The popular image of the Jews who took part in battles for black civil rights is of liberal activists and idealistic college students. Yet several important early civil rights efforts in the United States and South Africa were undertaken by—of all people—officers of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the Jewish underground militia in British Mandatory Palestine.
This week’s 70th anniversary of the passing of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of Revisionist Zionism and the Irgun, is an occasion to reflect on Jabotinsky’s little-known legacy of anti-racism.
Jabotinsky—who passed away on Aug. 4, 1940 (commemorated last week on the Hebrew calendar)—was arguably was the most controversial Zionist leader of his era. He was dismissed as an alarmist when he predicted that European Jews would be engulfed by anti-Semitism. Socialist Zionists bristled at his preference for free market economics over Marxism. Because he promoted weapons training, he was denounced as a militarist. And because he believed the Arabs would never accept a Jewish state, he was branded a racist.
Those who read Jabotinsky’s writings knew those labels did not do him justice.
He envisioned a Jewish state that would have a large Arab minority alongside its Jewish majority. Arabs would have full civil, political, and cultural rights, including representation in parliament, and both Arabic and Hebrew would be official languages. Moreover, he argued that if there was a Jewish prime minister, there should be a deputy Arab prime minister (and vice versa).
Jabotinsky also had more than a passing interest in the question of race relations in the U.S. Following a wave of race riots that erupted in the U.S. after black boxer Jack Johnson defeated his white opponent, Jack Jeffries, in 1910, Jabotinsky wrote (in the Russian periodical Odesskie Novosti): “In the United States, the most free republic on earth, there are ten million citizens suffering a shocking lack of rights simply because of the color of their skin…Theaters are closed to the black man, as are hotels, railway cars, and schools. He is assigned special railway cars and narrow, separate compartments on trains. Schools for black children are cheaply constructed, inadequate, and dirty. The political rights of the ‘free and equal’ black citizen are non-existent.”
Ten years later, on a visit to the U.S., Jabotinsky witnessed a Ku Klux Klan march in Texas. It reinforced his disgust at racism in America. In a letter to a friend at the time, he wrote that both Jews and blacks in the U.S. would soon find it necessary to physically defend themselves against their enemies.
So perhaps it should be not be surprising that officers of the Irgun stood up for black civil rights. In early 1940, Jabotinsky sent a number of young Irgun officers from Europe and Palestine to the United States, to mobilize American support for the rescue of Jewish refugees and creation of a Jewish state. Led by Hillel Kook, using the pseudonym Peter Bergson, they organized rallies, sponsored newspaper ads, lobbied in Washington and, in 1946, staged a Broadway play to rouse support for Zionism. The play, called “A Flag is Born,” served a surprising role in the fight against racial segregation.
Starring a young Marlon Brando, “Flag” had a successful 10-week run at Manhattan’s Alvin Theater (today the Neil Simon Theater) and then hit the road. A planned performance at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. in early 1947 was relocated to Baltimore’s Maryland Theater because the play’s author, Ben Hecht, would not permit his works to be staged at theaters, such as the National, that barred blacks.
When Hecht discovered that the Maryland Theater restricted blacks to the balcony, Bergson’s group and the NAACP teamed up to protest: The NAACP threatened to picket and a Bergson official announced he would bring two black friends to sit with him at the play. The management gave in, allowing black patrons to sit wherever they chose. NAACP leaders hailed the “tradition-shattering victory” and used it facilitate the desegregation of other Baltimore theaters.
“I am proud,” Hecht declared in a statement afterwards, “that my play has been the instrument to break down one of the most un-American and undemocratic practices that has disgraced our country.”
Meanwhile, Jabotinsky’s followers took an interest in the fight against racism in South Africa, as well. Former Irgun commander Menachem Begin, leader of the opposition Herut Party, paid his first visit to South Africa in the autumn of 1953. Hertzel Katz, an Israeli attorney who was a leader of the local branch of the Revisionist youth movement Betar, was on hand when Begin arrived in Durban. He recalls that Begin’s hosts arranged for a rickshaw, the customary form of local transportation, to take him to a speaking engagement. “Begin was appalled at the thought of a black man undertaking such a degrading task,” Katz told JNS.org. “He refused to ride in the rickshaw.”
Harry Hurwitz, who organized Begin’s visit to South Africa and later became an aide to Begin as prime minister, once recounted to me another memorable incident from that visit. Shortly before one of his speeches in Johannesburg, Begin learned that according to the law, blacks would not be permitted to sit in the same meeting hall as whites. Begin refused to take the stage unless blacks were admitted, Hurwitz said. After frantic last-minute discussions with Jewish leaders, the local authorities relented and allowed blacks to attend Begin’s lecture.
As for Katz, he divided his time between Betar and the struggle against apartheid. He and fellow Betar leader Kenny Gross were active in Helen Suzman’s anti-apartheid Progressive Party in the 1960s and ran for parliament as Progressive candidates in 1965. Katz also assisted in the defense of a member of the Pan-Africanist Congress accused of fighting the apartheid regime. Katz told me that Jabotinsky’s essay, “Every Man a King,” about the inherent dignity of every human being, inspired him to see a natural connection between the Jewish fight for independence and the blacks’ struggle against apartheid.
From Baltimore to Johannesburg, Jabotinsky’s followers recognized that, as Ben Hecht put it, “to fight injustice to one group of human beings affords protection to every other group.”