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Revisionist Zionism is a right wing tendency within the Zionist movement. The ideology was developed by Ze'ev Jabotinsky who advocated a "revision" of the "practical Zionism" of David Ben Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, which was focused on independent settlement of Eretz Yisrael. Revisionist Zionism was instead centered on a vision of "political Zionism", which Jabotinsky regarded as following the legacy of Theodore Herzl, Zionism's founder.
In its early years, and under Jabotinsky's leadership, Revisionist Zionism was focused on gaining British aid for settlement. Later, Revisionist groups independent of Jabotinsky's leadership, conducted campaigns of violence against the British authorities in Mandate of Palestine to drive them out and establish a Jewish state.
Jabotinsky and Revisionist Zionism
After World War One, Jabotinsky was elected to the first legislative assembly in the Yishuv, and in 1921 he was elected to the Executive Council of the World Zionist Organization. He quit the latter group in 1923, however, due to differences of opinion with its chairman, Chaim Weizmann, and established the Revisionist Party . In 1925, Jabotinsky formed the Revisionist Zionist Alliance, in the World Zionist Congress to advocate his views, which included increased cooperation with Britain on transforming the entire British Mandate of Palestine on both sides of the Jordan River into a sovereign Jewish state, loyal to the British Empire. To this end, Jabotinsky advocated for mass Jewish immigration from Europe and the creation of a second Jewish Legion to guard a nascent Jewish state at inception. A staunch anglophile, Jabotinsky wished to convince Britain that a Jewish state would be in the best interest of the British Empire, perhaps even an autonomous extension of it in the Middle East.
When, in 1935, the Zionist Organization (later known as the World Zionist Organization) failed to accept Jabotinsky's program, he and his followers seceded to form the New Zionist Organization. The NZO rejoined the ZO in 1946. The Zionist Organization was roughly comprised of General Zionists, who were in the majority, followers of Jabotinisky, who came in a close second, and Labour Zionists, led by David Ben Gurion, who compromised a minority yet had much influence where it mattered, in the Yishuv.
Despite its strong representation in the Zionist Organization, Revisionist Zionism had a small presence in the Yishuv, in contrast to Labour Zionism, which was dominant among kibbutzim and workers, and hence the settlement enterprise. General Zionism was dominant among the middle class, which later aligned itself with the Revisionists. In the Jewish Diaspora, Revisionism was most established in Poland, where its base of operations was organized in various political parties and Zionist Youth groups, such as Betar. By the late 1930s, Revisionist Zionism was divided into three distinct idealogical streams: the "Centrists", the Irgun, and the "Messianists".
Jabotinsky later argued for a need to establish a base in the Yishuv, and developed a vision to guide the Revisionist movement and the new Jewish society on the economic and social policy centered around the ideal of the Jewish middle class in Europe. Jabotinsky believed that basing the movement on a philosophy contrasting with the socialist oriented Labor Zionists would attract the support of the General Zionists.
In line with this thinking, the Revisionists transplanted into the Yishuv their own youth movement, Betar. They also set up a paramilitary group, Irgun, a labour union, the National Labour Federation , and their own health services. The latter were intended to counteract the increasing hegemony of Labour Zionism over community services via the Histadrut and address the refusal of the Histadrut to make its services available to Revisionist Party members.
Irgun: Origin and Activities
The Irgun was derived from the Betar youth movement, which had by the 1940s transplanted many of its members from Europe and America to the Yishuv. The movement, now acting autonomously from the HaZohar leadership in Poland, decided to organize locally, as its small membership was increasingly overshadowed by Labour Zionists, who were predominantly focused on settling the land. While Jabotinsky continued to lobby the British Empire, the Irgun, under the leadership of people such as David Raziel and later Menachem Begin, fought politically against the Labour Zionists and militarily against the British for the establishment of a Jewish state, independent of any orders from Jabotinsky.
See also: Altalena
Lehi: Origin and Activities
The national-messianist movement, called Lehi and nicknamed the "Stern Gang" by the British, was led by Avraham "Yair" Stern. Lehi was founded by Stern in 1940 as an offshoot from Irgun, and was initially named Irgun Zvai Leumi be-Yisrael (National Military Organization in Israel or NMO). The group openly described itself as terrorist. Following Stern's controversial death in 1942, and the arrest of many of its members, the group went into eclipse until it was reformed as "Lehi" under a triumvirate of Israel Eldad, Natan Yellin-Mor , and Yitzhak Shamir. Shamir became the Prime Minister of Israel forty years later. Lehi was guided by spiritual and philosophical leaders Abba Achimeir and Uri Zvi Greenberg.
