Betar: The Fascist Group that Produced Three Israeli Prime Ministers

Former Israeli PM and renowned war criminal Benjamin Netanyahu once stated that Betar founder Vladimir “Jabotinsky’s doctrine will continue to feed the flame of Zionism and guide our path”.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Poland was home to the biggest Jewish population in the world, with 3.3 million Jews living in that country. In the period between the two world wars, Poland was an incubator for the development of extreme right-wing Zionism. Its leading proponent, the Russian-born Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, a poet, journalist and political activist, was the founder of Betar, one of the popular Zionist youth movements in Europe.

Betar was built on a militaristic spirit, characterized by its staunch opposition to socialism, steeped in the exaltation of violence and loyal to Jabotinsky’s charismatic and authoritarian leadership. Although its core base was in Poland, Betar began to reach Jewish communities in other countries. By 1920s, its worldwide membership was about 60,000, of whom three-quarters lived in Poland.

To left-wing and Labour Zionists, who would take command of the newly established “Israel” in 1948, Betarists were regarded “Jewish fascists”, as described by “Israel’s” first prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Two of its members, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, would serve as “Israel’s” prime ministers, while a third, Benzion Netanyahu, would be the father of “Israel’s” longest serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

In 1915, Vladimir Jabotinsky immigrated to Palestine in order to fulfill his Zionist dream of a “Jewish state” in the “Promised Land”. But the then-Ottoman ruler of Palestine, Jamal Pasha, quickly discovered the Zionist plots and activities and suspected their loyalty to “the enemy” during wartime, so he decided to deport thousands of them, including Jabotinsky, to British-controlled Egypt. In Alexandria, Jabotinsky began organizing the Jews in a sort of para-military police force, and he soon offered his services to Great Britain proposing to the British commander in Egypt, General Maxwell, to establish a Jewish brigade to join the war effort under British command. But the British General wasn’t impressed and offered the Zionists a logistics role only. The Jews of Alexandria accepted General Maxwell’s offer and thus the “Zion Mule Corps” was formed. Jabotinsky felt humiliated and headed back to Europe.

From the moment Jabotinsky set foot on Polish soil in 1927, he began working hard to transform Betar into a mass movement among the Jews. He founded the Union of Revisionist Zionists, challenging the mainstream Zionism that was already playing a significant role in the lives of Polish Jews in independent Poland which re-emerged after World War I. Jabotinsky also used Betar to enhance his own political status. He broke with mainstream Zionism, advocating a more aggressive, even violent, approach to dealing with the British colonial administration in mandate Palestine and with Palestinian Arabs, and calling for a “Jewish state” stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arabian Peninsula and the Euphrates River in Iraq. Poland was a fertile recruiting ground and its Jewish youth were Jabotinsky’s most important disciples. Between 1919 and 1937, almost 250,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine, half of them from Poland, giving Jabotinsky’s organization significant influence there.

In Poland, an environment of anti-semitism prevailed in the late 1930s. There was a feeling among the Poles that Jews were naturally predisposed to communism and were overrepresented in key sectors of the economy. Jews were being targeted by economic boycott, and anti-Jewish legislations were passed. These developments were advantageous to Jabotinsky’s cause. Poland extended diplomatic and military aid to Betar, lending public support to Revisionist positions at the League of Nations and providing military training and weapons to the Revisionists’ armed militia in Palestine, the “Irgun Tsvai Leumi”. Jabotinsky, in turn, presented the Polish government with a plan to send 1.5 million Jews to Palestine over a 10-year period. Polish officials responded warmly to it, regarding it as a practical solution to significantly reduce Poland’s Jewish population. Jabotinsky’s scheme was endorsed by senior Polish politicians, including the foreign minister, the Polish ambassador to Britain, and Poland’s consul general in occupied Al-Quds.

However, Betar’s policies so alarmed Labour Zionists that they warned of exporting “Jewish fascism” to Palestine. Chaim Weizmann, the president of the mainstream World Zionist Organization, was particularly concerned. He even compared Jabotinsky’s Revisionism to Italian fascism. Weizmann’s criticism of Betar was natural, considering the widespread belief that the 1933 assassination of Haim Arlosoroff, the powerful Labour Zionist leader in Palestine, had been the work of Betar activists.

With the eruption of World War II, Betarists, like Menachem Begin, fled the country. Having been imprisoned by the Soviets, he joined the British-controlled army of General Wladyslaw Anders and arrived in Palestine in 1942 where he defected and started his new life between his revisionist-Zionist fellows. During World War II, Avraham Stern, a Betar member, broke ranks with the Irgun and formed his own underground organization, Lehi. Scores of Polish Jewish immigrants flocked to Lehi, which attacked British assets in Palestine and reached out (unsuccessfully) to Italy and Nazi Germany. Yitzhak Shamir was a Lehi leader who personally supervised the brutal killing of the British State Minister, Lord Moyne, in Cairo. The British authorities in Palestine identified Shamir as the person who issued the order for the two assassins who shot Lord Moyne. His name was put on the “Most Wanted” list.

After “Israel” was declared, the Lehi and Irgun members, along with the whole revisionist Zionists were forced to lay down their arms and join the Israeli occupation forces, together with the Haganah of the mainstream Zionism under Ben-Gurion and Weizmann. They formed a political party, Hirut, advocating their extreme-right and expansionist ideology. They remained in opposition for 29 years until 1977, when they won the general elections under the “Likud” coalition and seized power. The old Betarists, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir successively served as prime ministers for a total of 14 years before handing over the leadership to the new generation of revisionist Zionism represented by Benjamin Netanyahu, the son of their old pal Benzion Netanyahu, who served as prime minister for 15 years.

Under Benjamin Netanyahu, whose ideas hail from Jabotinsky’s Revisionism, Betar’s philosophy of living by the sword has become the mainstream in “Israel”, while the old Labour Zionism faded away. In his book “A Place Among the Nations” Netanyahu wrote that “Israel” must display the maximum power towards the Arabs and that Palestinians can only live as “foreigners” under Israeli rule. On July 15, 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu stood at the memorial place of Vladimir Jabotinsky in occupied Al-Quds and very passionately said about his fascist idol: “Jabotinsky was the one who forged the foundations for the combat tradition of our youth over the last hundred years. It was one of his significant innovations. He was a pillar of fire lighting the way for our people”. Netanyahu went on and quoted Jabotinsky’s slogan “It is time to show the world a Jewish rifle with a Jewish bayonet”. He concluded his speech by saying “Jabotinsky’s doctrine will continue to feed the flame of Zionism and guide our path”.

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