Prof. Ariel Feldstein was a natural choice to light a torch at this past Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl, which specially honored the 150th birthday of Theodor Herzl. After all, Feldstein chairs the Herzl Council, the body charged by law with promoting the heritage of the “visionary of the state” as legislated by the Knesset six years ago.

The fact that Herzl Day has not caught on in Israel like other national holidays, or captured the public’s imagination like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States − a day on which many citizens reflect on their national heritage or fundamental values − does not bother the academic director of Sapir College in Sderot.

“I am a historian,” he says, “and a historian’s perspective [spans wider than] five minutes. In the five years of the council’s existence and with its very limited budget, we have succeeded in reaching wide circles.”

He asserts that there is a long list of events taking place in schools and on army bases and mentions the apparent popularity of the Herzl Web site and the many politicians who requested to speak at the festive meeting of the Knesset where Herzl’s visage gazes benevolently over the speaker’s podium.

The Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl Law was enacted in 2004 “to inculcate future generations with the vision, legacy and activity of Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, to honor his memory, to teach future generations and to effect the creation of the State of Israel in accordance with his Zionist vision, along with its institutions, its objectives and its image.”

Herzl’s memory has in the past been marked on the anniversary of his death, but because that date falls during summer vacation, Herzl Day was moved to his birthday, 10 Iyar. ‏(The secular Herzl was born on May 2, 1860 and probably never celebrated his birthday on its Hebrew date, if he was even aware of it.‏)

By law, the day is to be marked with an official ceremony at his grave on the eponymous Mount Herzl ‏(which was known as Alshrafa before Herzl was buried there‏), a special debate of the Knesset, a symposium in Jerusalem and lessons and lectures in schools and Israel Defense Forces units.

In practice, few schools depart from their usual curriculum and the IDF goes about its daily operations as if Herzl never existed. An annual directive goes out from the Education Ministry calling upon the schools to dedicate at least an hour to Herzl’s memory and heritage, but one of the ministry’s inspectors acknowledges that “like so many other things that appear in the directives, the schools ignore it. Only history teachers or principals who really care about the issue take the trouble to do anything.”

Curiously enough, a search for “Herzl Day” on the Web turns up a calendar of national events in 2010 provided by the Education Ministry, but rather than mention Herzl Day itself, it refers to his yahrzeit on Mount Herzl this July, suggesting that the legislated Herzl Day remains off the national radar screen.

The ministry this year even prepared a special educational program on Herzl. “The Education Corps has a comprehensive program on Herzl,” says an IDF education officer, “and if soldiers are undergoing one of our courses, they participate in it. But outside the corps, no one knows anything about it.”

The Herzl Council’s first chairman, Daniel Polisar, who as president of Jerusalem’s Shalem Center was one of the main forces behind the original legislation, says he has little patience for doubters.

“In every society there are those who see the empty half of the glass,” he says. He equates the slow acceptance of Herzl Day to the time it took between the great man’s death in 1904 and the state’s establishment almost half a century later.

“Herzl worked and wrote in a period in which the idea of a strong and democratic Jewish state bordered on insanity,” he says. “But he believed in it and here we succeeded.”

But not all of those who initiated Herzl Day believe it to be a success story. Former MK Ilan Shalgi, who as chairman of the Knesset Education Committee sponsored the legislation, says the day is still almost a non-event. He blames the government, especially the Education Ministry, for not approving the necessary budget and putting the appropriate emphasis on the day’s message. The Herzl Council’s annual budget is NIS 700,000, though this year it received additional resources for the visionary’s 150th birthday.

“Every year the ministry sends a notice to schools to mark the day, but that isn’t enough,” says Shalgi. “They should encourage children of all ages to write essays and reports on Herzl with the ministry’s scholarship fund.” But he wonders aloud, “perhaps this government with its right-wingers and religious parties doesn’t really like Herzl and his liberal ideals?”

Whose Herzl?

Shalgi was a member of the now defunct Shinui party. It is no coincidence that Shinui was the first party to try and make Herzl a national figure by law. The Zionist left had its own icons, as did the right.

The religious parties were either non-Zionist or opted to focus on rabbinic figures. Perhaps it was a requisite for a party like middle-class, centrist and secular Shinui − which arguably reflected much of Herzl’s world view − to provide the political will to pass a Herzl Law.

While academics Feldstein and Polisar are adamant that Herzl cannot be pegged to any political stream and therefore is a fitting national father figure, Herzl has become a useful icon for opposing sides in the political debate.

On the left, Yossi Beilin has made extensive use of Herzl’s writing to justify his positions and his call to a return to Herzlian political Zionism with fixed borders and a democratic constitution.

From the right, the new movement “Im Tirtzu” − which is busy hounding leftist human-rights organizations − has appropriated the first half of Herzl’s immortal saying for its name and his silhouette for its logo.

Maybe there is a trend here, that in an age where the two historically dominant Zionist streams, the socialists and the revisionists, are irrelevant or discredited, today’s politicians are starting to compete to claim the mantle of Herzl’s legacy.

Feldstein doesn’t think Herzl should belong to any political camp, but he certainly wants to use his image as a motivator for social action. The council plans to launch a billboard campaign with Herzl’s face and his motto “If you will it, it is no dream,” he says.

“We want people to be inspired by Herzl and do something relevant with that,” he says. “I want them to feel that today as well it is no dream, that people can still dream and fulfill their dreams for whatever is important to them. If they want to improve education in development towns, if they want to improve foreign workers’ conditions and fight for their rights, to fight any social injustice. Herzl is proof that it is possible.”