Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Yisrael Medad is Betar to the bone. Having joined the Revisionist Zionist movement of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky at the tender age of 17, Medad is still enamored of this Zionist figure and his controversial ideology. So much so it seems, that he’s translating Jabotinsky’s words into English, that others might access the work of this prolific genius.

What makes the work of Jabotinsky, a journalist by profession, so controversial? For one thing, Jabotinsky was at odds with the idea of intersectionality, of combining Zionism with other ideologies. He liked his Zionism pure. According to biographer Hillel Halkin, Jabotinsky called this singular devotion to the cause “Zionist monism,” refusing to link Zionism to, for instance, Jewish agrarianization or to socialism. Which put him at odds with, for instance, David Ben Gurion.

But the disagreement went deeper than defining what it means to be a Zionist. Jabotinsky founded the Jewish Legion to help the British fight against the Ottoman Empire, but was disappointed to discover that cooperating with the British brought the Jews no closer to a Jewish State. And then the British issued the infamous White Paper. That's when Jabotinsky founded the Irgun to revolt against the British, who could no longer be seen as a benevolent force. 

Ben Gurion, meantime, favored a policy of “havlagah” or “restraint," and looking the other way. He felt the Brits remained the Jews' best hope for attaining statehood.

About havlagah, Jabotinsky had this to say:

Zeev Jabotinsky
Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky
.... I have mentioned the word "Havlagah", a rare word, never heard before in modern, every-day-life Hebrew language in the Land of Israel. It seems this word is now the most common and hated word in the Land of Israel... The Jews should not distort the facts and complain. In the Land of Israel there are young political activists from the left and the right who are not afraid to clash with British soldiers, who are forcing them to act like cowards. They do not fear about their own lives, they fear for the destruction of the 1917 Balfour declaration and the violation of the alliance between England and Jewish people... Any indigenous people will fight foreign settlers as long as they believe there is a chance to get rid of the foreign settlement danger. This is how the Arabs in the Land of Israel are acting and will act in the future, as long as they have the spark in their hearts that they could stop the transformation of Palestine into the Land of Israel... Therefore our settlement can (only) grow under a force which is not dependent upon the local population, behind an "iron wall" that the local population could not break.


Ze'ev Jabotinsky was a pragmatist. The Jews weren't going to hold their land by biding their time and twiddling their fingers. They weren't going to reclaim their territory by kissing up to the British, as they turned a blind eye to Arab terror. If the Jews wanted the land they would have to fight. And this willingness to face the truth made Jabotinsky, the boy from Odessa, a Zionist outlier, a figure of the right.

So how does a boy from New York end up in Israel, translating the works of a boy from Odessa? What makes a man devote his life to keeping the work of Jabotinsky, a man long dead, alive in our hearts? I spoke to Yisrael Medad to learn more:

Yisrael Medad

Varda Epstein: Tell us something about your background and your family, if you would.

Yisrael Medad: Both my parents were American-born, my mother from the Lower East Side and so prior to every Pesach and Rosh Hashana we were down there shopping and eating. My parents were quite American but also very ethnically and traditionally Jewish—yet of the style of Jewish at home and less so outside.

I attended synagogue and Hebrew school but we would drive up to The Bronx on Saturday afternoons. We kept kosher at home but ate at non-kosher restaurants. I remember once returning from shul on Yom Kippur (I started fasting when I was already 11 and my father had purchased me my own mahzorim (high holiday prayer books V.E.) and I came up in the elevator with someone who pressed the buttons for me as I knew it was forbidden, but my mother heard the elevator door slam just before I walked into the apartment. She asked if I used the elevator and when I responded in the positive, she slapped me. When I became bar mitzvah in 1960, we all became chozer b’tshuva (a religious returnee V.E.) but that’s another story. That my mother’s family was from Brody was a very prominent memory item.

I attended Yeshivat Chofetz Chaim and then went on to attend Yeshiva University. I joined Mizrahi Hatzair in 1962 (Yudi Henkin, now Rav Yehuda Henkin, was my madrich (adviser V.E.) but in 1964 I joined Betar.

Varda Epstein: When did you make Aliyah? What was the catalyst? Why Shiloh?

Yisrael and Batya Medad

Yisrael Medad: I spent 1966-1967 in Israel on a program called Machon L’Madrichei Chutz La’Aretz and so my earlier inclination to make Aliyah was sealed – we had a war that year which had me in a foxhole for a few days in June. My future wife, Batya, was similarly inclined and in August 1970, two months after our wedding, we boarded the Queen Anna Maria and arrived in Israel on September 5, after 12 days at sea.

We were first in the Old City of Jerusalem, then the Jerusalem neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, then London for a two-year emissary stint for Betar, back to Bayit VeGan and then in 1981 we moved to Shiloh.

We chose Shiloh for three basic reasons: we wanted a location about which no one could say Jews do not belong there; a place that needed us; and one where we felt we could make a contribution. As an example of such a contribution, in order to open the grade school in Shiloh, our oldest two daughters were required.

Varda Epstein: Can you tell us about your earlier work at the Begin Center and how you came to be translating Jabotinsky’s works?

A young Medad, right, with a fellow soldier in 1974

Yisrael Medad: My employment at the Begin Center began in 2000. Until then I was Geulah Cohen’s aide and director of Israel’s Media Watch among other jobs. I helped create the Begin Center’s Junior Knesset program, historical walking tours, a resource volume of national thinkers, and served in many other areas during the 17 years I was employed. I still remain as a research fellow.

