Warping Herzl’s legacy on legitimacy

Herzl believed he could alter world opinion. Many Israelis today think we must simply bow to it.

Photo by: REUTERS
A key insight bequeathed by Zionism’s founding father is that international legitimacy matters greatly. While others focused on creating “facts on the ground” (which also matter), Theodor Herzl devoted himself to international politics: He met with world leaders to mobilize support for a Jewish national home, wrote books and articles explicating this idea and created a political movement, the Zionist Organization, to promote his efforts. So confident was he of the value of this work that after the first Zionist Congress, in Basel in 1897, he wrote in his diary, “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.” And indeed, 51 years later, the State of Israel was born.

But if Herzl were alive today, he would be appalled at how his legacy has been distorted. True, some Israelis at least remember that international legitimacy matters: Politicians, journalists, businessmen and academics routinely cite this principle in explaining why Israel must make peace with the Palestinians, or alternatively, cede territory unilaterally. Yet the lesson Herzl derived from this principle was very different. Herzl concluded that since global opinion matters, he must work relentlessly to alter the world’s views. His would-be heirs conclude that since global opinion matters, Israel must meekly bow to every global demand, however unfeasible or even detrimental it might be – because changing world opinion is impossible, even if Israel is right.

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