A critical review: Jabotinsky Ze’ev, ‘The Iron Wall: We and the Arabs, 1923’

To garner a nuanced interpretation of the Iron Wall, it is imperative to view the work as the explanation of Jabotinsky’s ideological theory. This essay will therefore study the complexities of Revisionist Zionism, of which this primary source is fundamental. It contends that Jabotinsky as a pioneering thinker of the movement was largely less egregious than his successors for his dominant belief in all people’s right to self-determination. It’s evident of the particular era and geography of his writing whereby anti-semitic pogroms (riots and subjugation) in Imperial Russia ostracised Jewish communities. He remains however, undermined by the Iron Wall’s personal testimonial, its over promotion of hyper militarised activity to achieve vested interests and condescension toward Palestinian statehood. It is also overly simplistic toward the myriad of Zionist theory, ignorant to the possibility of immoral elements or action under the covet of a Jewish homeland.

Irrefutably the Iron Wall has become a foundational text to Revisionist Zionist powers. It remains however, a personal testimonial, reliant on rational opinion over factual analysis. Speaking of an Arab response in Al-Karmil – a newspaper attributed to the stirring of early national consciousnesses in Palestine – to leading Zionist Nahum Sokolow’s great speech, Jabotinsky remarks his recitation from memory as “a faithful account”.[1] Not only does this bring into question the credibility of source material, but Jabotinsky’s perpetuated biases in the summary of an alternative viewpoint as seemingly supportive to his claims. His utter self-assurance is a commanding element of the piece, an exoneration of revisionist truths without recognition of credible alternative perspectives. It is founded on a prevalence in Zionist thought, particularly Jabotinsky’s role in the Helsingfors program as the basis for “equality of all nations”[2] (in reality a reflection of a movement powerless in political rights). This complete self-belief without proving a rigorous factual analysis discredits the Iron Wall as an academic source. 

We must be very careful not to ostracise Jabotinsky’s work for the legacy it has transcribed. He is often a figurehead clouted in “one-dimensional, ideologically loaded portrayals that one usually finds in Revisionist historiography”[3], forcing the reader to a pre-positioned rhetoric of depreciation for right-wing Zionist theory and its present-day ramifications in the Likud party. Where he and his legacy deviates, however, is in a recognition that this is only a first step to peaceful co-habitation, and that in the case of Israel-Palestine, all measures should be taken to negotiate with the moderate voice. Jabotinsky’s legacy has paid no homage to his recognition of the state rights and autonomy of the Palestinian people, raising the question of presumptive morality amongst Revisionist Zionists and a failure to recognise the core tenants of one of the most influential founding fathers. The Iron Wall therefore is less an explicit vindication of the Arab people as a first encounter might appear to divulge, but an implicit failing to accurately represent the image of Zionism, which is simplified to a singular definition. This is reflective on a failing by the author to distinguish “his aesthetic stances… closely related to the intellectual, literary and cultural backgrounds of Russian and Western fin-de-siècle sociocultural and ideological discourses”[4] from the alternative portrayals of Zionist thinking. This misinterpretation by Jabotinsky and his supporters has culminated in a legacy far from his self-proclaimed liberalism (not to be confused with the liberalism of Labour Zionism). 

Two important phenomena… are emerging at this moment. They are the awakening of the Arab nation and the latent effort of the Jews to reconstitute on a very large scale the ancient kingdom of Israel. Both these movements are destined to fight each other continually until one of them wins.[5]

