In honor of the yahrtzeit of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, here is an excerpt from Chapter 13 of the historical novel, “The Lion’s Roar,” the third volume in the “Tevye in the Promised Land” series by Tzvi Fishman:
TRAVELING ON THE TRAIN TO THE BETAR CONVENTION IN WARSAW, in the year 1938, the young man, Yisrael Eldad, who still called himself Scheib, wondered what could he do, a teacher of history, and a lover of philosophy and world literature, to play a part in the battle? True, he was the commander of a local Betar chapter, but he was an educator, not a soldier. But, as the poet, Uri Zvi Greenberg, declared, there was one truth, and not two. Could he, like Jabotinsky, Menachem Began, and Avraham Stern, use his spirit and his pen to provide fuel for the Hebrew revolution, to arouse and inspire the Anonymous Soldiers who would have to rise to the heights of self-sacrifice, like Shlomo Ben Yosef, in conquering the mountain?
It seemed to him that the Betar Youth Movement had come to a crossroads. For years, chapter commanders had been instilling the spirit of revolution in their young and eager members, but how long can you keep the bonfire burning when all you do is talk and practice military exercises with sticks? Instead of climbing up the mountain leading to Jerusalem, the Jewish youth of Europe loitered on the streets of Warsaw and Vilna, wasting their strength, squandering their passion, at best collecting coins for the Jewish National Fund, or attending Zionist Congresses and listening to endless speeches, but getting no closer to the mountain. And all the while, Arabs massacred Jews in the Holy Land, and the Zionist leadership shut their lips, and the Jews of the exile could already feel the fire under their feet as they waited for Salvation. Thousands of young people, men and women, waited and waited, their muscles still strong, not yet thinned by hunger and disease, their throats still filled with song, and not with the gas crematories, myriads waiting to be granted immigration certificates to Palestine, some of them turned away because the British had closed the gates; some because the Jewish Agency selected only those who fit the socialist agenda; others because they didn’t have the 400 zlotys needed to secure passage on a clandestine map’alim ship organized by the Irgun or by the Haganah. Not finding an outlet for their nationalistic yearnings, many of the generation’s squandered youth abandoned their Jewishness and joined the armies of Stalin, or any other revolutionary movement at hand.
Others, those poised for action, who flocked to the call of military training, had grown impatient with endless lectures and marching in formation. Hearing how the Jews in Eretz Yisrael were being slaughtered by Arabs without any reprisal, and smelling the ashes of Kristallnacht in the air, tens of thousands of restless Betarim youth yearned for armed struggle, not talk.
A great tension gripped the enormous crowd at the Betar Conference in Warsaw, as everyone looked to their cherished leader, Rosh Betar, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, to publically declare - further appeasement or war.
Wearing his Betar uniform, like almost everyone else in the large convention hall, Yisrael Eldad took a seat in the back of the auditorium. He only recognized three of the people sitting on the dais of the presidium in front of the packed and noisy crowd – Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the young Menachem Begin, and the poet, Uri Zvi Greenberg, his inspiration and mentor. Along with the blue-and-yellow flag of Betar, with its symbol of a menorah, long black banners hung in the hall, in memory of Shlomo Ben Yosef.
“Who is the man sitting to the left of Rosh Betar,” Eldad asked the uniformed fellow sitting beside him.
“I don’t know.”
Eldad asked his other neighbor, but he didn’t know either. How could he? With his clean-shaven face, Tevye, the man in civilian clothes on the dais, was a stranger to everyone except to Jabotinsky, whom he had faithfully served in the early days of the Haganah, and with whom he had spent months together in Acco Prison.
Glancing up toward the balcony, Eldad noticed a young, dapperly-dressed man, standing erect and rigid, like a cocked rifle, gazing down at the tension-filled gathering. His bearing and intense expression commanded Eldad’s attention, even more than the figures on the stage. In the sea of uniformed Betarim cadets in the audience, his civilian suit and Fedora hat gave him an air of rank and distinction.
“Who is he?” he again asked the fellow sitting beside him, motioning toward the almost sinister observer in the balcony.
“Never seen him before. Maybe he’s a reporter, or a Mapai spy.”
The poet, Uri Zvi Greenberg, led off the convention, setting a strident tone with his poem, “Ode to the Nation,” which described the great power and potential of the exiled generation, praising its ability to rebuild its Land and overcome its enemies, coupled with the frustrations and misdirected energies of its youth, whose talents were wasted in service of alien countries because their leaders lacked true Hebrew vision and courage. The young people in the packed convention hall greeted their beloved seer with a tumultuous enthusiasm, grateful to him for expressing the inner turmoil and revolutionary passions pulsing in their veins.
Mighty Nation! Even in exile, mounting to millions!
Your numerous sons, broad of shoulder and strong in spirit,
Arms of iron, thighs of steel.
Sons equipped to work the soil and make homes,
To build houses and factories,
Bridges and tunnels, ports and highways.
Sons marching to battle against the enemy,
Striking the fear of their ancient race into his heart.
Sons to operate trains, ships, and planes,
To sing Hebrew ballads
In all the seaports of the world,
Wherever their ships dock with their cargoes,
Hues of sunset in their faces,
And the depth of the sea in their eyes.
Nation, your abundant daughters, lovely and sound,
Daughters to work in village and town,
Blessed to branch forth like trees,
Giving birth to a new generation
Healthy and beautiful and tanned by the sun.
And from them - prophets and scholars,
Men of action and daring,
Rulers to take command!
What shall they do here today,
Your sons and daughters,
In the fullness of their powers,
With the maelstrom of their pent-up fury,
The force of revolt within them?
What shall they do
With the fever of battle pounding in their blood?
Command them to conquer the Land,
To scale the peaks with standards flying,
Command them to go through fire,
To storm the walls of Titus, raze Bastilles.
As rebels they will go forth,
And you shall hear their song
Of freedom and conquest and Redemption,
Till the expansion of their borders and kingship- Malchut!