NMO and to a lesser extent Lehi, were was influenced by the romantic nationalism of Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi, Italian fascism, and the ideas of Nietzsche. Its goal was to establish a corporatist and religious society. The movement's activities were independent of any Diaspora leadership.
While the Irgun stopped its activities against the British during World War Two, Lehi continued guerilla warfare against the British authorities. It considered the British rule of Mandatory Palestine to be an illegal occupation, and concentrated its attacks mainly against British targets (unlike the other underground movements, which were also involved in fighting against Arab paramilitary groups).
In 1940 and 1941, NMO proposed intervening in the Second World War on the side of Nazi Germany[ to attain their help in expelling Britain from Mandate Palestine and to offer their assistance in "evacuating" the Jews of Europe arguing that "common interests could exist between the establishment of a new order in Europe in conformity with the German concept, and the true national aspirations of the Jewish people as they are embodied by the NMO." Late in 1940, the NMO representative Naftali Lubenchik was sent to Beirut where he met the German official Werner Otto von Hentig and delivered a letter from NMO offering to "actively take part in the war on Germany's side" in return for German support for "the establishment of the historic Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, bound by a treaty with the German Reich". Von Hentig forwarded the letter to the German embassy in Ankara, but there is no record of any official response. Lehi tried to establish contact with the Germans again in December 1941, also apparently without success.
Lehi prisoners captured by the British generally refused to present a defence when brought to trial in British courts. They would only read out statements in which they declared that the court, representing an occupying force, had no jurisdiction over them. For the same reason, Lehi prisoners refused to plea for amnesty, even when it was clear that this would have them spared from the death penalty. In one case two Lehi men killed themselves in prison to deprive the British of the ability to hang them.
Tensions between the Irgun and Lehi simmered until the two groups forged an alliance during the Israeli War of Independence.
Revisionist Zionism: Ideology
Ideologically, Revisionism advocated the creation of a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River, i.e. a state which would include all or part of the modern state of Jordan. All three streams, Centrists who advocated a British style liberal democracy, and the streams who would become Irgun and Lehi, supported Jewish settlement on both sides of the river (and so did some parts of Labour Zionism, such as Ben Gurion's Mapai party), but in many cases, differed on how this would be achieved. Jabotinsky wanted to gain the help of Britain, while Lehi and the Irgun wanted to conquer both sides independently of the British. The Irgun stream of Revisionism opposed power-sharing with Arabs. Jabotinsky's statements were ambiguous on the topic of "transfer." In some writings he supported the notion, but only as an act of self defense, in others he argued that Arabs should be included in the liberal democratic society that he was advocating, and in others still, he completely disregarded the potency of Arab resistance to Jewish settlement, and stated that settlement should continue, and the Arabs be ignored. Most Zionist groups favored, tacitly, at least a partial transfer of the Arab population out of Mandatory Palestine in order to ensure a Jewish majority.
National-messianism vs. Jewish nationalism
Up to 1933, a number of leaders from the national-messianist wing of Revisionism were inspired by the fascist movement of Benito Mussolini. These leaders, such as Abba Achimeir were attracted to fascism for its staunch anti-communism and its focus on rebuilding the glory of the past, which national-messianists such as Uri Zvi Greenberg felt had much connection to their view of what the Revisionist movement should be.
Abba Achimeir's ideology was based in Oswald Spengler's monumental study on the decline of the West, but his Zionist orientation caused him to adapt its ultimate conclusions. Achimeir's basic assumption was that liberal bourgeois European culture was degenerate, and deeply eroded from within by an excess of liberalism and individualism. Socialism and communism were portrayed as "overcivilized" ideologies. Fascism on the other hand, like Zionism, was a return to the roots of the national culture and the historical past. According to Achimeir, Italian Fascism was not anti-Semitic, whereas communist ideology and praxis were intrinsically anti-Semitic: in his view, Communism was anti-Zionism, Fascism was not.
