Giving Herzl His Due

By Ella Florsheim

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n June 2004, Israel’s parliament voted to create a national day in honor of the founder of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl. The law, introduced by Shinui MK Ilan Shalgi and drafted with assistance from the Shalem Center (which publishes Azure), aims to “instill in future generations the vision and heritage of Theodor Herzl, to commemorate his life’s work, and to shape the State of Israel and its institutions, objectives, and character in accordance with his Zionist vision.” To that end, the Knesset designated the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, Herzl’s birthday, as a day of observance and study. And so, on May 19 of this year, accompanied by official ceremonies and a great deal of public discussion, the Jewish state paid its due for the first time to the country’s founding visionary.
To citizens of many other countries, the passage of the Herzl Law will not seem unusual. The United States, for example, has a long tradition of honoring its own national heroes, with Presidents’ Day in February commemorating the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January celebrating the achievements of America’s greatest civil rights activist. India, too, celebrates a national holiday in honor of Mohandas Gandhi, who played a crucial role in securing Indian independence from the British Empire; and Argentina honors General José de San Martin, hero of its national independence from Spain. These days of observance aim to instill an appreciation for the achievements of great individuals who shaped the character of their countries, and a loyalty to the principles that guided them.
Israel, in contrast, has had no such tradition with respect to Herzl—nor, judging by the mixed reactions that greeted the announcement of the law’s passage by the Knesset, did it seem particularly eager to take one up. Haaretz, Israel’s highbrow daily, complained that Israel is already overloaded with national holidays in Iyar—Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day—and questioned the need for another. Nir Baram, in a column for the daily Maariv online, made no effort to hide his discomfort. In an article entitled “Who Needs That Bearded Guy, Anyway?” Baram—whose father and grandfather were Knesset members and ministers in the government—asserted that Herzl’s legacy has nothing to offer twenty-first-century Jews. “This romantic nostalgia for the days of Zionist hawkishness,” he wrote, “is pointless.” Much of the public debate, moreover, focused on perceived lapses in Herzl’s character: His lack of a thorough Jewish education, the way he raised his children, and so forth. Others pointed to the fact that Herzl was not the first Jew, nor even the first modern European Jew, to advocate a Jewish state. Some of this sentiment has clearly had an impact on public opinion concerning the value of Herzl’s contribution: Astonishingly, 62 percent of Israelis polled recently claimed that Israel would have been established even without Herzl, and an additional 15 percent were unsure.
True, it is generally more fashionable to belittle the qualities of founding heroes than to revere them. Thus David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, and other Israeli leaders have become the subject of much derision in the Israeli public discourse in recent years. Yet the recent deflation of Herzl’s image among Israelis is especially surprising given the status he once held: It was Herzl’s portrait, and none other, that hung on the wall behind David Ben-Gurion during the latter’s famous proclamation of Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948; it was Herzl, and no other Zionist leader, who had a major Israeli city named after him—the city of Herzliya; and when the Bank of Israel first started putting the portraits of national heroes on Israeli currency in 1969, the first such note—the 100-lira bill—featured the image of Herzl.
There were very good reasons for this degree of attention. For Herzl’s contribution to the creation of the Jewish state was not just important. It was decisive. Herzl was certainly not the only leader of his day to work for the settlement of Jews in Palestine, or to encourage a Jewish cultural renaissance in their ancestral homeland; but in hindsight it is difficult to imagine how a beleaguered, divided, and strategically impotent people could have mustered the political, economic, or intellectual resources necessary to create a sovereign homeland without the contribution of this singular man.


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