Command them to span the deepest chasms,
And they will turn their bodies into bridges.
Bid them tear down a building,
And they will break their bodies to smash it!
Therefore, O Nation,
Your sons and daughters are walking the earth in anger;
Hundreds, thousands, with rage in their blood,
Bitter of soul, grinding their teeth,
Blaspheming the Kingdom of David and blessing the House of Stalin instead.
Trapped like tigers - so many dying unnoticed in prisons
In the spring of their youth,
Dragged off at sunrise to eternal sleep
In an alien land.
Can they be charged with betrayal?
No, it is not they who are guilty!
They are in need of leaders
Who like themselves are rebels in spirit
With rage in their blood.
They are in need of prophets
To march before them like Pillars of Fire
In their own generation, now!
The applause was thunderous, but it was nothing like the cheers for Rosh Betar. If Uri Zvi Greenberg personified the psalmist and poet of King David’s all-encompassing personality, the “Sweet Singer of Israel,” then Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky personified the qualities of statesman and king. While he was also a distinguished writer, a persona of leadership radiated from his being, crowning him with an aura of royalty, which, like King David, he bore with no ostentation or pride. Nevertheless, while he had led soldiers on the battlefield, the fearless warrior side of King David’s character was perhaps more concentrated in the young Menachem Begin, and with the mysterious man in the balcony, with David Raziel in Jerusalem, and in the hundreds of “Anonymous Soldiers” who were ready to face Goliath and risk their lives for Am Yisrael. Later, Yisrael Eldad came to realize that, in a literary sense, Jabotinsky was the tragic King Saul, while all of young Betarim in the convention hall contained sparks of the shepherd boy, David.
When Jabotinsky stood up to speak, a deafening applause filled the auditorium. Everyone rose to their feet. Tevye, Menachem Begin, Uri Zvi Greenberg, and the other Betar leaders on the stage, stood at attention, applauding. Truly, if there was a leader filled with the nobility and grandeur of Israel’s Biblical heroes of the past, it was Ze’ev Jabotinsky. When he held up his hand, everyone sat down in diligent obedience, like soldiers before their commander. An absolute hush fell over the packed hall. It was as if you could hear the beating of ten-thousand hearts. What, they wanted to know, was the message to be derived from the clank of the trap doors and the snap of the rope, still echoing from the corridors of Acco Prison?
In hanging Ben Yosef, the British wanted to teach the Jews of a lesson, but they turned him into a hero instead. The day after the execution, Betar hung notices all over the country:
SHLOMO BEN YOSEF
Hero of the Israelite Nation, the first Jewish martyr in Eretz Yisrael executed by the ruling authorities since the days of Rabbi Akiva – a pillar of fire to a Nation fighting for its freedom, was hanged by the British in Acco Prison.
His example inspired young Jews throughout the world to yearn for national liberation and freedom from foreign oppressors. In Eretz Yisrael, his tomb became an altar. Throughout the Diaspora, in cities with large Jewish communities, windows of the British Consulates were shattered. Jews attached a black ribbon to their coats in mourning for the heroic young martyr who had been executed while crying out, “Long live Jabotinsky!”
In the wake of his execution, a searing resentment flared throughout the Irgun membership in Palestine against the organization’s commander, Moshe Rosenberg. On his way to Poland, he received a telegram from Jabotinsky thanking him for his devoted work and relieving him of his position, to be replaced by David Raziel.
After Ben Yosef’s hanging, a profoundly disturbed Jabotinsky had written a letter in Yiddish to the martyr’s mother: “I do not merit that a noble soul like your son should die with my name on his lips. But as long as it is my lot to live, his name will live in my heart, and his disciples, more than mine, will be the trailblazers of the generation. It is not me who educated your son – it is he who taught me the meaning of Zionism.”
Jabotinsky gazed out at the expectant and already electrified audience through his thick, round eyeglass frames, as if through binoculars. He knew that everyone was anxiously waiting to hear his official reaction to the policy of restraint and appeasement which both the Arabs and British perceived as weakness and surrender. While opposed to acts of reprisal against innocent people, he understood that the “havlaga” do-nothing policy of the Jewish Agency had turned the Jews in Palestine into a community of impotent cowards. But first he wanted to say something about Ben Yosef.
“I know that everyone is angry over the dastardly hanging of Shlomo Ben Yosef,” he began. “I am angry too. We are angry at the crime committed against him and against the Jewish People, and we are angry at his murderers. Let not our anger blind us to the majesty of his heroism. Not his heroism in being ready to die for his country. Others have reached that great peak as well, and many others shall heroically do so in the future. The majesty of Ben Yosef lies in his perfect calmness in asking for a comb with which to properly coiffeur himself, that very same morning, as if he were beginning another ordinary day. Martyrdom for Eretz Yisrael, he taught us, is not some fantastic, out-of-the-ordinary expression of courage. Sacrifice for our Homeland is as natural as combing one’s hair. This is the true meaning of Zionism.”
The giant audience sat in spellbound silence.
“It is a fact that Shlomo Ben Yosef and his comrades undertook their action without asking for prior permission of the Betar leadership,” he admitted, getting straight to the point.
“The three brave souls wanted to put an end to the disgrace whereby Jews are murdered with impunity, while Arabs remain free to commit their bloodthirsty deeds. Such an infamy must not be permitted!”
The crowd roared its approval. Raising his arm and magnifying his voice, he exclaimed, “If necessary, then post factum, I, as head of Betar, give you, Ben-Yosef and your two comrades, the order to go out onto the highway and do what you did!”
Once again, everyone in the hall rose to their feet in applause – everyone save the mysterious figure in the balcony, who stood by the railing, like a ship captain staring out at the horizon. What was going through his mind, Eldad wondered before turning his attention back to the stage. Rosh Betar motioned for the jubilant crowd to sit.
