Political party, also known in Hebrew as Berit ha-Zohar; formally called the Union of Zionist Revisionists. The inaugural conference of the Revisionist Zionist party took place in Paris in April 1925, headed by Vladimir Jabotinsky. Though most of the delegates were local Zionists of Russian extraction who had been involved in Jabotinsky’s struggle to set up a Jewish Legion during World War I, a minority came from other countries.
The conference’s resolutions emphasized the need to revise the policies of official Zionism in order to realize the movement’s ultimate goal: a state with a Jewish majority in the ancient Land of Israel, on both sides of the Jordan River. This would come about, the resolutions maintained, through massive Jewish settlement, the promotion of private enterprise, and the establishment of a Jewish army in Palestine.
Demonstration by Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, Lublin, 1930s. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)
The idea of creating a new political party had taken shape during Jabotinsky’s visit to the Baltic States in 1923, especially after his meeting with Jews in Riga, the capital of Latvia. That same year, a Zionist youth organization named for the militant Jewish nationalist Yosef Trumpeldor was set up in Riga, and in 1926 it changed its name to Berit Yosef Trumpeldor (Joseph Trumpeldor Alliance), more commonly referred to by its Hebrew acronym, Betar. Though officially aligned with Berit ha-Zohar, the party maintained its independence. Two of its delegates from Latvia and two from Lithuania attended the Revisionist Party’s first conference in Paris.
Other groups of young Jews in Poland had similarly been drawn to Jabotinsky’s struggle to establish a Jewish Legion during World War I, and in 1922 they set up Ha-Shaḥar (The Dawn), a Zionist activist organization. In December 1926, Ha-Shaḥar was responsible for staging the first Central Conference of Polish Revisionists, which adopted the platform of the Paris inaugural conference.
The Polish branch of the Revisionists grew stronger each year, especially after Jabotinsky’s first visit in 1927. In addition, the party had many petty bourgeois members, along with members of the intelligentsia. Poland soon became the Revisionist Party’s primary source of strength, and it was this country that provided the bulk of Revisionist immigration to Palestine. At the third all-Polish party conference, held in Warsaw in 1928, the hosting country fielded 77 delegates representing 44 major branches. A year later, the party increased the number of its major branches in Poland to 340. A first national conference of Revisionists in Romania had also convened in Czernowitz in April 1928.
In addition to Betar, other movements such as Berit ha-Ḥayil (The Army Alliance, made up of ex-servicemen); Berit Nashim Le’umiyot (Nationalist Women’s Alliance), and various Jewish student organizations also joined the Polish branch of the party. Polish leaders included Ya‘akov Cohen, Yosef Shofmann, and Yoḥanan Bader. The party focused on Zionist issues involving the Land of Israel, and did not play a major role in local parliamentary and Jewish council (or kehilah) election campaigns.
Members of the local branch of Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth organization, Sokoly, Poland, 1935. (Upper right) A girl holds a document or newspaper titled Ha-Medinah (The State). (YIVO)
The end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s were years of growth and consolidation for the Revisionist movement. At various conferences held during that period, doubts were raised as to whether to continue operating under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization. Tensions between the Revisionist movement and Zionist workers’ parties reached new heights after the assassination of Ḥayim Arlozorov, a Mapai leader, in 1933. In an effort to reduce the tension between Mapai and Revisionist camps, a meeting was held between Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky, and it was agreed that the Revisionists would have a role to play on the Zionist Organization’s executive.
In June 1935, the Revisionists conducted a referendum to decide whether to withdraw from the World Zionist Organization. An overwhelming majority favored such a policy, and a congress was convened in Vienna in 1935 to establish the New Zionist Organization (NZO), to be based in London. As early as 1933, a new party, the Jewish State Party, had been set up by a small group of Revisionists, headed by Me’ir Grossman and Robert Stricker, who were opposed to the withdrawal.
In 1934, primarily in order to demonstrate strength in the East European Jewish community, the Revisionists had begun a tremendously successful petition campaign. Some 600,000 people from 24 countries signed this document, which demanded that British authorities immediately allow Jews to immigrate freely to Palestine. During his visit to Poland in September 1936, Jabotinsky, on behalf of his party, published the Ten-Year Plan, known as the “evacuation plan,” in the Polish daily Czas. At its heart was the proposal that within a decade, 1.5 million Eastern and Central European Jews, including 750,000 from Poland alone, would immigrate to Palestine.
Jabotinsky presented his plan to Polish government leaders, who greeted it warmly: the authorities were interested in dramatically reducing the Jewish population, which at that time stood at 3 million, nearly 10 percent of Poland’s population. Poland’s Jewish press, however, including journals with a Zionist bent, criticized the Ten-Year Plan, which had gained the support of antisemitic authorities, as illusory, and as constituting an indirect acceptance of the inferior status of millions of Polish Jews who were regarded by the authorities as redundant and harmful to the state.
During those years the Polish authorities, for their own reasons, provided secret aid both to Haganah and to Etsel (an acronym for Irgun ha-Tseva’i ha-Le’umi, the national military organization founded in 1937 by Revisionists who had left Haganah). This aid took the form of military training, providing a limited amount of arms, and arranging illegal immigration. As part of this assistance, Polish authorities during the spring of 1939 set up a secret military camp in the Carpathian Mountains, providing military training for 25 Etsel commanders who had traveled from Palestine.
During the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April 1943, fighting alongside the much larger Ha-Irgun ha-Yehudi ha-Loḥem (Jewish Fighter Organization) was a small independent militia group known as Igud Tseva’i Yehudi (Jewish Military Union). This group had been established as early as October 1942 and was composed chiefly of members of the Revisionist movement and Betar. Revisionists likewise took part in the activities of the Irgun Partisanim ha-Me’uḥad (United Partisan Organization) that were carried out in the Białystok and Vilna ghettos.
Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism (New York, 2003); Joseph B. Schechtman and Yehuda Benari, History of the Revisionist Movement, vol. 1, 1925–1930 (Tel Aviv, 1970); Jacob Shavit, Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Movement, 1925–1948 (London, 1988).
Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler