Haaretz | 19Jul2009 | Shlomo Avineri
Jabotinsky's embarrassing offer
Last week, Haaretz reported that Kiev plans to name a major street
after Symon Petliura, who headed the short-lived Ukrainian state that
was founded after World War I. In Ukrainian eyes, Petliura is one of
the founding fathers of Ukrainian nationalism, much like the leader of
the 17th-century Cossack rebellion, Bohdan Khmelnytsky. In the Jewish
narrative, Petliura is identified with pogroms in which tens of
thousands of Jews were slaughtered.
[W.Z. When I
first ran across the extreme Jewish antipathy towards Symon Petliura
and Ukrainian independence many years ago, I made a concerted effort to
ascertain the facts as to Petliura's views towards and relations with
Ukraine's Jewish citizens. I concluded that, rather than being the ogre
he was being painted, Symon Petliura was a true friend and benefactor
of the Jews of Ukraine. It is surprising that modern Israeli and Jewish
historians continue to hold negative views of Mr. Petliura.]
In 1926, Petliura was assassinated in Paris by Sholom Schwartzbard, who
was seeking to avenge the murder of his family. Schwartzbard was
acquitted in court and later passed away in South Africa. For years, he
served as a symbol of Jewish pride among right-wing Zionists, and in
1967 his body was exhumed and transported to Israel for reburial in an
official state ceremony initiated by Menachem Begin.
Petliura's name is barely known today in Israel, yet before the Nazis'
rise to power it represented murderous anti-Semitism. The pogroms in
Ukraine were one of the factors that pushed Jews into the ranks of the
Red Army, which waged war against Ukrainian nationalism. Ukrainian
nationalists, on the other hand, viewed Schwartzbard's act as part of a
What is less known is that after the fall of Petliura's regime, none
other than Ze'ev Jabotinsky signed an agreement with him in 1921. This
is a complicated and embarrassing episode that sent huge shockwaves
through the Zionist movement, of which Jabotinsky was then a leader.
After independent Ukraine was defeated by the Red Army, Petliura found
refuge in Poland, which had fought against Soviet Russia. He planned to
return to Ukraine at the head of an army of exiled expatriates.
Jabotinsky suggested that Petliura enlist units of Jewish soldiers.
Clearly Jabotinsky's rabid anti-Communism was one reason behind the
proposal. Publicly, he rationalized the offer by claiming that the
Jewish divisions in Petliura's army would defend the Jewish population
from possible pogroms. The suggestion allowed Petliura to claim that he
was not anti-Semitic, and that the pogroms were simply "unfortunate"
events that had occurred in the heat of battle.
The agreement never materialized, but it did ignite serious controversy
during the 12th Zionist Congress in Carlsbad. It created a deep schism
between Jabotinsky and the Zionist leadership headed by Chaim Weizmann,
and was one of the reasons for the establishment of the Revisionist
movement, which subsequently broke off from the World Zionist
Organization. It is no wonder the movement's members did everything to
sweep the affair under the rug.
This story teaches us of the complexities that arise in every
nationalist movement - be it Jewish or Ukrainian. It should not
surprise anyone familiar with the philosophy espoused by Jabotinsky,
who throughout his life harbored an affinity for Ukrainian nationalism
despite its shades of anti-Semitism. In 1911, when Ukraine celebrated
the golden anniversary of the death of beloved poet and cultural icon
Taras Shevchenko (another notorious anti-Semite), Jabotinsky published
an essay in which, while acknowledging Shevchenko's attitude toward
Jews, added that "more important than that is the fact that he gave to
his people, to the entire world, clear and solid proof that the
Ukrainian soul was blessed with the talent of independent cultural
creativity which rises to the highest spheres."
[W.Z. Is it
not strange, that Jewish historiography demonizes and condemns every
Ukrainian personage who has ever promoted and struggled for Ukraine's
History is complex, and it would be worthwhile to confront this
complexity in a straightforward manner. Perhaps we can learn something
about the future.