“There is a platitude that says it is immoral to punish the innocent in times of war,” he said. “What superficial and hypocritical nonsense. In war, any war, this theory purports that the general populace is innocent. There are even those who say: the enemy soldier who fights me, who has been recruited against his will, what crime has he committed against me that I should kill him? Or what crime have I committed against him that he should kill me? But when a war breaks out, we unanimously demand that a sea blockade be imposed against the enemy to starve the population, including innocent women and children. And if London and Paris are hit by an air raid, we demand air strikes against Stuttgart and Milan, even though they are filled with innocent victims. There is no war which is not conducted against the innocent. War is accursed, but if you do not wish to harm the innocent, you will die. And if you do not wish to die – then shoot and stop prattling! This lesson was taught to me by my teacher, Ben Yosef!”
Once again, Yisrael Eldad rose to his feet with the cheering audience. If this wasn’t a call to war – what was? Jabotinsky, the poet, acclaimed playwright and novelist, was like a skilled magician, revealing the mythic act hidden in the individual, heroic deed. Everyone in the hall knew the details of Ben Yosef’s last morning and hanging, but the master orator was to prove that no one recognized its true depth and the soaring heights that his martyrdom had lifted the Jewish People on their path to Redemption.
Up on the dais, Tevye applauded whole-heartedly along with the enthusiastic masses. Mortified to be seated on stage with Jabotinsky and other Betar luminaries, his refusals had been overcome by Rosh Betar’s emphatic insistence that he sit at his side. Caught up in the whirlwind of cheers and emotions accompanying the passionate speech, the milkman forgot about his embarrassment over being on the stage. Beside him, the young Menachem Begin, commander of Betar’s military youth groups in Poland, clapped half-heartedly, waiting to hear the rest of the speech. Though he revered Rosh Betar with all of his being, the “enfant terrible” of the 100,000-strong, Polish Betar recruits, had grown impatient sitting in youth groups criticizing the Jewish Agency’s submissive policy toward the British. His volcanic soul had grown restless with the Movement’s endless military drills, without any clear orders from Rosh Betar to retaliate against the continuous slaughter of Jews. Was “Jabo’s” de-facto approval of Ben Yosef’s deed meant as operative command for the future, or were the stirring phrases merely an ear-pleasing eulogy to hide their leader’s unwillingness to summon his troops into action?
“Everyone here is aware of the distressing situation in Palestine,” Jabotinsky continued. “Since many of you undoubtedly have reservations about our policies, allow me to present a brief history, without going into detail, as a basis for clearheaded discussion. When the Irgun Zvai Leumi broke off from the Haganah, I had no official position of authority. Soon afterward, it was decided that my suggestions were to be followed concerning overall policy, and that I would have the authority to appoint the organization’s commander in Palestine. However, since the British have barred me from returning to our country, all local decisions concerning activities in Eretz Yisrael are decided upon by the commanders on the scene. Meeting with the Irgun leadership in Egypt, we discussed what action should be taken in regards to the ongoing policy of havlaga. While understanding the desire for reprisal, I questioned the moral justification for such actions, since innocents not connected with the killing of Jews could be harmed in such forays. I questioned what public good would come of shooting an Arab peasant in the back on his way to sell vegetables in the market. After an unauthorized attempt to assassinate a certain Arab leader, now hiding in Lebanon, was attempted without success, the possibility was brought to my attention of eliminating him, for a certain sum of money, in light of the fact that he continues to direct terrorist attacks against the Jews in Eretz Yisrael.”
Jabotinsky didn’t turn toward Tevye when he said it, and Tevye’s expression didn’t change.
“I vetoed the proposal. ‘Would we like to see our enemies assassinating people like Weizmann and Ben Gurion?’ I asked. In addition, how could I authorize people to undertake such a dangerous mission when I sit comfortably in London and Paris?”
Yisrael Eldad, and all of the people surrounding him, listened in rapt attention. While everyone read newspaper articles about events in Palestine, the information was reported in a superficial manner, nothing like hearing an insider’s in-depth explanation.
“When more and more innocent Jews were butchered in the unabated Arab uprising, and the demand to retaliate increased, I struggled day and night with the need to make a decision, tormented by the dilemma of ordering troops into life-risking actions when I myself couldn’t share the dangers. On five different occasions, I wrote the awaited telegram with the code giving my approval, and five times I called the messenger back before he reached the post office. When Jews acted on their own, I was glad, but I still refrained from breaking the standing policy of restraint fostered by the Jewish Agency and the Haganah, hoping that if the British didn’t crack down on the uprising, I could reach an agreement with the Haganah to combine forces and thus make our response much more unified and effective. Badgered by our comrade, Mr. Begin, and by local commanders in Palestine whose soldiers were foaming on the leash of havlaga, I told them, ‘Men fregt nit dem Taten - a son shouldn’t always ask his father’s permission.’”
His remark drew a response of laughter, temporarily breaking the heaviness of his words. Menachem Begin smiled broadly, showing an uneven front row of teeth.
“When bombs were planted in Arab markets and bus stations, the British demanded that all retaliations cease. They displayed their displeasure by rounding up dozens of known Revisionists and Betar activists. My son, Eri, one of the randomly arrested, is now being held under military detention in Acco Prison, where I had the dubious honor of living for many months, along with many dear comrades in arms. My son is incarcerated for being a Revisionist, and I am proud of him for that. The Jewish Agency called the reprisal attacks ‘acts of terrorist aggression undermining the moral standing of the Jews of Palestine.’ Eliahu Golomb, head of the Haganah, hurried to meet with me in London. While our politics differ, he is a soldier’s soldier, with the interests of the people of Zion at heart. First, I told him, before any agreement can be reached, both in regard to a cease fire, and in regard to a pact between the Irgun and the Haganah, the Jewish Agency’s reprehensible practice of providing the British Police with the names of Revisionists and Betar activists must come to an immediate end.”
“No deals with informers!” came a loud cry from the balcony. Other Betar cadets surrounding the mysterious figure shouted catcalls of their own.
“Remember the Stavsky trial!”
“It’s time for action, not speeches!”
