Wolf Moskovich’s foreword to a book on Zionist leader Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky

Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky

[Editor’s Note: On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of the State of Israel. It was a date that Zionist leader Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky would not live to see. Some eight years earlier, the Odessa-born Jabotinsky died in the United States, after having spent a lifetime fighting for the rights of the Jewish people. An author, poet, and fighter, Jabotinsky founded the first modern-day Jewish army known as the Jewish Legion; the Zionist youth movement Betar; and the Union of Revisionist Zionism, which called for the creation of the Jewish State. 

Although Jabotinsky was an ardent Zionist, he also respected other nationalities in their fight for self-determination. In the foreword to the 2000 book "From Nationalism to Universalism: Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky and the Ukrainian Question", Dr. Wolf Moskovich, Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Board Member of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, examines Jabotinsky’s life and his view of Jewish-Ukrainian relation. During the course of Jabotinsky’s life, the Ukrainian people also vied for their self-determination and were an integral part of the ethnic tapestry of peoples who helped shape Jabotinsky’s world view.]

From Nationalism to Universalism: Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky and the Ukrainian Question

Forward by Dr. Wolf Moskovich

This book appears at the end of a century that brought state independence to both Israel and Ukraine as a result of the struggle for national liberation of Jews and Ukrainians respectively.

It is time to look at the difficult relations of these peoples throughout their history, and particularly during the twentieth century. Prejudice and established negative stereotypes still divide the two nations, so that mutual understanding is not easy to achieve. This book by Israel Kleiner is a Jewish author’s attempt to provide an objective appraisal of some of the problems on the road to such an understanding.

Wolf Moskovich

Kleiner, who has specialized since his emigration from Ukraine to Israel in 1971 in the area of ethnic relations in the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union, is definitely one of the best-informed scholars on problems of Ukrainian-Jewish relations. The appearance of his book under the imprint of a Ukrainian publisher demonstrates the will of certain Ukrainian liberal intellectual circles to give a description and explanation of historical issues that still divide Ukrainian and Jewish readers, and it must be hoped that the book will contribute to the dispelling of biases on both sides.

This book is not the first by a Jewish author to interpret the bloody historical events of the last century in a way that tries to take account of the Ukrainian position to show the actual conditions under which pogroms in Ukraine were perpetrated.  Could Symon Petliura really have prevented pogroms or not? Answers to this and similar questions are to be found in this book.

Kleiner may leave his reader convinced or unconvinced of his interpretation of events, but the reader can at least be certain that the author has left no stone unturned along the road, thoroughly researching all the relevant evidence and documentation.

The outstanding leader of the Zionist revisionist movement, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, stands at the center of Kleiner’s book.  Jabotinsky, who was born in Odesa, had friends among Ukrainians from childhood, and supported the national aspirations of the Ukrainian people, remains a symbol of Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue and, as such, has become a cult figure in present-day Ukraine. A Ze’ev Jabotinsky foundation was established by the Ukraine-Israel Association in Kyiv in 1997. The first winner of the annual Jabotinsky prize and medal “For International Understanding” was the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, for his book A Place among the Nations: Israel and the World. Israel Kleiner won the prize for the Ukrainian version of the present volume in 1998.

Jabotinsky, a most original thinker, was ahead of his time. He expressed revolutionary views and was often misunderstood or undervalued. His public appearances and publications aroused discussion and disagreement. His uncompromising stands and his marginality can be explained by his rare qualities as a great national leader and prophet. Jabotinsky once defined a genius as one who sees and feels what will happen in ten years’ time.

He was the first Jewish political leader to acknowledge that the solution of the Ukrainian problem would decide the fate of the Russian Empire. As the Jewish population of Ukraine sided culturally with the Russians, Jabotinsky called on the Jews to support Ukrainian national aspirations and cooperate politically with the Ukrainians, which was, in his view, in the best interests of the Jews themselves. He believed that sooner or later Ukraine would become independent, and Jews as a minority had to be prepared accordingly.

Jabotinsky correctly predicted in 1938 that a sovereign Jewish state would be proclaimed in ten years’ time. In vain did he admonish the Jews of Poland in 1938-39 to emigrate immediately to Palestine, warning them of the impending holocaust. His appeal fell on deaf ears.

Jabotinsky first put forward the concept of an “iron-wall” in the Jewish-Arab conflict. He claimed that the Arabs would compromise only when they discovered that they could not prevail against a strong Jewish military force. History has proved the correctness of his view: after many years, the Arabs lost hope of defeating Israel in a war and are now prepared to talk peace.