As I had been in Betar and lectured on Jabotinsky and the pre-state underground struggle, joining the editorial committee for the new critical edition of Jabotinsky’s writings was, well, only natural. Then it was decided the volumes would be in English and I was appointed deputy editor. I had done translations of Israel Eldad, Uri Tzvi Greenberg and other Zionist figures and was quite familiar with the terminology, the historical framework, and other such necessary requirements for this work.

Varda Epstein: Last time we spoke you were working on the second volume, so you must be translating a lot of material. I know Jabotinsky was a prolific writer. Can you describe the scope of the items you are translating? Are you translating Jabotinsky’s plays and non-Zionist works and articles? Letters? How much material are you dealing with, exactly?

With Dani Dayan

Yisrael Medad: Well, at present, due to the situation and budget considerations, my work is in low gear. We are trying to work off the Hebrew, and this was spurred by a decade-long research project in Russia to find the approximately 2000 articles Jabotinsky published prior to World War One. These articles were penned during his Odessa and St. Petersburg periods as one of that country’s outstanding Jewish journalists. And these works are in addition to some 1500 or so articles we have already archived, not including his 5000 letters, published separately in Hebrew (now in 15 volumes).

Luckily, the Czarist secret police kept good archives (Jabotinsky, after returning from Italy in 1903, was suspected of being a socialist and was arrested twice). We want to search for his “unknown” works in Russian, as well. Some of his letters are really memoranda of several pages which we’ll also be including.

Varda Epstein: Jabotinsky was fluent in several languages. Did he write in several languages, too? You’ve told me you don’t really know Russian, so how do you manage?

With the late Moshe (Misha) Arens

Yisrael Medad: Jabotinsky wrote in several languages: English, French, Italian, and Yiddish, in addition to Hebrew and his native Russian. There is one instance when he was in Belgium and spoke for an hour, and each quarter of an hour he changed languages: from French to Walloon to English and on to Yiddish.

The one major essay I translated on the Bund and Zionism was first translated from its Hebrew. I then used four different translation engines to discover oddities or unusual grammar, semantics, or terminology and then I needed to go through every sentence with my collaborator on the Russian aspect of the work, Yehiel Fishzon, and with additional assistance from Netanel Bunimovitch and his wife Miriam Feyga, to fine tune, as the original translator of this work into Hebrew took a bit of license at times and even left out of few paragraphs. It took some three months just to complete the work on this one essay. And the main part of my work is taken up in just adding the footnotes to such articles.

Varda Epstein: What are some of the difficulties you’ve encountered in your translation work?

From left: Bobby Brown, Yossi Klein Halevi, Yisrael Medad

Yisrael Medad: An example is when the translator wrote “v’shalom al Yisrael” (literally: “and there should be peace on Israel”). Is that actually what Jabo wrote? No. He wrote: “на Шипке все спокойно (everything is calm on Shipka).”

It took me a week to write this footnote: “Jabotinsky employs an idiom expressing irony about those who are trying to hide a deplorable or dangerous state of affairs. It originated in the official reports of Lt. Gen. Feodor Radetsky on the battle for Shipka Pass in the Balkan Mountains, Bulgaria in December 1877 during the Russian-Turkish war. Despite his sentries freezing to death on duty, men blown off the mountain by strong winds and one-third of the soldiers falling ill, Radetsky’s dispatches assured: “Everything is calm at Shipka.” Besides that, recognizing exactly to what event Jabotinsky was referring to is daunting.

Varda Epstein: Why Jabotinsky?

yisrael medad tv appearance
Yisrael in a TV interview

Yisrael Medad: He is the most intelligent, well-read, most cultured Zionist thinker I know and one who, besides being a novelist, poet, translator, diplomat, soldier and a host of other life’s professions, was the most calumniated. Presenting his works, even in a small quantity, beyond the mostly political works that have already appeared, is a matter of saving a soul.

Varda Epstein: When do you expect the work to be completed?

Yisrael Medad: After my own 120.

Varda Epstein: Can you describe your projected readership? Who benefits from your work and how so?

Yisrael Medad: First, university students. Over the last decade and half there has been an explosion of academic works on Jabotinsky and Revisionist Zionism. In 2001 there was Michael Stanislawski’s “Zionism and the Fin de Siècle: Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism from Nordau to Jabotinsky” and just now, Brian Horowitz has published his collection, “Vladimir Jabotinsky's Russian Years, 1900-1925” following his and Leonid Katsis' 2015 translation and editing of Jabotinsky's “Story of My Life.”  There is a 2018 article by Gil Rubin on “Jabotinsky and Population Transfers Between Eastern Europe and Palestine.” These are interesting, critical, and potentially explosive subjects and should not be left solely to the academics of the left or of the center.

These are good books but in many places tend to be too critical and there is a need to put out the raw material. And there is the nefarious Dmitry Shumsky who corrupts Jabotinsky in too many instances.

Jabotinsky is today as relevant in the issues and themes he wrote about as a century or 80 years ago. Peter Beinart wrote recently of a semi-binational state entity of Israel-Palestine but did he reference Jabotinsky’s 1940 plan in his “Arab Angle – Undramatized?”

Varda Epstein: What do you see yourself doing next, at the end of this very long project?

Yisrael Medad: To continue doing more of what I do: blog, compose op-eds, research, translate, be funny and enjoy the family.


More from Yisrael Medad:


JPost Media Column

Algemeiner Journal

Times of Israel

Israel National News

Green-Line JPost

Jewish Press

ShilohInSense (עברית)


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