Uri Zvi Greenberg rose to his feet. “Like the brothers of Yosef, the disciples of Lenin and Marx will throw us into the dungeons of the British!” he declared.
Tevye wanted to add a ripe curse of his own, but who was he to voice an opinion before such a distinguished gathering?
Yisrael Eldad could not remain silent. “Uri Zvi Greenberg is right!” he shouted. “Making an agreement with the Jewish Agency is like throwing Betar into a pit with spiders and scorpions!”
Jabotinsky held up a silencing hand. “I told Golomb that I couldn’t speak for the tens of thousands of frustrated Jews in Palestine, nor influence the decisions of local Irgun leaders who had grown tired of restraint and defense. For good or for bad, I explained that as the head of Betar, and the World Revisionist Movement, as well as Director of the New Zionist Organization, which are all legal bodies, in order to protect their official standing, I cannot associate myself with underground movements. Nonetheless, I told him, the urge of Jews to strike back at their murderers will not be crushed by arrests and imprisonment.”
The crowd applauded, returning, for the moment, to Jabotinsky’s corner. Israel Eldad was not swayed by the emotional appeal. He knew that after the spectacular “Black Friday” reprisals in Jerusalem, of which he had not been consulted, Jabotinsky refused to sanction further underground actions. While Jabotinsky presented a militant image in public, when it came to street bombings, he was inwardly riddled with moral doubts. Eldad sensed that statesman in Jabotinsky continued to believe that the success of Zionism would come about through international negotiation and endeavor, and that the Irgun was to subordinate its local activism to the needs of the overall political scheme.
“Without a doubt, the message of ‘Black Friday’ brought a temporary end to the Arab terror in Jerusalem,” Jabotinsky admitted. “After the fiasco of the Peel Commission, with the renewal of the Arab uprising, and the deed of Shlomo Ben Yosef and his friends, Golomb requested a meeting again in London, fearing that private Jewish militias would distance the British from the Zionist cause. He told me that he didn’t want civil war to break out in Palestine, implying that the Haganah would be forced to wage war against militant Jewish forces in the Yishuv if they didn’t agree to come under the Haganah’s leadership. Golomb is a serious individual, and his threats need to be taken seriously. The Left is accustomed, in the tradition of the Bolsheviks, to deal violently with ideological opponents, as we have learned from the ignominious blood libel they waged surrounding Aronov’s murder. Already they have handed over dozens of our followers to the British. But, to Golomb’s credit, he is a wise and reasonable man, very aware of our strengths, as well as our joint national weakness. Because of this, we were able to reach an agreement.”
The announcement was met with mix boos and cheers. Jabotinsky continued.
“It was decided that a commission composed of four members, with equal representation between the Haganah and the Irgun, would decide upon all military actions. Each organization would remain autonomous in its ideology, structure, and command. Furthermore, in every case where the Haganah’s forces were awarded recognition by the Mandate Authorities as legal defense units, the Irgun would have a share. Unfortunately, as I expected, the agreement was sabotaged by Ben Gurion, who spends much of his time in London, battling Weizmann for control of the World Zionist Organization. Ben Gurion’s correspondence with Golomb was intercepted by Irgun Intelligence. In his telegram, he wrote that Golomb’s efforts to form a merger were a grave breach of discipline. ‘If the agreement is not signed, don’t sign it,’ Ben Gurion ordered. ‘If it is signed, then annul the signature!’ In a subsequent wire, he wrote: ‘Jabotinsky plans to blackmail the Zionist Organization, which we lead, to accept his breakaway group as an equal partner, by carrying out reprisal attacks in Palestine which we consider to be dangerous to our cause.’ Thus, out of his paranoid fear of losing control of the Zionist Executive, Ben Gurion succeeded in preventing a union of forces which surely would have saved Jewish lives and strengthened the Yishuv. ”
“To hell with Ben Gurion!” someone shouted.
“Life isn’t so simple, my friend!” Jabotinsky shouted back. “The Cossacks in charge of Mapai are capable of throwing all of us into prison and throwing away the key. Once again their informants are collaborating with the British Police. You can be sure their double-agents are sitting in this auditorium today. Like the Bolsheviks they secretly admire, achieving domination and control justifies all means. To achieve their goals, they are capable of anything, even surrendering vast chunks of our Jewish Homeland to imposters who claim that our eternal inheritance belongs to them!”
“Traitors! Traitors! Bogdim!” voices called out.
“If they open fire on us, we will shoot back at them!” one of Eldad’s neighbors shouted, waving a Betar flag in the air.
Menachem Began jumped to his feet. “No!” he shouted. “Their way is not the way of Betar. There will be no civil war. Let us all march off to prison before we lift a hand against a brother!”
His outburst brought cheers from the audience. Jabotinsky waited until the applause for Begin ended. Nodding toward his young disciple, he turned back to face the energized crowd in the auditorium.
“Jews will no longer act like frightened mice!” he exclaimed, raising a fist with emotion.
“Today, a Jew in Eretz Yisrael cannot drive out of his moshav in the Galilee without risking his life. Attacks along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway are just as frequent. Jews have to travel in convoys. After being shot at several times, if he hasn’t been wounded or killed, a Jew thinks twice about traveling the roads of his country. Outside the confines of his house or community, his life is in danger. Often his wife pleads with him not to travel. ‘Why be a hero?’ she asks. Thus, in his very own Homeland, the Jew becomes like a trembling mouse in a cage, while the Arabs travels freely in absolute safety, like sultans in their palaces, even in Tel Aviv.”
Eldad felt his blood boil. What was the matter with the Jews? Jabotinsky raised his voice.
“Why should the highway robbers refrain from killing when we turn the other cheek? I call them highway robbers, but they call themselves ‘freedom fighters.’ They are heralded as saviors by their people. Flowers are thrown at them in honor. Songs are written about them. Arab terrorists see themselves as national heroes.