Jabotinsky was destined to become a leader of the newborn Israeli state, but adverse circumstances – his expulsion from Palestine in the 1920s and his untimely death in 1940 – prevented that from happening.

Much has been written about the so-called Jabotinsky-Slavinsky agreement of 1921 on the creation of a Jewish militia to defend the Jewish population on Ukrainian territory. Jabotinsky’s opponents denigrated him for concluding that agreement with Petliura’s representative, Maksym Slavinsky. The blame was undeserved. In making the agreement, Jabotinsky held fast to his tenet of Jewish self-defence, maintaining that Jews had to stop relying on others and protect themselves. This principled position, which he implemented in 1920 as commander of a Jewish self-defence force repulsing an Arab pogrom mob in Jerusalem, resulted in his imprisonment and banishment from Palestine by the British authorities.

As for Jabotinsky’s attitude to Petliura, who was blamed for pogroms during his rule, the Zionist leader explained that in defending the interests of the Jewish people he was prepared to speak with the devil himself. Subsequent historical events, such as Rabin’s handshake with Arafat in the White House in 1993, seem to justify this pragmatic view.

If on the questions of security Jabotinsky remained a staunch advocate of Jewish self-reliance and strength, and on questions of national survival he was a consistent Zionist, a proponent of Jewish national revival in the Promised Land, his positive attitude toward the national aspirations of other peoples was based on his belief in universal human rights and values.

First and foremost Jabotinsky was a liberal, a democrat, and a fighter for justice. As such, he understood and supported the national aspirations of the Ukrainian people. Jabotinsky defended the status of the Ukrainian language as separate and distinct from Russian. That question, in his view, was ultimately to be decided not by linguists but by a people that regards a language as its own. The same principle applies to the distinctiveness of a nationality. Jabotinsky included the great Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko in a list of antisemites alongside Gogol, Pushkin and Dostoevsky. That did not prevent him, however, from praising Shevchenko highly as a “brilliant expression of Ukrainian national and cultural vitality.” “The Ukrainian people,” wrote Jabotinsky, “have preserved intact the main invincible bulwark of the national soul: the village.” According to Jabotinsky, Shevchenko was not a popular poet, but “a nation poet, and therein lies his strength…in the subjective sense, that is, a poet-nationalist, even including all the outbursts of uncontrollable hostility to the Poles, the Jew, and other neighbors.”

Jabotinsky was a man of his time: his opinions were determined by his general world-view

and his understanding of the interests of his people in the prevailing historical circumstances. Applied to present-day conditions, his views may sometimes appear obsolete. However, Jabotinsky’s basic principles of international relations have not lost their validity. Among them is his stand on the recognition of the national rights of the Ukrainian people and his insistence on Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue and understanding.

It is within this modern context that the present volume takes on particular importance, for it contributes to a better understanding of the past.

Since the proclamation of Ukrainian independence on 24 August 1991, both peoples, Ukrainians and Jews, have developed their relations on an inter-state level. Ukraine and Israel regard each other as strategic partners. Friendly political, economic and cultural ties have been established between the two countries. State antisemitism does not exist in Ukraine, and Jewish cultural life has been rebuilt. Jewish emigration from Ukraine is free and unhindered. Of more than 300,000 immigrants from Ukraine to Israel who have arrived since 1989, 30,000 are ethnic Ukrainians who belong to mixed family. There is now not only a Jewish minority in Ukraine, but also a Ukrainian minority in Israel.

Negating the stereotype of Ukrainians as antisemites, more than a thousand Ukrainian righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during World War II, risking their lives to do so, have been recognized by the Israeli memorial institution Yad Vashem. Ukraine now holds third place in Europe with respect to the number of saviours of Jews.

Many tragedies of the passing century were common to Ukrainians and Jews, among them the Chornobyl catastrophe. Today Israel is second in the world after the CIS countries as to the number of persons whose health was affected by the Chornobyl disaster. This is a result of the mass influx of immigrants from affected areas. Israel is also providing humanitarian assistance to the victims of Chornobyl in Ukraine.

Excellent relations between Ukraine and Israel are a good omen for the future. However, among Ukrainians and Jews generally, and particularly in the diaspora, old prejudices die hard. As a new generation comes onto the scene, it must be educated in the spirit of inter-ethnic tolerance and cooperation. This is easier said than done. The revival of interest in the figure of Jabotinsky as a proponent of Ukrainian-Jewish understanding may help in achieving that arduous task.


Professor Wolf Moskovich
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel