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In the Knesset, Everyone’s a Herzl in Their Own Mind

Israel’s political leaders recast themselves in the role of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl this week, as the Knesset’s summer session opened with a special debate themed for Herzl Day. Eager to establish themselves as the true heirs of Herzl’s legacy, the politicians each paid tributes to the “visionary of the State” with a distinctive twist—and ended up talking more about themselves, indirectly, than Herzl. The ways that they interpreted Herzl into relevance speak volumes about contemporary struggles to define Zionism and the Israeli political order.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, triumphantly announced that “Zionism has won….Today [Israel] is a global success story.” For him, “Herzl’s vision has been realized and we are fulfilling it.” As Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister after David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu is evidently keen to announce “mission accomplished” in order to share in the credit for bringing that vision to fruition. Zionism, he argued, was about turning the Jewish people into a political power that had to be taken into account on the world stage.

Netanyahu then explored the relevance of Zionism in the modern-day by very unsubtly comparing himself to Herzl, presenting himself as the successor to Herzl’s mantle. “[Herzl] repeatedly called attention to the disaster…that would strike the Jews if they did not revive their country,” announced Netanyahu, who has made it his life’s mission to draw the world’s attention to the murderous agenda of the Islamic Republic of Iran. “It is the duty of any responsible leadership to recognize the dangers in time, to warn against them and to prepare for them,” he continued, in an unmistakable allusion to his own efforts, including his controversial address to Congress on the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015. In meeting mighty foreign leaders, Herzl was “always unapologetic and filled with faith in the justness of our path,” said Netanyahu, drawing instant memories of his own clashes with President Barack Obama over questions of war and peace.

For Netanyahu, Zionism is about recognizing the existential threats to the Jewish people and taking bold decisions—sometimes in defiance of world opinion—to eliminate them. It is about continuing the forward momentum, nursing “a light that will never go out.”

Isaac Herzog, the opposition leader and Zionist Union chairman, concurred that Herzl’s vision had become a reality, but warned in the same breath that this vision was “in danger.”

Herzog, too, read himself into Herzl, paradoxically capitalizing on his own unpopularity as a virtue. “Like every pioneering leader, Herzl accrued many nasty names and bitter enemies, within and without,” the embattled opposition leader told the Knesset, aware of his pitifully low approval ratings and cognizant of his recent humiliation, when his negotiations to enter the government collapsed with the entry of the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party into the coalition instead. “He who is mocked today is bound to become a symbol for future generations,” he said optimistically. “And he who leads the cheering, tempestuous, rowdy, incensed and violent mob,” he continued in an obvious allusion to his right-wing rivals, “is destined to be remembered in disgrace as he who brought about the destruction [of the state].” Again, Herzog lauded Herzl as a leader who cut against the grain, and lambasted unnamed leaders who “get swept away.”

Herzog then made the analogy explicit, repeating over and over again that he had elected to endanger his own leadership, possibly fatally, by sticking to his convictions: namely, his deeply unpopular attempt to join the Netanyahu government, spying an opportunity for a regional peace settlement, explicitly in order to defend of Herzl’s vision of a secure Jewish state.

Meanwhile, Yair Lapid, chairman of the centrist Yesh Atid party, pitched his tent squarely in the political center, with a paean to Herzl as a classical liberal of sorts. He paid tribute to Herzl’s vision of a state with equal civic rights (Lapid highlighted women and Arabs), prohibition of religious coercion, and support for compulsory and equal national service. One of Lapid’s flagship policies from his short tenure as finance minister was “equality of the burden”—namely drafting the Haredim into the IDF, which has been rolled back by the present government. The affinities between Lapid’s platform and these parts of Herzl’s vision hardly needed spelling out.

Barely a week after outgoing defense minister Moshe Ya’alon accused the governing Likud party of having been taken over by extremists, Lapid made an impassioned call for a renewed emphasis on values. “Herzl did not content himself with the notion that the Jews should have a state of their own,” said Lapid. “He believed that it was his role to also say what kind of state there should be here.” Importantly, he presented Herzl’s secular liberalism (and by extension his own) not as a foreign European ideal but a “profoundly Jewish and ancient” one, tying it into “the concept of a chosen people…as an obligation imposed on us to transform this world into a better place.” Lapid presented his Zionism as one that draws inspiration from ancient Jewish ideals, but is neither religious nor—more importantly for a figure who champions secularism but is loath to be perceived, like his father, as contemptuous of religious people—hostile to religion.

Lapid also slipped in an oblique but nevertheless unmistakable dig at the prime minister as a populist and opportunist. The possible “secret of [Herzl’s] dizzying success,” according to Lapid, is that he didn’t seek to found a state “for tomorrow’s headlines,” but rather out of recognition that the role of the leader is to create institutions that will stand the test of time. According to recent polls, Yesh Atid now towers over Zionist Union as the main party of opposition, within striking distance of the Likud itself as the Knesset’s largest party. Lapid has reportedly turned down an offer of the Foreign Ministry, choosing to bide his time in opposition until a bid for the premiership.

All the members of the Joint (Arab) List walked out of the Knesset plenum during the Herzl-themed speeches, according to Likud MK Anat Berko, furnishing an astute metaphor of their refusal and/or inability to reconcile themselves with Zionism and the modern Israeli story. They might be surprised to learn that Herzl had at one point suggested the mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity. It’s not far-fetched that they too might find something to admire, at least in Herzl’s early philosophy. Perhaps next year in Jerusalem.

Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.

[Photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90]