“Two years ago, the Jews were the majority in the Old City of Jerusalem. Now most of them have fled in fear. Arabs have taken over their homes. The British assist the Arab cause by evacuating the Jews who remain. When we complain to the authorities, they answer, ‘What do you want from us? The Jews are afraid to live there. We are protecting them by helping them move to another part of the city.’”
“This disgraceful situation must cease. Havlaga must be erased!” Jabotinsky finally cried out.
Cheering, aisle by aisle, everyone rose in approval. Jabotinsky paused once again until they were seated.
“The world must not be allowed to believe that Jews will let themselves be murdered without responding measure for measure!”
Eldad, who was standing far back from the stage, could see the fire in Jabotinsky’s eyes.
“Today, a Jew who breaks the havlaga is considered a criminal in the eyes of the British, and in the eyes of the Jewish sycophants who control the Yishuv. Let some Englishman ask me who broke the havlaga in the defense and honor of his People – I will answer that I do not know. We are not obligated to supply names and addresses to the British, nor to Jews who incriminate their brothers.
“The havlaga in practice today in Eretz Yisrael must be broken. If we allow it to continue, the whole world will say that the Arabs are the landlords and that we are the encroachers, when exactly the opposite is true. Where is the morality in the situation where one side can murder and steal, and the other side is forbidden to react? If the British enact laws prohibiting Jews from safeguarding their lives, then these laws are immoral at their very foundation. I declare to you that the Supreme Conscience, the Divine Justice, demands that the havlaga be broken, and that anyone who does so is free of guilt. And if, wherever on this planet, there is a Jew who maintains that those who break the havlaga are guilty, than he is a cursed criminal, and his lowly betrayal of his People will be a lasting and unpardonable blemish in the history of the Jews.”
The Betarim rose to their feet in a roar of consent.
“It turns out that we are our own greatest enemy in allowing this situation to persist. The Zionist establishment insists that, in the name of morality, Jews not employ the same violent paths of the Arabs. Where is the morality in this?! By letting ourselves be slaughtered, even the friends we have amongst the nations will say that if we are not willing to fight for our Homeland, it must not be ours.
“The truth is, the Jews in Eretz Yisrael are happy when the havlaga is broken. Unlike the leaders of the Yishuv, they still have common sense. Every day, they gaze at newspaper headlines, hoping to see news that Jews struck back against their oppressors. Believe me, even advocates of the havlaga don’t believe in its effectiveness and justness, and only expound restraint and concession as a diplomatic means of maintaining their standing with the British. So if someone declares to you that he is a believer in the havlaga, tell him to go and tell his fairytales to his grandmother.”
The jocular expression brought laughter and cheers from his listeners. Returning to Ben Yosef, he said:
“I have often spoken about ‘Hadar.’ All of the distinguishing features of nobility, the nobility of the soul, valor, moral refinement, knightliness, the willingness for self-sacrifice for the Nation, all of these were contained in the heart of a young Jewish man from Rosh Pina who has become a symbol for all of us, a youth whose noblesse of spirit has captured the admiration of the world, and behold, he was a simple Betar cadet who G-d chose to elevate in the ranks. I am not worthy of speaking about him, but I can tell you that the British were stunned by the example he set, and they have begun to understand the meaning of ‘Hadar.’ Shlomo Ben Yosef remained true to his oath to Betar and to our Nation. He wrote on the wall of his death cell: ‘To die or to conquer the hill.’
“A Jewish guard who was on duty that morning in Acco Prison related that Ben Yosef guarded his nobility to the very last moment when the trapped doors opened beneath him and he descended into the abyss below with a smile on his lips. The policeman said that what separated Shlomo Ben Yosef from the doomed men whom he had accompanied to the gallows was the young man’s utter peace of mind in the face of his imminent death. Other prisoners facing execution succumbed to despair, not caring how they looked, or about eating breakfast in the morning. But Ben Yosef calmly asked to wash and brush his teeth. Proudly, he dressed in his Betar uniform and left his cell singing, filled with one powerful faith in his heart and no other, graced with ‘Hadar,’ and an exalted splendor, winning a great victory for all of us from the hands of his executioners.”
Utter silence filled the large hall. Yisrael Eldad, who himself had a gift for words, sat in awe of Rosh Betar who was clearly infused with Divine Inspiration.
“A short time later, I visited Ben Shlomo’s mother in Poland. She sobbed in my arms. I too wanted to weep, but following the example of her son, I did my best to strengthen her spirits, just as he has strengthened ours. While I harbor a deep aversion in asking favors from the British overseers of Palestine, I wrote to Malcolm MacDonald, Secretary of State for the Colonies, with the request to intercede with the Palestine Authority in granting immigration certificates to Rachel Tabacznik, Shlomo’s mother, along with the members of her family. I promised that we would provide her with a small house in Rosh Pina where her son is buried, and that we would provide for her financial well-being if necessary. ‘Whatever the attitude of the British Government toward her son’s actions,’ I wrote, ‘I trust that a nation known for its moral refinement will respect the pain of a mourning צother and sympathize with her wish to end her days near the place where he son was laid to rest.’ I never received a response from my letter.”
“Gentlemen,” Jabotinsky concluded. “The goal before us is clear, and we recognize the foes and forces which stand in our way. I wish that G-d will grant you the power to fulfill your oath – your oath of allegiance to the Redemption of Am Yisrael.”
A long round of applause met the conclusion of the speech, respectful, even awe-filled, but lacking the crowd’s initial enthusiasm over Jabotinsky’s opening words. Eldad himself was confused by the ambiguous messages. What was to be the official Revisionist policy – continued restraint, occasional retaliation, or outright revolt?
“Enough speeches!” a young voice called out from the balcony. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth! Enough Jewish blood has been spilled!”
The spontaneous call was followed by shouts of agreement. The main chorus of dissent came from the upper gallery. The mysterious figure had vanished. Later, Eldad discovered that he had organized the outbreaks against Rosh Betar.
“Blind revenge is neither practical nor politically expedient at the present time,” the embattled leader called back.
“The hell with political expedience!” a voice in the crowd answered. “The blood of our brothers cries out from the earth!”