He also developed a favorable attitude toward fascist praxis and its psycho-politics, such as the principle of the all powerful leader, the use of propaganda to to generate a spirit of heroism and duty to the homeland, and the cultivation of youthful vitality (as manifested in the fascist youth movements). Achimeir joined the Revisionist movement in 1930, but before joining he wrote a regular column entitled "From the Notebook of a Fascist" in the unaffiliated but pro-Revisionist magazine Doar Hayom. He crafted his pro-fascistic views in these columns, and also wrote an article in 1928 titled "On the Arrival of Our Duce" to celebrate Jabotinsky's visit to Palestine, and propose a new direction for the Revisionist movement, more in line with Achimeir's views. (Segev, Tom, The Seventh Million: Israelis and the Holocaust pg 23.)
When Achimeir was on trial in 1932 for having disrupted a public lecture at Hebrew University, his lawyer, Zvi Eliahu Cohen, argued "Were it not for Hitler's anti-Semitism, we would not oppose his ideology. Hitler saved Germany.' This was not an unconsidered outburst". An editiorial in the Revisionist newspaper Hazit Haam praised Cohen's "brilliant speech." It continued, that "Social Democrats of all stripes believe that Hitler's movement is an empty shell (but) we believe that there is both a shell and a kernel. The anti-Semitic shell is to be discarded, but not the anti-Marxist kernel. The Revisionists would fight the Nazis only to the extent that they were anti-Semites."(Segev, Tom, The Seventh Million: Israelis and the Holocaust pg 23).
In 1933, when Hitler came to power the newspaper, whose editors were Revisionist Party members, praised Nazism as a German national liberation movement and said that Hitler had saved Germany from Communism. Jabotinsky responded by threatening to have the newspaper's editors expelled if they repeated such "kow-towing" to Hitler. (Schechtman, Fighter and Prophet, p.216.)
The national messianist wing (which inspired Lehi) differed from the ideological vision of Jabotinsky to the extent that on August 9 1932, Jabotinsky wrote to tell Abba Achimeir that his romantic ideas and the zeal of his followers were considered excessive. Ha-Zohar, he wrote, was a democratic political movement of a patrician rather than populist or Romantic kind. As a consequence, he argued, the behavior of Achimeir and his friends threatened Jabotinsky's own movement. He also argued that if Achimeir's views were indeed similar to those which he expressed in his articles and letters, there was no room for the two of them in the same political camp.
Irgun to Likud
The Irgun largely followed the Centrists' ideals but with a much more irredentisticly inclined, hawkish outlook toward Britain's involvement in the Mandate, and an ardently nationalist vision pertaining to society and government. After the establishment of the State of Israel, it was the Irgun wing of the Revisionist Party that formed Herut, which in turn eventually formed the Gahal party by absorbing the centrist General Zionists. In 1977 the new Likud Party, a right wing coalition dominated by the Revisionist Herut/Gahal, came to power and has been an important force in Israeli politics ever since. In the decades since first taking power, particularly in the last decade, Likud has undergone a number of splits to its right, including the 1998 departure of Benny Begin , son of Herut founder Menachem Begin. Although the party platform has been consistent with Revisionist ideology, most supporters believe that Prime Ministers from the party have consistenly deviated from what many see is their mandate.
The National Union and other parties to Likud's right now claim that they are the true representatives of Revisionist Zionism, and that Likud has abandoned its ideology.
While the initial core group of Likud leaders such as Israeli Prime Ministers Begin and Yitzhak Shamir came from Likud's Herut faction, later leaders, such as Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ariel Sharon have come or moved to the "pragmatic" Revisionist wing.
On December 4 1948, the New York Times published a letter to the editor signed by over two dozen prominent Jews condeming Menachem Begin and his Herut party on the occasion of Begin's visit to New York City.
- Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the “Freedom Party” (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.
- The current visit of Menachem Begin, leader of this party, to the United States is obviously calculated to give the impression of American support for his party in the coming Israeli elections, and to cement political ties with conservative Zionist elements in the United States. Several Americans of national repute have lent their names to welcome his visit. It is inconceivable that those who oppose fascism throughout the world, if correctly informed as to Mr. Begin’s political record and perspectives, could add their names and support to the movement he represents. (source: NY Times, December 4, 1948).
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