an Irgun's ship carrying arms and supporters was bombed by the new Israeli army.

My reporting here is a very simplified version of a very complex story and I'm sure I have some facts garbled and distorted. But the stuff is important, because if you look at modern-day Israel, you can see Jabotinsky's legacy everywhere and surprising echos in the Palestinian terror groups.

First, we see determined, forceful, fighting elements I believe continue to have significant support within Israel's military establishment and the right-wing settler movement. Second, Jabotinsky's movement reflects and represents standard practice for right wing organizations throughout the world.

Finally, this story shows that leadership does not necessarily need to be 'there' to be effective -- Jabotinsky never actually settled in Israel -- he died in the U.S. of a heart attack in 1940. But his legacy remains today.

Were Jabotinsky's disciples terrorist thugs that set examples for modern-day Palestinian and Al Qaeda practices? I'm not sure I would go so far, because if you look a little beneath the surface, you find strong values respecting human life, avoiding civilian casualties and the like. Nevertheless, I'm sure that if the Arab former residents of Jaffa operated the museum in the same building here, they would tell a very different story.

P.S. Alitalia has announced its flight attendants and ground workers are planning a one-day strike today (Wednesday, July 18). We may be in Israel longer than we had originally planned.

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