“It’s time for armed resistance against the British!” another young, angry voice shouted. Jabotinsky shouted back at the heckler.
“It is utter nonsense to think that conditions exist in Palestine for a Garibaldi-like Jewish war of liberation against the British. As long as we lack the means to establish and sustain an independent Jewish State, it is incumbent upon Zionism to pursue policies that will enable it to appeal to the world’s conscience.”
Suddenly, Yisrael Eldad heard himself calling out, “When it comes to the Jews, the world has no conscience!”
The crowd stilled, waiting for “Jabo” to answer. Eldad felt his legs trembling.
“To say that conscience no longer exists – that is despair!” the besieged commander retorted. “Conscience rules the world. I respect it. It is forbidden to mock it.”
Uri Zvi Greenberg rose, shook Jabotinsky’s hand, and quietly walked off the stage. Could it be that he didn’t want to be present to witness more arrows fired at the man who had revived Jewish pride and a rekindled a fighting spirit more than anyone else in the century? Or maybe he didn’t want to speak out against Jabotinsky in public. Yisrael Eldad wanted to greet Uri Zvi Greenberg as the poet left the hall, he remained in his seat, sensing that fireworks were about to explode.
It was Menachem Begin’s turn to address the convention. Following Jabotinsky’s example, the articulate spokesman for the youth of Betar had studied law, fashioning himself in his mentor’s image, but because of his more passionate nature, the young Betar officer found it hard to adopt his teacher’s sublime nobility and grace. Lacking Jabotinsky’s political wisdom and experience, and holding no respect for the British Parliament, Begin had a tunnel vision which focused on the Jewish perspective alone, like a racehorse with blinders galloping straight toward the finish. The brazenness of youth rumbled in his veins. He spoke from the outpourings of his heart.
“With all due respect to our revered leader and commander, Rosh Betar,” he began, “I come in the name of the youth of Betar.”
A large gathering in the group around Eldad began to chant out, “Begin! Begin! Begin!”
Dressed in his Betar military uniform, the studious-looking and bespectacled activist held up a silencing hand.
“This gathering will not be turned into a circus!” he threatened. “And I repeat, with all respect and allegiance to our leader, the eyes of the Nation, I humbly report to this honored convention the feelings of our young people, the core of the Betar movement, as my position demands.”
The crowd grew silent. Eldad listened in curious attention.
“Fellow Jews,” Begin called out in his heavy Polish accent. “Brothers. Brothers in arms. It causes me great pain that at this time when the soil is burning under our feet on this wretched continent, and our blood is being spilled so cheaply in Eretz Yisrael, the Betar Movement has fallen into inertia and stagnation. There can be no doubt that if the present leadership here in Warsaw does not pull the wagon out of the mud of inaction which has led to its paralysis, the far more flamboyant Irgun in the Land of Israel will swallow us up. Our wonderful youth, the hope of our future, is tired of endless meetings and petitions decrying the policies of the Jewish Agency and its leaders, who bow down to the British at every opportunity, and who turn a blind eye as bloodthirsty Arabs slaughter innocent men, women, and children. The blessed Ben Yosef was the first sign of rebellion against the stagnant and rancid policy of the Zionist establishment, including, I am sorry to say, this distinguished body, honored representatives of World Betar. Ben Yosef acted on his own, without any orders, following the command of his own brave Jewish heart. In Poland, the bastion of Betar’s strength, and in the Land of Israel, the number of Ben Yosefs are growing. Soon, hundreds will act on their own, ignoring a Revisionist Movement which fails to revise and lead. We all just heard the permission, defacto, which ‘Rosh Betar’ gave to Ben Yosef. Was this inspiring declaration a one-time rejection of the hated havlaga and the endless Zionist policy of surrender and appeasement, or was it a clear ‘get’ divorcing us from the impotency that has marked our wanderings in exile, an impotence which has now found its way to Eretz Yisrael?”
The audience sat in tense silence. Eldad held his breath. This was the first time, to his knowledge, that Jabotinsky had been publically challenged by one of his officers. Everyone knew of Begin’s reverence and loyalty to the founder of the Movement. There was no personal motivation in his words, no stain of private ambition. He spoke a truth which everyone felt, and the truth, by itself, had the power to move mountains.
On the dais, Jabotinsky sat quietly, his hands clasped together on the table before him. Begin raised his voice. His hand gestured emphatically in the air. His body moved this way and that as the spirit of truth spoke through his lips, as if he were a shofar for every voice in the hall.
“Betar chapters are in a state of crisis!” he exclaimed. “Members openly scorn their commanders. Boredom and a lack of respect for their leaders are forcing our young people to look elsewhere for Salvation. The Irgun, with its atmosphere of secrecy and activism, is luring away the best of our recruits. If the Betar Movement fails to adopt a rejuvenated military posture, in deeds, not only in theory, it will surely fall apart.”
Tevye glanced at Jabtotinsky, who betrayed no personal insult to Begin’s critical remarks, nor any feeling of threat to his command of the organization. Indeed, he felt none. His attachment to Am Yisrael, and his dedication to the Jewish People, were so exalted, he had long ago transcended all thoughts of himself and considerations of ego. If he disagreed with his young disciple, it was on practical and political grounds alone, based on his knowledge of all of the complicated factors involved in the life-and-death puzzle surrounding the embattled Jewish Nation. Personally, he understood the frustration and anger throughout the ranks. He himself felt the terrible pent-up rage that was building into a conflagration that couldn’t be contained. Hadn’t his soul, the soul of a poet-warrior, expressed a dozen times over, his unrest with the status-quo and his glorification of rebellion and might? After all, it was his poems, his songs, his plays, his novel, Samson, his translations of Spartacus and Faust which had sparked the spirit of Hebrew rebellion at a time when Menachem Begin was still a child in britches. Had he been a younger, less experience statesmen, he would have uttered the very same speech that his student was delivering now. So how could he feel anger or resentment toward Begin? Can a man resent his own son?
