Zionist visionary and leader, Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky, was remembered this past Sunday evening, December 19th, as hundreds of Israeli high school students from across the country gathered in the main auditorium of the Knesset building in Jerusalem for the award presentation to the 15 winners of the 2010 Ze’ev Jabotinsky National Essay Contest.
Sponsored by the American For A Safe Israel (AFSI), and an Israeli group called Misdar Jabotinsky, the ceremonious event marked the 70th yahrzeit of the prescient Revisionist Zionist leader and founder of the Betar (Brit Trumpeldor) youth movement. A towering figure amongst pre-state Zionist leaders, Jabotinsky is known as a powerful and prolific statesman, writer, journalist and electrifying orator.
In stark contrast to his Socialist-Zionist contemporaries who encouraged Jews to fight for their civil rights within the countries of their origin, Jabotinsky was skeptical of this avenue of emancipation, proclaiming that salvation for Jews – both on a personal level and as a national entity – lay only in the re-settlement of the entire land of Israel. Jewish self-defense was at the epicenter of Jabotinsky’s socio-political philosophy, both as a physical imperative and as a wellspring of pride and self-confidence, capable of “ennobling” the Jewish spirit.
The essay contest covered five categories of Jabotinsky’s life, written works and political activities which included such headings as “The individual and the nation in Jabotinsky’s thought,” “Social reform according to Jabotinsky,” and “Jabotinsky, builder of Hebrew military power.” Offering first, second and third cash prizes, the essay contest was projected by AFSI as the first step in an extended campaign to stimulate interest in Zionist history both in Israel and beyond its borders. In the United States, AFSI plans to launch “Zionism 101”, a filmed series of internet programs covering the 120-year history of the contemporary Zionist movement.
According to William Mehlman, the Jerusalem chairperson of AFSI and contributor to their “Outpost” newsletter, Jabotinsky’s link to Zionism’s heroic past was underscored in essay after essay on the saga of “Aliyah Bet,” his British blockade-busting enterprise that brought more than 100,000 European Jews to Palestine between 1936 and 1940; his World War I formation of the “Zion Mule Corps,” the first organized Jewish fighting force in 1,800 years, and his subsequent establishment of both the Haganah (which grew into the IDF) and the Irgun Z’vai Leumi (IZL), the underground resistance force that was instrumental in driving the British out of Palestine.
AFSI chairman Herbert Zweibon said the essay contest “marked the culmination of a 10-month effort to rekindle an intimate relationship with Zionism among Israeli youth, undermined by decades of high school teaching that made Zionist history and their attendant heroes hostage to universalist myths and ‘narratives,’ that smacked of blatant ant-Zionism.”
Former Member of Knesset Michael Kleiner, together with Emanuel Weiser of the Jabotinsky Order, spoke of Jabotinsky as a “revolutionary” in the most positive sense of the word.. “He revolted against the British occupation, against a Jewish establishment that seemed satisfied with a stateless Jewish status quo and while others remained silent, he marched across Europe in the 1930s imploring Jews to leave before it was too late.”
A polemical aspect surrounds the essay contest as well, due to a decision made by the Israeli Education Ministry in November of 2008 to exclude Jabotinsky from the list of 100 personages studied at Israeli schools. The Jabotinsky Law was passed in 2005 and it took three years to erase his philosophy from local textbooks. In early December, the decision was reversed by the Education Ministry.
The prizes to contest winners were presented by Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. Describing Jabotinsky as Zionism’s most existentialist figure, Knesset Speaker Rivlin said he was “not just a thinker, but a doer.” In his remarks to the students, Education Minister Sa’ar said that as a high school student in 1980 he took second prize in an essay contest commemorating the 40th anniversary of Jabotinsky’s passing and lauded his teachings as timeless.