Joshua Weinberg

Reclaim Zionism: Lessons from Herzl and Herzog

Theodor Herzl is known as the visionary of the Jewish State (חוזה המדינה in Hebrew). This week, in Basel, Switzerland we celebrated Herzl’s vision first articulated 125 years ago at the First World Zionist Congress. The question now before us is this: “What will be the prevailing vision of Herzl’s legacy for the next 125 years and what be its practical implication?

In one of his most prophetic moments, Herzl bemoaned what he knew to be true – that his disciples and successors would take his legacy in different directions. All those that followed claimed the mantle of Zionist leadership, crowned themselves as the inheritor of the Herzlian vision, leaning on the past, and legitimized a new agenda thereby legitimating their role as the authors of Herzl’s next chapter.

When we study Herzl, follow his movements, and pore over his speeches, including those delivered at that First Congress in Basel125 years ago, we understand how revolutionary his ideology was.

Claiming Herzl’s Legacy

We gathered in Basel to celebrate Herzl’s legacy, and if one were to understand that legacy according to how it was presented this week in Basel, one might derive two things:

  1. Herzl was all about settling the Land, and Aliyah to Israel was his top priority.
  2. Herzl created the Start-Up Nation.

In his address to the gathering, today’s chairman of the World Zionist Organization noted that Herzl had the honor of receiving an Aliyah to the Torah on the Shabbat immediately preceding the Congress. As the founder of modern Zionism sat in shul listening to Parashat Re’eh, he must have been inspired by this quintessential Zionist message:

וַעֲבַרְתֶּם֮ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּן֒ וִֽישַׁבְתֶּ֣ם בָּאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם מַנְחִ֣יל אֶתְכֶ֑ם וְהֵנִ֨יחַ לָכֶ֧ם מִכׇּל־אֹיְבֵיכֶ֛ם מִסָּבִ֖יב וִֽישַׁבְתֶּם־בֶּֽטַח׃ (דברים יב:י)

When you cross the Jordan and settle in the land that your God יהוה is allotting to you, and [God] grants you safety from all your enemies around you and you live in security” (Deuteronomy 12:10).

The message of Zionism, according to WZO Chair Yaakov Hagoel, is first and foremost settling the Land, and second, for Israel to serve as a safe haven for Jews, words and actions aligned with many in the Zionist world who are pre-occupied with the need for Israel to be a refuge for Jews and a bulwark to combat antisemitism.

However, I’m not convinced that Herzl saw it that way. I maintain that Herzl’s view would be much more in line with this week’s parashah Shoftim in which we read:

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃  (דברים יז:כ)

“Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and inherit the land that your God יהוה is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)

Many of us are familiar with the first three words of this verse, as we place them prominently on our protest placards, hang them on our walls, and use them in our justice work – as we should. However, as I have written in this column before, they do not stand alone. As Rabbi Dick Hirsch z”l often taught, the first part of the verse should be connected with the second part. Taken together, this verse teaches us that we have a right to inherit the Land, but our presence in the Land is conditional upon us establishing a just society. If we don’t follow the path of justice, we risk losing it.

Major General (Ret.) Gershon HaCohen claimed sarcastically in a panel discussion that “if we were looking for physical safety for Jews, we could all go to live in California…” So, Zionism and living in Israel were about creating something Herzl would call “moral and spiritual perfection.” Zionism was about being an actual “light unto the nations,” and should be about what we can create in a Jewish State, not just about what we are escaping.

WZO Chairman Hagoel challenged us that in the next 10 years he wishes for the majority of the Jewish people to live in Israel – including the Greater Land of Israel, as was indicated by the pictorial displays of the Northern Shomron during his speech and his effort to settle Ukrainian refugees in Judea and Samaria ( a.k.a. the West Bank).

The problem with this line of thinking, reminiscent of early American Manifest Destiny, is that:

  • It is dangerous to pursue the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Doing so risks putting Israel in a terrible position on the world stage and in the Middle East, not to speak of continuing to rule over millions of Palestinians.
  • It is not Herzl. Jabotinsky a bit, and Gush Emunim for sure, but not Herzl. Herzl dreamed of Jews moving to a fantasy utopian land of science and technology, high culture, and social equity, where work and fair wages leveled the playing field, but he saw Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel as a solution to antisemitism and as the means of becoming “normal” as a people and nation. Natan Sharansky wrote in a 2005 article[1]:

“Only when a “national” solution was found would the problem be solved, not because all Jews would choose to live in Israel—Herzl never believed this would happen—but because the root cause of anti-Semitism would finally have disappeared…
It was thus that Herzl believed that after the establishment of a Jewish state, even those Jews who remained in the Diaspora would stand to benefit. ’[They] would be able to assimilate in peace,’ he wrote, ‘because the present anti-Semitism would have been stopped forever. They would certainly be credited with being assimilated to the very depths of their souls, if they stayed where they were after the new Jewish state, with its superior institutions, had become a reality.’ In Herzl’s view, any Jew who chose not to be part of the Jewish national liberation was in effect declaring ‘a more profound allegiance to his host nation than to the Jewish one.’”

Sitting in the StadtCasino in the exact location of the first Zionist Congress we got the message that Israel is the quintessential Start-Up nation,  including the 6 stages of all Start-Ups: Concept, Commitment, Validation, Growth, Expansion, and Establishment (apparently we are not planning on an “Exit”).

Sadly, this well-done production, while impressive and inspiring, felt somewhat superficial because it ignored the spiritual and historical infrastructure of the Jewish connection to the Land, People, and Torah of Israel, and emphasized only a few buzz words. As one Israeli graduate student posted:

“They made it seem as though Israel is a start-up, (not sure whether it’s a product or service) that was established in the garage of some Austrian hipster with a beard, and is the spirit of contemporary Jewish Israeliness.”