“We are poised on the threshold of a new stage of Zionism,” Begin continued. “After the ‘Practical Zionism’ of Herzl which sought a practical solution to the ‘Jewish Problem,’ and the subsequent phase of ‘Political Zionism,’ when we endeavored to win political concessions from the nations of the world, we must now embark on the bold stage of ‘Military Zionism.’ In time, military and political policies will merge, but our Nation’s salvation will only come through armed struggle. Incessantly appealing to the Gentiles for salvation won’t help us. The world is indifferent to the fate of the Jews. Balfour no longer wields influence. The true anti-Semitic face of the Englishman has removed its mask. Gentiles sleep soundly at night, apathetic to our plight. The League of Nations is impotent. We cannot continue on this road to nowhere. The delegates in this hall want to fight! To win or to die!”
The roar was deafening now that someone had finally pulled the cork out from the neck of the bottle. The crowd, like a single organism, rose in unison. Yisrael Eldad rose with them and applauded with all of his might. Jabotinsky himself rose to his feet. Following his example, the notables on the stage stood up and applauded. Tevye felt overwhelmed by the power surging through the auditorium. The young faces in the crowd gleamed like small suns. Gradually, the cheering subsided.
“It is written in the Betar oath,” the fearless spokesmen for Jewish youth declared to the charged gathering, “‘I will raise my arm only in defense.’ This restraint is destroying our Movement. The failure of this convention is certain if this oath remains. The time has come for a new oath, and we demand this change. The new oath shall be, ‘I will raise my arm to defend my people and to conquer my Homeland!’”
Another roar of approval shook the convention hall. Once again, everyone rose to their feet and applauded. This time, Rosh Betar and the others seated on the stage remained in their chairs. Tevye glanced at Jabotinsky whose expression was as stoic as a stone. Though the Revisionist leader agreed in his heart, his head, and his faith in the ultimate goodness of man, and in the noble traditions of British culture and civilization, told Jabotinsky that the time was not ripe for a Jewish revolution, especially when the weapons, the funding, and a fully-trained Jewish army were not yet available for a war against the armies of Edom and Yishmael. Passionate speeches had their place in keeping spirits strong, but the moment had not yet arrived for decisive action.
“We, the youth of Betar, demand a vote to change the wording!” Begin shouted, empowered by the backing of the crowd. “I will raise my arm to defend my people and to conquer my Homeland! I will raise my arm to defend my people and to conquer my Homeland!”
Eldad echoed the chant. The young uniformed Betarim around him stood up and joined in as well. Up on the stage, Begin kept shouting out the words until the whole audience was with him. “I will raise my arm to defend my people and to conquer my Homeland! I will raise my arm to defend my people and to conquer my Homeland!”
The chant became a deafening roar.
All the while, Begin dared not look at Jabotinsky, who had been much more than a mentor and role model for him. During his youth and his rise up the Betar ranks, Begin had deified the founder of the Movement. Each speech that Begin heard from the lips of Jabotinsky left him in awe. No other Jew spoke like he did, with such worldly erudition and passionate Jewish pride. And here Begin stood, the center of attention at the World Betar Convention in Warsaw, in the presence of Rosh Betar, criticizing his leadership. Begin himself was startled. He observed the scene, as if it were happening to someone else, as if he were seated in the audience and someone else was speaking on stage. Everyone present was as stunned as he was. This had never happened. No one in the Movement had ever publically challenged Jabotinsky before. Who was this young little upstart, Tevye wondered?
“Yes,” Begin continued, unable to stop, as if driven on by a dybbuk inside him. He raised a hand to silence the huge crowd. “The time has come to command and to conquer. We can no longer look to the world to help us. Make no mistake, my friends, it is a world filled with wolves. And for too long the Jewish People have been sheep in their jaws.”
Another ovation resounded throughout the hall. Begin had won the day. But he wasn’t finished. Now, with a lower, calmer voice, he presented his coup de grace.
“Just a few months ago, Britain and France signed the Munich Agreement, conceding Czechoslovakia to Germany, on the stipulation that the Nazis agreed to cease further aggression. Conquered by Hitler’s army, the people of Czechoslovakia appealed to the free nations of the West to come to their aid, but the champions of democracy turned a deaf ear and sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Molech. Yes, my friends. Let this be a lesson for us. The world is cruel arena, understanding sheer force alone. Britain won’t save us. Not from the Arabs, and not from the Nazis! In the name of all the Jewish People, let the call go forth from this convention – the time has come for rebellion in Eretz Yisrael!”
The hall itself seemed to cheer, as if it had a voice of its own. Everyone in the audience rose to their feet in wild applause. Finally, someone had said what needed to be said. Flushed, and trembling inside, Begin resumed his seat. With his keen mind and scalpel-like insight, Yisrael Eldad tried to understand what had happened. Could it be that Begin had spoken for Rosh Betar, speaking words that Jabotinsky couldn’t say because of his paralyzing respect for British culture and tradition, and because of the years he had served as a loyal British soldier in the Hebrew Brigade? Menachem Begin, in contrast, had never left Poland. The British Empire meant nothing to him. Raised in a sea of Polish anti-Semitism, and knowing nothing else, he harbored no endearment at all for the goyim. His thoughts and speech were free of the psychological shackles that constrained Rosh Betar, for all of his towering Jewish pride. And, to be fair, one also had to consider a factor that Jabotinsky himself had cited. As the head of official Zionist organizations, he couldn’t make a public call for rebellion without setting those organizations in conflict with the law.
Perhaps Eldad’s perception was correct. Perhaps Jabotinsky was using Begin to voice his real feelings. The aging warrior asked to respond. Slowly, he walked to the podium, knowing that no ordinary speech or fancy rhetoric would win back the crowd. Once again, the dapper figure appeared in the balcony by the railing. When the noise and cheers subsided, Jabotinsky began.
