Michael Rainsbury
Jewish Educator
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Rewriting Hatikva: The significance of President Herzog’s speech

In asserting the hope that we can strive to 'heal our fractured world,' Herzog put forward a new conception of Zionism
US Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) look on as President Isaac Herzog addresses a Joint Session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, July 19, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
US Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) look on as President Isaac Herzog addresses a Joint Session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, July 19, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Amid the wide acclaim given to President Isaac Herzog for his speech to a Joint Session of Congress marking Israel’s 75th birthday, I believe that in his closing remarks, he has challenged the Jewish people to redefine the very notions of Zionism and the State of Israel.

He said: “The Israeli national anthem, ‘Hatikva,’ is a song of hope. The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote that in Judaism, hope is an active virtue, which requires a great deal of courage. Hope is the belief that together we can make the world better, that we can overcome any setbacks, and heal the fractures in our world. Israel’s first 75 years were rooted in an ancient dream. Let us base our next 75 years on hope, our shared hope, that we can heal our fractured world, as the closest of allies and friends.”

It is notable that an Israeli president quoted a non-Israeli, and a rabbi, to define what he feels should be the future of Israel. There is a message here that Israel still needs the Diaspora to build and secure its future. And it certainly needs Judaism.

It is poignant that the speech took place on the first of the Hebrew month of Av, as he noted earlier in his remarks. It is a day that demands introspection and perspective as we mourn past tragedies and try and learn from them. And not just any year, but this one, when we see a ‘split screen’ reality. On the one hand, we see both houses of Congress applauding and celebrating an Israeli president, who spoke with justified pride at our state’s numerous achievements. On the other hand, it comes at a time of huge societal rifts over questions of power, democracy and identity.

But what is most significant is that Herzog has dared to reinterpret the sacred word “Hatikva,” which cuts to the core of Israel’s national identity, from “to be a free nation in our land” to “healing a fractured world.” What has held Israel together until now has been the dream of independence. And it was an impossible dream. But, remarkably, it has now been realized, despite the many threats posed by our enemies.

Herzog believes that Israel needs a new hope and a new vision at this time of turmoil and unrest. Not to replace the old, but to build upon it. And his chosen vision is that of Rabbi Sacks’ idea of healing a fractured world. Against the backdrop of a changing, global world and the uncertainties it brings, this vision is rooted in traditional Jewish sources. It is a search for moral clarity, a demand for us to take responsibility and do what we can to make the world a place of justice and compassion.

At a time when the Israeli government, along with many other elements of society, are trying to solve long-unsolved complex ideological disputes by force, this is a call to change focus. This big thinking is really small thinking. True big thinking is to pivot toward small acts, gestures and policies, all aimed towards building a more moral and fair society. And if Israel succeeds in this, it will have more of a chance of healing those long-running disputes.

While Herzog was referring to Israel, the idea is just as relevant to Jewish communities around the world. Israel needs to exemplify this cause for its own good, but also to remain relevant to a new generation of Diaspora Jews questioning their Zionism. Jews around the world should see in Israel a realization of this uniquely Jewish, God-conscious and inclusive vision that could not take place anywhere else but in a state that is reconstituting the covenant of Torah on a societal level.

This is a bold, defining and wise statement, and I hope and pray that Jews in Israel and around the world will take up the challenge. Despite the Israel-Diaspora rift, the societal upheaval in Israel and the many external threats facing us, President Herzog has opened a door to a new conception of Zionism.

As we enter a period of historic mourning for the disunity of yesteryear, enmeshed in the disunity of our own political struggles, we all know that something has to change. And perhaps it is this: that to survive and thrive as a nation, we must reaffirm the Zionist mission in building a Jewish society to strengthen and develop our Jewish state.

While we should still celebrate the 2,000-year-old dream of Jewish independence, we need to dig deeper and go further. We need to rediscover the 3,000-year-old dream of building an ethical, responsible, God-fearing society, in our ancestral homeland.

Or, in the words of an as yet unwritten stanza in our beautiful national anthem: “התקווה בת שלושת אלפים לרפא עולם שבור”: The 3,000-year-old hope of healing a fractured world.

About the Author
Michael Rainsbury is the Head of Adult Education at the London School of Jewish Studies and a Sacks Scholar. He created the first dedicated English language tours of the Israeli President’s Residence in Jerusalem and leads Jewish heritage tours with JRoots. All articles are written in a personal capacity.
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