Alas, this sort of presentation feeds the narrative of those who reject the historical connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and regard it as a consolation prize for centuries of adversity and persecution culminating in the Shoah.

The Search for True Pluralism

President Yitzhak Herzog, offered a powerful and substantive Hebrew language rebuttal:

“in the operative paragraph of his [Herzl’s] opening speech, here, in this hall, 125 years ago, Herzl noted the immense spectrum of identities and ideologies in the audience, as well as the diverse mosaic reflected by the founders of Zionism, and he said this: ‘We have returned home. Zionism is the return to Judaism even before the return to the Land of the Jews.’ He added: ‘Zionism has already managed to accomplish a wondrous thing, previously thought to be impossible: the firm bond between the most modern elements of Judaism with the most conservative. This union could only be possible against a national background.’ Thus said the visionary of our state.

As Reform Jews, we often tout the notion of pluralism. However, we rarely do so outside of our own Movement. Herzl’s Parliament of the Jewish People (another name for the World Zionist Congress) continues today to serve as a pluralistic endeavor.

Herzog offered:

“The importance of the founding generation, headed by Herzl, therefore lies not only in the ideological infrastructure that he bequeathed to us but also in the institutional infrastructure that he laid down for us: the national institutions established long before the establishment of the State of Israel, and chiefly the World Zionist Organization and then Keren Hayesod [i.e. United Jewish Appeal] and later the Jewish Agency. Herzl created a critical and firm basis for proactive Zionist and Jewish action around the world, and indeed for collective dialogue, including all shades of our dazzling Jewish mosaic, both in Israel and in the Diaspora—a dialogue that we must also persevere in maintaining today, especially today, as the walls between us seem to be rising ever-higher.”

There is no other place in the Jewish world where we are brought together across ideological, religious, and geographic boundaries.  This recent gathering in Basel brought Jews from 6 continents, (the majority of whom were from Israel, North America, and Europe), and spanned the political and professional spectrum. We met together as activists and entrepreneurs, philanthropists, academics, generals, civil servants, rabbis and educators, journalists, and politicians. Despite the prevalence of platitudes, pronouncements, and politicking, there were opportunities to leave one’s echo chamber and listen to others.

In a passing conversation with an Orthodox colleague and leader of the National Religious Movement, I learned of the complexity and uncertainty through which his community is living at the moment, and with which he deeply struggles. “We don’t have a clear political home right now, and I’m not sure for whom I am going to vote,” he shared. “Some wittily describe the boundaries of our community by the bookends of rabbinic leadership,” he explained, saying that “we go from Lau to Tau…”[2]

Our involvement as Reform Jews offers us the opportunity to hear, be heard, and sit in ideologically diverse circles. In another hotel lobby conversation, I sat debriefing President Herzog’s speech with a politically conservative, bookish, and intellectual Knesset Member (with whom I don’t often have the opportunity to speak) and members of the European Jewish community. I found myself explaining Reform Judaism to an intrigued group of younger Israelis who posed questions of genuine curiosity.

While we, as Reform Jews, are a minority in the Zionist Movement, that could and should be seen as an opportunity to grow our presence, build coalitions to represent our values and ideals, and work to shape the future accordingly.

Reclaiming Zionism

President Herzog concluded with a call to Reclaim Zionism. He wanted to disassociate the term from its use as a pejorative (there are some who misuse it as synonymous with racism, oppression, and supremacy).

“We must breathe new meaning into the term ‘Zionism.’ I believe that the meaning of Zionism is chiefly: responsibility. Responsibility for our deep-rooted Jewish identity as individuals; responsibility for our cohesion as a diverse, opinionated people, whose deep and binding connection to its ancestral Land, Zion, finds expression in the name ‘Zionism’; responsibility for the existence and prosperity of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel, the ultimate sovereign and political expression of the Zionist movement; and no less importantly, responsibility for the fact that we are part of the family of nations, in an effort to help solve the greatest challenges of humanity, bequeathing tikkun olam to the whole world.”

He’s not wrong. Our Reform understanding of Zionism is also about us assuming responsibility to the Jewish people and to Judaism, as well as responsibility for all those who live under our rule who also deserve a right to self-determination no more or no less than we do,[3] responsibility to those who are powerless in society, and whose identities are often marginalized.

We have a responsibility to create what philosopher Avishai Margalit calls a “Decent Society.” “A decent society, or a civilized society,” explains Margalit, “is one whose institutions do not humiliate the people under their authority, and whose citizens do not humiliate one another. What political philosophy needs urgently is a way that will permit us to live together without humiliation and with dignity.”

With that, Theodor Herzl surely would have agreed.

This week we were reminded of the important lessons in Herzl’s example. Never stop dreaming, never give up, build coalitions, raise money for an important cause, lead with ideas and promote them, and show up.

If we don’t show up, those who have a detracting message and claim Herzl for themselves alone as the true inheritors of Zionism will win.

Then we will have only ourselves to blame.  And if we will it, it can become a reality.


[1]The Political Legacy of Theodor Herzl, Azure, Summer 5765 / 2005, no. 21


[2] Referring to Rabbi Tzvi Tau on one end of the ideological spectrum – a hard-core rabbi of the Settler Movement who preaches intolerance, homophobia, and an unwillingness to entertain the notion of a Palestinian State anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – and Rav Benny Lau on the other end – a Jerusalem based modern Orthodox rabbi, prolific author, preacher of pluralism, who associates freely with non-Orthodox Jews.

[3] The question of the Palestinians was raised in a serious way only once in the conference – by the representative of the Swiss Government, the Head of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research, Federal Councillor  Mr. Guy Parmelin, to a less than enthusiastic crowd.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.