“I hate three types of squeaks,” he said, in a calm and almost jocular voice, capturing the crowd’s attention immediately. “First, I dislike young calves that squeak and moo before dawn when a person is still asleep; but we must pardon them for the milk they provide. Also, I find the squeaking of factory machines and train wheels on their tracks most bothersome, but they too benefit man. One squeak, however, I loathe with all of my being, and for this, there is no forgiveness, for it serves no benefit or purpose – the squeaking of a door on its hinges. And your speech, Mr. Begin, is precisely such a squeaking door.”
The anecdote drew some laughter, and some applause. Begin himself smiled. The tension in the hall seemed to ease.
“Gentlemen,” Jabotinsky called out in a more serious tone. “I call upon you to consider the mathematics and the relative strengths of each side of the equation. To successfully engage our enemies in battle, we lack the numbers, the army, the weapons, and the accompanying means. Therefore, there is no justification in babbling about a revolt. Such prattle is merely a squeaky door.”
When Jabotinsky glanced at Tevye, the clean-shaven milkman nodded. The expressions of the other dignitaries on the dais also revealed their assent.
A young Betar cadet in the audience jumped to his feet and yelled out in a cacophonous voice. “The Maccabees also lacked the numbers and the means and the means. Numbers are important but they needn’t be decisive. Mattityahu didn’t delay the rebellion until he had a stockpile of weapons and more favorable odds. You have warned us again and again that the Jews have no future here on foreign soil. Will Hitler wait patiently for us while Betar trains and trains and trains us into a professional army?”
The young people sitting around him applauded his outburst. Jabotinsky stood calmly on the stage, ignoring the comment, as if it hadn’t been spoken. The sheer force of his presence prevented pandemonium from breaking out in the hall.
“Allow me another parable,” Jabotinsky said, continuing to administer emergency first-aid to his wounded authority. “Suppose tragedy strikes an area, a devastating fire with many victims, leaving children orphaned. Help is extended. Initially, the children are sent to different homes. As time passes, their charitable hosts grow weary of the burden. Bad feelings pollute the air. A wise person realizes that even a noble person doesn’t want a stranger in his home forever. This is not a sign that the man is cruel. Rather his hospitality must be balanced with natural self-interest. A solution is found when everyone contributes to opening an orphanage. The children depart from the private homes, to the satisfaction of the owners, but they are not thrown into the street. The orphanage is waiting to take them in.”
The crowd sat in silence, waiting for “Jabo” to explain.
“We can draw inference from this that the world is not as charitable as it maintains. No country, not even the most democratic, will allow all of the Jewish refugees to enter their borders. Yet mankind is not so cruel that it will refuse to help. The most noble amongst the nations will staunchly support the establishment of a Hebrew State, represented by the orphanage in our story. We must be patient until the orphanage is ready.”
A voice rang out from the balcony. “Eretz Yisrael is not an orphanage! And we are not orphans in need of compassion! That is exile mentality!”
All heads rose toward the mysterious, dapper figure poised above the rotunda by the balcony railing.
“It’s Yair,” someone said.
“The name of our newspaper is The Deed,” someone else called out in the main auditorium. “Not The Voice.”
The remark drew a spattering of laughter.
“That is irrelevant!” Jabotinsky yelled back. “Without the voice, the deed has no meaning or value!”
His intensity silenced the crowd. Though Eldad sat a distance from the stage, he could feel the burning intensity of the speaker’s eyes. Rosh Betar continued.
“The distinguished young gentleman in the audience maintains, ‘We have no need for words, give us actions.' One thing he forgets is that speech is also an action - perhaps the most authentic and lasting of all other actions. Cities have been destroyed, and more will fall, but what was shouted in the wilderness thousands of years ago is alive and still relevant. The world was created by the Word. And it is the Word which will make the world a better place.”
Rosh Betar held up his hand before the meeting erupted out of control.
“In conclusion, Mr. Begin,” he said. “Not all Gentiles are wolves. If you, and your supporters in this assembly, do not believe that the world still has a moral conscience, then you have no choice but to step outside this auditorium and drown yourself in the Vistula River.”
Eldad interpreted Jabotinsky’s concluding remark as a call for restraint and submission to the goyim. Though Jabotinsky had brought a great burst of light into his personal life, illuminating the darkness of his personal exile, he rose to his feet, not intending to hurt him, Heaven forbid, but the greatness of the hour put the words in his mouth.
“With upmost respect for our cherished leader, I too probably sound like a squeaky door,” he loudly exclaimed. “But an event in my life showed me that even a squeaky door can be useful. Once, a squeaky door awakened me from a deep slumber, saving me from the robbers who had opened it. When thieves threaten us in our home, and one’s life is in danger, a squeaky door is welcome indeed!”
Just as a sprinkling of kerosene causes glimmering coals to burst into flame, Eldad’s response ignited the fire in the hearts of the crowd. Understanding that he had substantiated Begin’s call for action by refuting Jabotinsky’s rebuttal, the youth of Betar reacted with thunderous applause. Eldad felt astounded that the words had emerged from his mouth. Not because of the cleverness of his wit – he knew he was a witty fellow – but in uttering them in the presence of Rosh Betar. He was even more astounded by his mentor’s reaction. Like Daniel in the lion’s den, the noble figure on the podium seized victory from the jaws of defeat, teaching everyone present that the ideal of “Hadar” was not only an exalted credo, but an attainable reality.
Rather than sit down in anger, or stride off the stage in a rage, Rosh Betar smiled at Eldad’s rebuttal, like a literature professor pleased with a student’s playful juxtaposition of words. The elder statesman accepted his defeat good-naturedly, with the dignity and splendor that he preached. Like the picture of an English gentleman, dry and unruffled in a rainstorm, he applauded along with his cheering disciples, salvaging unity out of division. Even after the roar subsided, and the audience sat down in their seats, Rosh Betar remained clapping his hands longer than everyone. While Menachem Began had commandeered the wheel of the ship, and Yisrael Eldad had swayed the direction of the rudder, Jabotinsky, the personification of “Hadar,” remained upright and firm at the helm.