Jabotinsky’s perception of the Palestinian nation and its resolve toward Jewish immigration is simplistic, overstated and emphatic. He analogises that “the same degree of cruelty”[6] was faced to settler be they “barbarian or civilised”[7], thus giving rise to Jewish colonisers to act without fear of consequence, as retaliation would ensue from the Palestinian faction regardless. It thus served as a “political manifesto”[8] of sorts for the Revisionist party and the achievement of their most pertinent objective, a Jewish homeland. Aware of the potential necessity for military interventionism, the Iron Wall as a national strategy against the ‘Arab question’ saw largely universal support by rival political camps, particularly that of Labor Zionism.[9] The text’s final sentences are overtly literal in their expression whereby “an absolute refusal of agreement”[10] is positioned, emphasising the willingness of Revisionists to take any form of action required to achieve their core mandate. Jabotinsky is dismissive of the ethical dilemma such a stance perpetuates, a recurring, political position imparted to his current supporters. The question of human rights breaches in Israel are recurrent, as the nation flexes its military muscle disproportionately, particularly in ongoing settlement-based conflicts.

The image of the Arabs of Palestine conveyed by orientalist scholars in the early nineteenth century was generally without consequence derogatory, as this ethnicity failed to align with Western imaginations of occupants in the Holy Land.[11] Liberalist thinkers (of the time), in their own pervasive sense of Middle Eastern development, undermined the cultural and traditional rights of a collective peoples, one with sovereign claims to Palestinian territory. Political Zionist propaganda thereby postulated that either the “Arabs would benefit by Zionist success, or that they lacked a sufficient sense of themselves as a people”.[12] Jabotinsky in the Iron Wall rightly rejects such implicit subjugation, noting that it was infantile by “compromisers in our midst attempting to convince us that the Arabs are some kind of fools… who will abandon their birth right to Palestine for cultural and economic gains”.[13] It is this provision of autonomy to a collective people traditionally undermined by their colonial powers (both the Ottomans and British) that Jabotinsky distinguishes himself from. Indeed, the saving grace of the Iron Wall is its presumption of equal rights for minorities otherwise conquered by colonial powers or any alternative state control. As admirable as this may be, it nonetheless came second for Jabotinsky to the development of a Jewish homeland, raising the question of whether any element of Zionism recognised human rights for Palestinians as priority. 

Jabotinsky additionally fails to evaluate the spectrum of Zionist thought, as well as the rising empowerment of Arab Nationalistic theory. He notes that peace would eventuate only with the “Arabs relationship to Zionism”[14] as oppose to the conduciveness of various perspectives within the ideology. He’s therefore shifting blame for potential conflict to the side of the conquered, and their refusal for submission on an impeding power. This is sensationally colonial in belief, undermining his conscious prose on self-determination. He goes on to seek from the reader an example where a conquered society has done so with the consent of its “civilised or savage”[15] inhabitants. It’s a removed perception, normalising the complexities and rights arguments that arise from colonisation and the contention of national sovereignty in Palestine. Pertinent to the fundamental counter stance of Jabotinsky’s ideological platform is Naguib Azoury, an early proponent of Arab nationalism and violent opposer to Jewish impediment in the region.[16] His book, the ‘Awakening of the Arab Nations’, is in essence an oppositional equivalent of the latter Iron Wall, reliant on the reorganisation of nations based on ethnicity. Azoury spearheads the ideal of an Arab collective, and indeed, his fear for the “Universal Jewish threat”.[17] It is this rising collectivised theory and its level of capacity to revolt that is downplayed in Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall.  

The militarised sense of nationalistic right to state autonomy in the Middle East is assumed by the author to be met by the question of morality. Jabotinsky contends without discussion that if Zionism is unequivocally moral and just than “justice must be done”.[18] It effectively supports the rhetoric that each person, if supportive of Zionism, is moral and just, and in extension, any action, under the auspices of instigating Zionism, is admissible. Such an allusive, ill thought out justification rightly met broad alienation, forcing the later produced ‘Morality of the Iron Wall’, whereby Jabotinsky wrote, “if the cause is just, justice must triumph, without regard to the assent or dissent of anyone else”.[19] There is obviously rights issues with that form of radical thought, especially when he speaks to the end that “there is no other morality”[20] as if no other religion has moral intentions, traditions or obligations. The Iron Wall thereby provides the “best framework for understanding Israel’s foreign and defence policies”[21] across history, in so far as it acts with an infallible belief that what it seeks is moral, and all action to achieve morality is in effect rationally just. 

