Rodney Benjamin and David Cebon, The Forgotten Zionist, The Life of Solomon (Sioma) Yankelevitch Jacobi, Gefen Publishing House, 2012, 248 pp.
A book review by Yisrael Medad
There are four main methodologies to writing history. The recorder of history can concentrate on the ideas and cultural trends that moved the period and people or he can retell the events and provide an interpretation. He can highlight a certain crucial event or an institution and explain the results or its development. He can also select a person and through him and around him, relate what happened and perhaps why.
This book, while essentially a biography, makes a contribution to the growing field of the “other” Zionist history, that of the Revisionist movement led by Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky to who Solomon Jacobi was an assistant, secretary and close friend. It is a history of the fourth type.
I think we can agree with the words of Jabotinsky himself, in his graveside eulogy of Jacobi, and apply them to the book: "this is not a biography, nor is it a history of the Revisionist and New-Zionist movement: I am only trying to sketch a character" (p. 215). Indeed, just a Jabotinsky was sketching Jacobi's character, the authors, quite successfully, make an important contribution in the sketching of the character of the nationalist camp in Zionism in the years leading up to the creation of Israel. They have, in their book, brought the "Other Zionist" into focus, even clearer.
The “Other Zionist” is the young Betari who was refused entry into the Yishuv because the Eretz-Yisrael Offices that oversaw immigration schedules defined his training as non-Halutzic with no true “pioneering” value. He is the Revisionist party activist who was excluded from representation in official Zionist bodies and could not benefit from funds collected from the Jewish people to achieve Jewish national goals. He is the Irgunist, opposing the restraint policy of the Hagana in the late 1930s and attempting to assure security for the residents of the Mandate while Arab terror rages unchecked.
There is much to be learned by the younger generation in this volume. Personal heroism, unbelievable commitment to an ideological cause, determined persistence in the face of nigh insurmountable odds and above all, the disunity in the Zionist camp, the so debilitating battles over, what was in the end, such a useless expenditure of energy and time while the Arabs killed, the British betrayed and Hitler was gaining confidence to implement his extermination plans.
In addition to the main subject matter, there are additional gems of minor history. One media-related item noted on p. 132 is that Michael Haskel, a Jabotinsky supporter, was intent upon obtaining a 49% share in the Palestine Post which, as we read on p. 166, Chaim Weizmann sought to prevent, aghast that the paper would come under “complete and intransigent Revisionist control”. Where would the Jerusalem Post be today but if that ownership bid had been successful. On p. 202, it seems that one of those with whom Jacobi negotiated to obtain boats for the clandestine immigration was none other than Aristotle Onnasis. It was in the Jacobi kitchen, while his wife, Edna was away, that David Ben-Gurion fried an egg, the act that pushed AB Yehoshua to write his new play, Will the Two Go Together?
While the book is very much welcomed, nevertheless, it is unfortunate that a copyeditor with a strong background in the history of that period did not review the final draft before publication. There are a few errors that could have been avoided.
Most embarrassing, I think, is a major error of geography, a central element to the political program of the Revisionists regarding the area to become the Jewish state. On p. 51, the authors write that Transjordan is now Jordan and that in 1922, Britain had reduced “Palestine to the tiny area that lies between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean”. However, in chapter 4, entitled “Palestine on Both Sides of the Jordan”, they seem to lose direction. On p.41, they claim the home of “the tribes of Reuven, Gad and [properly half of] Menasseh” was in “areas on the western side of the Jordan”. It was not but rather it was on the eastern side of the river, in Gilead as contained in Numbers 32.
On p. 162, they quote Jacobi mentioning an “Arab demonstration on January the 16th” but we do not know what this was. In fact, it was called on the first day of Id El-Fitr to demand the cancellation of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate authorities were severely criticized for permitting the agitation even after daggers had been discovered and that political designs and “religious exultation”, as the Palestine Post reported, were being dangerously combined. In a footnote on p. 160, the date of the founding of Betar is 1922 although on p. 23, the correct year, 1923, is recorded. On p. 154, Abrasha Stavsky’s death is noted as June 21, 1948 but he died on June 22.
Further down the page, the authors write that the Irgunists, despite three weeks earlier having been incorporated into the IDF, “now defied demands from Ben-Gurion that the arms be handed over to the IDF. This is much more problematic as it ignores the weeks of discussions and the agreement that had been reached for bringing in the arms and that the ultimatum to hand over the arms came from a senior IDF officer who Menachem Begin assumed was unaware of the arranged that had been achieved.
On p. 67, they write that the phrase, “a home for the Jews” from the Balfour Declaration was also used in the wording of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine”. Actually, the phrase is “a national home for the Jewish people”. In the Mandate preamble there is another phrase included: “recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country”.
On p. 195, the authors record that in 1934, Jabotinsky complained to Jacobi that he thought the Revisionists were "lagging behind" other Zionist groups in facilitating the immigration of Jews into Palestine. Actually, after 1934, it wasn't until 1938 that the Mapai-linked Hechalutz youth movement began anew illegal immigration via boats.
On p. 193, in a footnote, they inexplicably credit Lechi, the Stern Group, for the King David Hotel explosion. It was an Irgun operation.
On p. 188, the authors seem to imply that Jacobi, in letters to the Jewish Chronicle in late 1937, asserted that the NZO was not responsible for reprisal attacks against Arabs in Palestine. This is technically correct, of course, but nevertheless, the Irgun members who were carrying out the attacks were very much part of the Jabotinsky family and later, in 1938, Jabotinsky explicitly gave instructions to increase the attacks even to the extent of planning an armed invasion of the mandate territory and seizing power from the British.
On p. 187, the date for the Tel Hai attack when Trumpeldor and 7 other comrades were killed by Arabs is noted as 1919 in footnote 10. This is incorrect. Tel Hai fell in March 1920.
There is one incongruity that I think should have been addressed by the authors. The tribulations of Jabotinsky and Jacobi in trying to administer a proper bureaucratic apparatus, including assistants and secretaries, office rentals and such in Paris and later London with reliable budget are referred to again and again. And yet, on p. 209, a description of Jacobi's Bucharest operation informs us that he had a suite of rooms at his disposal, typists, telephone operators and offices. How did this come about? Was it a special budget or the urgency of the emigration that resolved the long-suffering crisis of the Jabotinsky movement?
I understand that one of the authors died just as the book was going to print and perhaps this disrupted the final stages of publication.
But, despite all these, they do not detract from the expression – and lesson – of the true heroic spirit of Zionism that Jacobi displayed.