Between Kafr Qasem and Hebron

עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick
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President Isaac Herzog lighting the first candle of Hanukkah in Hebron Today
President Isaac Herzog lighting the first candle of Hanukkah in Hebron TodayCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick

The criticism of President Isaac Herzog’s plans to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron doesn’t stem, as his critics maintain, from a desire to preserve the non-partisanship of the presidency. To the contrary, it comes from a desire to turn the president into the political representative of a small minority.

During Hanukkah, Herzog will be participating in 15 candle-lighting ceremonies, one of which is in Hebron. His critics are demanding that he depart from what was customary among his predecessors and steer clear of the city. That’s not a level-headed public stance but rather the extreme fantasy of a fringe.

“It never occurred to me to boycott Israel. Until Arkansas told me I couldn’t”

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The Tomb of the Patriarchs is one of the most important Jewish heritage sites in the country. Since the Six-Day War, it has been a destination for visits by the country’s leaders. Reuven Rivlin visited on several occasions as president and made moving remarks while dedicating a museum there. Senior members of the Labor Party and the Labor Alignment that preceded it also visited the site, including Yigal Allon, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. In Rabin’s case, he paid a visit as prime minister just a few weeks before he was assassinated.

As ambassador to the United Nations (on behalf of a Labor Alignment government), Chaim Herzog demonstrated the connection between the Jewish people and its land by noting the biblical story of the purchase of the site. The ambassador’s son, Israel’s current president, is no different from his father.

When Isaac Herzog was leader of the opposition, he wrote about “the connection for thousands of years between the Jewish people and the Tomb of the Patriarchs,” and declared that “there is no [international] resolution that can sever the Jewish people’s historic link to its heritage and its holy sites” (July 11, 2017).

President Isaac Herzog at a memorial for assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin last OctoberCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

If his critics had bothered to listen to his inaugural address, they would have found the same message: “From here, I will embark … on a journey among the lines of division and fracture of Israeli society, including the most volatile points.” If Hebron is a volatile point, it certainly features in the work plan that the newly elected president laid out at the time.

That’s the political breed to which Herzog belongs, and it’s one of the reasons he was elected to Knesset by the largest majority ever received by a candidate for president. And he is now keeping the promise he made to the MKs on the eve of his election.

He could have chosen a more convenient, middling path – touring youth movement branches from morning to evening and doing only what is within the consensus, thereby sparing himself the scathing letters of complaint and editorials. He could have declared that he is in favor of the good and against the bad, and mouthed all the other platitudes.

But then he wouldn’t have gone to the Arab town of Kafr Qasem to apologize on behalf of the State of Israel for the 1956 killing of local residents by Border Police. The apology was an important and appropriate act, but one that also generated complaints and criticism on the fringes.

In addition, in the few appointments he has made so far (for example, of former Joint List MK Dov Khenin and Prof. David Harel), Herzog hasn’t stuck with people from the colorless, classic political center. He went for the left wing.

President Isaac Herzog with former president Reuven Rivlin last JulyCredit: Emil Salman

Herzog is actually a world-scale expert on political caution, and his seven years as president could be a pleasant stroll for him. But instead, to his credit, he is choosing to inject real substance into his term in office.

It’s natural for a president who seeks to represent “everyone” to turn to the political side that opposes his own path. That’s what the Revisionist-bred President Rivlin did, making a major effort to connect with the opposing camp – and garnering warm appreciation from the left wing when he wrapped up his term in office. It behooves those who viewed Rivlin as a responsible, statesmanlike, courageous president to take the same misty-eyed view of Herzog, who comes from the left-wing camp, for insisting on visiting a place that is not part of his milieu.

Particularly when it comes to a holiday that symbolizes a bloody civil war, it’s important for a representative of one camp to come and extend a hand to the other camp – and not where it’s comfortable and easy, but rather in Hebron.

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