Jabotinsky is undoubtedly a superb articulation of Revisionist Zionism and for all accounts, the Iron Wall, as a symbol for forcible division of Arab Palestinians from the Jewish heartland has indeed transpired. The work is however undermined by a number of additional factors described in this essay. The nature of personal testimonials as portraying of a viewpoint and not fact, repudiates an otherwise implicit reliability on the truth of the piece. Additionally, Jabotinsky’s perception of Arab Nationalism, and indeed it’s perception of Zionism and his own, is flawed in its overt simplicity supportive of Revisionist perspectives in large isolation from alternative viewpoints. Of perhaps the greatest significant, Jabotinsky’s legacy has tended to focus on the seeking of Jewish autonomy accomplished by any means necessary (moral or otherwise), rather than the more holistic belief in self-determination and state rights for all global minority groups. The Iron Wall therefore, as brilliantly written and revolutionary as it was, has considerable downfalls that undermine the Revisionist Zionist movement even today.


[1] Vladimir Jabotinsky, “The Iron Wall: We and the Arabs (1923),” (trans) Lenni Brenner, Jewish Herald, 1937. 

[2] Vladimir Jabotinsky, “The Iron Wall: We and the Arabs (1923)”.

[3] Dmitry Shumsky, Beyond the Nation-State, (Washington: Yale University Press, 2018) 127.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Reuveny, Rafael, “The Last Colonialist: Israel in the Occupied Territories since 1967”, The Independent Review, vol. 12, no. 3, 2008, (325). 

[6] Vladimir Jabotinsky, “The Iron Wall: We and the Arabs (1923)”.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Avi Shlaim, “The Iron Wall Revisited”, Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 41, no. 2, 2012, 83. 

[9] Ibid, 81. 

[10] Vladimir Jabotinsky, “The Iron Wall: We and the Arabs (1923)”.

[11] Kathleen Christison, “U.S. Policy and the Palestinians: Bound by a Frame of Reference”, Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 26, no. 4, 1997, 48. 

[12] Ian Lustick, “To Be Built By: Israel and the Hidden Logic of the Iron Wall”, Israel Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, (1996), 200.

[13] Vladimir Jabotinsky, “The Iron Wall: We and the Arabs (1923)”.

[14] Vladimir Jabotinsky, “The Iron Wall: We and the Arabs (1923)”.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Stefan Wild, “Ottomanism versus Arabism, the Case of Farid Kassab (1884-1970)”, Die Welt des Islams, vol. 28, no. ¼, (1998), 613.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Vladimir Jabotinsky, “The Iron Wall: We and the Arabs (1923)”.

[19] Avi Shlaim, “The Iron Wall Revisited,” 84. 

[20] Vladimir Jabotinsky, “The Iron Wall: We and the Arabs (1923)”.

[21] Avi Shlaim, “The Iron Wall Revisited,” 82. 

Bibliography

Christison Kathleen (1997), “U.S. Policy and the Palestinians: Bound by a Frame of Reference.” Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 26, no. 4, pp. 46–59. 

Jabotinsky Vladimir (1937), “The Iron Wall: We and the Arabs (1923),” (trans) Lenni Brenner, Jewish Herald.

Lustick Ian (1996), “To Be Built By: Israel and the Hidden Logic of the Iron Wall”, Israel Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 196–223.

Shlaim, Avi (2012), “The Iron Wall Revisited.” Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 41:2 pp. 80–98. 

Shumsky Dmitry (2018), Beyond the Nation-State, Washington, Yale University Press.

Rafael Reuveny (2008), “The Last Colonialist: Israel in the Occupied Territories since 1967,” The Independent Review, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 325–374. 

Wild Stefan (1998), “Ottomanism versus Arabism, the Case of Farid Kassab (1884-1970),” Die Welt des Islams, vol. 28, no. ¼, pp. 607-627.

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