Whose Heritage Is It, Anyway?

When our lawmakers praise Herzl's legacy, they're really praising themselves. But they could learn something from the father of political Zionism.

Israel's political discourse contains a lot of talk about "Ben-Gurion's heritage" and even, these days, (Ehud) "Olmert's heritage." But what about Theodor Herzl's heritage? A picture of the state's visionary hangs in the Knesset plenum hall, and six years ago a special law was passed to commemorate him. However, his ideas and deeds are not usually mentioned much these days, even though our political system rests on the foundations he laid.

Theodor Herzl
Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cites Herzl more than his predecessors did, and depicts him as a model of far-sighted leadership. Netanyahu read Yitzhak Weiss' book "Herzl - A New Reading" (Yedioth Books, 2008) and has enthusiastically adopted the author's ideas. A Jerusalem dentist, Weiss tried to shatter the myths surrounding Herzl - such as that he detached himself from his Jewish identity and did not value the Land of Israel. Weiss' protagonist is strongly connected to his Jewish roots and the land of the patriarchs, not a statesman who was detached or alienated from what had come before him.

Netanyahu is enthusiastic about Weiss' hero. In his speech in the Knesset this week to mark the 150th anniversary of the visionary's birth, the prime minister said: "An important study was recently published that shows Herzl's deep Jewish roots. He visited synagogues and went with his father many times. He read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah. Jewish history coursed through his veins. He understood the vital need to connect the treasures of our people's ancient past with the modern vision that would preserve our existence in the future."

When leaders praise their predecessors, they are often referring in some way to themselves. As the prime minister sees it, Herzl's uniqueness came from "a combination of four things: the ability to see the danger, the ability to propose a solution, the practical ability to establish institutions to realize the solution and the charisma needed to mobilize the leadership and popular forces to accelerate the process he believed in."

And what is the parallel to our prime minister? Herzl saw the danger of the extinction of the Jewish people and proposed the state as the solution, and Netanyahu sees the danger of "the second Holocaust" Iran is concocting and is working on the answer. This is how Israel's current leader wants to be remembered - as a savior who identified the threat in time and rescued the Jewish people from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

His praise for Herzl brings to mind his praise for his father, Benzion Netanyahu, "who has the unique quality of seeing what is to come." Indeed, Netanyahu, Sr. is a devoted Herzlian, and as far back as 1937 he wrote condemnations of those who distorted the visionary's image. His son is only following in his footsteps.

However, there is another important element in Herzl's heritage: ensuring international support for the Zionist enterprise. In his day, he courted the leaders of the major powers - the Turkish sultan, the German kaiser, the Russian czar and the British colonial secretary - to garner support for a "charter" for a Jewish state. He was not insulted when they kept him waiting, nor did he react angrily when he heard anti-Semitic comments from his interlocutors. His goal was more important than all that.

Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman ignore this lesson. Instead of giving top priority to international support, they want to whip the world into shape and preach about morality. Herzl proposed cooperation with the Turkish sultan, while the Netanyahu government humiliates the Turkish ambassador.

The prime minister should read the last chapter of Weiss' book and learn some diplomacy from the seer of the state.