Theodor Herzl: The solution to Israel’s modern problems?

Writer, thinker, and Herzl admirer Gol Kalev believes the Zionist leader’s ideology and strategies are still relevant to current issues.

 Theodor Herzl on the Hotel Les Trois in Basel, Switzerland. (The Bettman Archive)  (photo credit: EPHRAIM MOSHE LILIEN)
Theodor Herzl on the Hotel Les Trois in Basel, Switzerland. (The Bettman Archive)
(photo credit: EPHRAIM MOSHE LILIEN)

Israeli journalist and Theodor Herzl scholar Gol Kalev introduced a think tank and book centered around Herzl's ideas on Sunday evening at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. The event, part of a series of events held at the Begin Center about Kalev’s book, Judaism 3.0: Judaism’s Transformation to Zionism, was dedicated to Herzl on his Hebrew birthday and intended to examine how the Zionist leader’s philosophy could be applied to current strategic issues.

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Addressing an English-speaking audience, Kalev said, “If we can dive into the depth of Herzl’s thinking and philosophy, we can apply it to a lot of our strategic issues today, [even] in this constant news cycle and soundbite world.”

Father of Zionism

Born in 1860, Herzl is considered the father of modern political Zionism, and his Hebrew birthday, the 10th of Iyar, is celebrated annually in Israel as "Herzl Day."

Kalev, a former investment banker and board member of the America-Israel Friendship League, formed a think tank, now named the Judaism 3.0 Think Tank, in 2011 to bring Jewish and non-Jewish professionals together to discuss issues in Judaism and Zionism. He explores his idea of Zionism as the glue that binds Jews in Israel and around the world in his book, Judaism 3.0: Judaism's Transformation to Zionism.

“I think that Judaism has always been a nation-religion, with the religious aspect and the national aspect,” Kalev told The Media Line. “Over 2,000 years, during what I call ‘Judaism 2.0,’ while we were in the Diaspora, it was the religious aspect that served as the glue, while now, as the religiosity is eroding, the national aspect of Judaism has been augmented because more and more Jews connect to their Judaism through Israel and Zionism … and more of the world connects to Judaism through Zionism. I show in the book how Zionism became the most relevant aspect of Judaism.”

Bolivian national Yael Rozenman-Ismael, who was born to a Palestinian mother and a Jewish father and converted to Judaism, supported Kalev’s ideas, telling The Media Line: “Zionism … is what anchors me best in terms of identity. There are so many different spectrums of where you can convert, from Reform to Orthodox, and I had both kinds of conversions. But I realized at one point that what anchors me the most in that is coming into Israel and finding it as my home.”

Kalev said Herzl’s ideology contained valuable strategies to iron out issues. As an example, he mentioned the Uganda Scheme, Herzl’s 1903 proposal to resettle European Jews in Uganda as a temporary refuge to escape anti-Semitism.

“Uganda was not about settling Jews in Africa … Uganda was about engaging the British government, because to a large extent, thanks to Uganda, we are here,” Kalev said. “It created first of all an official recognition by a global power of Zionism and of Zionism as the representative of the Jewish people … it planted the ideas of Zionism that later [in 1917] resulted in the Balfour Declaration.”

The event also highlighted the friendly relations between Israel and Kosovo, with Kosovo's envoy to Israel, Ines Demiri, expressing gratitude for the concept of Zionism. It was due to Demiri’s efforts that Kosovo became the first European country to open its embassy in Jerusalem, in 2021. She described presiding over the move as an “honor and a privilege,” and said it will “remain forever as the most precious emblem that I will carry in my heart.”

The speeches were followed by a question-and-answer session in which Kalev was joined by Avi Mayer, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

The pair discussed the future of Zionism in Israel, with Mayer saying that he is the first editor to openly declare The Jerusalem Post as a Zionist newspaper.

Responding to the question of how Israel would resolve an existential threat, Kalev said: “We have always had an existential threat since the beginning, since before Israel [was established as a state] … Herzl, who studied French and European politics meticulously, at least in his vision, created a more perfect European liberal democracy in the Jewish state.  I think he would understand that things are not always as radical as they seem. In his time in French politics, there were a lot of existentialist crises and the show moved on.

“Today, Herzl is a common denominator. Both sides of this debate walk around with Israeli flags. Both sides of the legal reform debate are doing this for Zionism, for Israel, so I think Herzl would understand that this is not as existential as we might think and give us a lot of frameworks about governance and the relationship between the various branches [of government].”