Isaac Herzog, the Israeli president trying to save a disappearing 'Jewish Wakanda'

Israeli forces advancing in the Sinai desert during the Six-Day War, June 1967. (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Israeli forces advancing in the Sinai desert during the Six-Day War, June 1967. (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1967, Israel’s Arab neighbors Egypt, Syria and Jordan thought they could destroy the nascent Jewish state with a concerted military blow. Despite being a steadfast ally, the United States wanted to stay out of the conflict. Israel was on its own, facing possible annihilation, a new Holocaust on a new continent.

As the small nation came together in its first full-scale war since achieving independence in 1948, a retired major general in the Israeli Defense Forces named Chaim Herzog began to broadcast on the military’s radio station, Kol Israel.

Inspiring and eloquent, Herzog’s Kol Israel addresses recalled British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s words of hope as German dive bombers terrorized London in 1941. “All are at this moment shoulder to shoulder, fighting in the air, on the land, on the sea for our right to simply live,” Herzog said in one of his speeches, which were so popular that they were later issued as a commercial LP record.

Isaac Herzog — the younger of Chaim Herzog’s two sons — was 6 at the time of what came to be known as the Six Day War. Educated in the United States, first at Ramaz, an elite Jewish private school in Manhattan, followed by Cornell, he eventually returned to Tel Aviv to practice law. Rising through the ranks of the liberal Labor Party, “Buji” — the nickname followed him from childhood — has served in several cabinets in secretarial posts, but never himself attained the rank of prime minister.

Since 2021, Herzog has served as Israel’s president, a customarily ceremonial position that he has elevated with his vociferous opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has proposed a controversial plan to make the judiciary branch subservient to the Parliament, known as the Knesset. His plan would allow the Knesset to review judicial decisions and overturn them with a simple majority. Politicians would also have more say over judicial appointments.

The plan was put on hold on Monday, after enormous protests on Sunday. As he had many times in the weeks before, Herzog called for unity. “If one side wins, the state will lose,” he said after Netanyahu’s announcement on Monday evening. “We must remain one people and one state — Jewish and democratic.”

Isaac Herzog
Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaking at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Jan. 26. (John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)

In taking a public stance and outlining an idealized vision of Israel — one his father would have surely recognized — Herzog has arguably only highlighted how unlikely that vision is ever to become reality, whatever ultimately happens to Netanyahu’s delayed proposals.

“They brought it on themselves,” said New School philosophy professor Omri Boehm, who faults the center-left that Herzog represents for giving up on the notion of Palestinian statehood. By doing so, he argued, they have only enabled West Bank settlers and other extremists now confidently asserting themselves.

“Labor stopped speaking about the occupation,” Boehm said. Some observers have similarly wondered why the protesters rallying to save Israeli democracy did not take to the streets when the Palestinians were subjected to ever greater restrictions.

The vacuum left by liberals like Herzog served only the far right, an eclectic collection of parties arguably more influential than Netanyahu’s center-right Likud. “Likud is actually losing power,” Boehm told Yahoo News. “I think it’s disastrous.”

In a new measure attracting little notice, the Knesset last week banned bread in hospitals during Passover. (Religious Jews don’t eat bread during the eight-day holiday, but many secular Jews do.). The controversial proposal was championed by United Torah Judaism, a right-wing religious party and while less significant than the judicial plan, is a clear sign for some of where Israel is heading: that is, away from the dream of an Israel as a homeland for all Jews, as envisioned by early leaders like Chaim Herzog.

Chaim Herzog in 1977
Chaim Herzog, then Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the General Assembly in New York, Sept. 23, 1977. (AP)

“I think it is a disgrace to the Jewish people — and that is how it looks to the whole world — that a person could rise in the Jewish state and present a program that is very similar to the Nuremberg laws,” Herzog said, comparing Kahane’s virulent anti-Arab rhetoric to Nazi antisemitism.

Today, Kahane disciple Itamar Ben-Gvir is Israel’s security chief, a position that Netanyahu gave him in exchange for helping form a ruling coalition that allowed the former prime minister to become prime minister once again. Ben-Gvir was also a critic of pausing the judicial overhaul; in exchange for agreeing to delay the plan, Netanyahu is allowing him to create his own military outfit.

“Israel — at least the largely secular and progressive version of Israel that once captured the world’s imagination — is over,” editor of the liberal Haaretz newspaper Aluf Benn wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2016, as Netanyahu was in the midst of his fourth term as prime minister, deepening his alliance with the Republican Party while shedding even the pretense of working towards Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza territories Israel won in the Six Day War.

Labor retreated into the background and even the center-left acceded to the illegal usurpation of Palestinian land. The number of settlers sharply increased, more than doubling from 200,000 in 2000 to nearly half-a-million in 2018. Their influence grew, too, as did that of ultra-Orthodox Jews who sought exemptions from military service.

Liberals like Herzog “had no plan, no program. The only people who had a plan were Smotrich and Ben-Gvir,” Boehm of the New School said, referencing religious nationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has unabashedly anti-Palestinian views and is a strong proponent of the judicial overhaul. Benn’s prediction from seven years ago, in other words, appears to have been proven all too correct.

Members of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, attend a meeting amid demonstrations over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposed judicial overhaul
Members of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, attend a meeting amid demonstrations over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposed judicial overhaul, March 27. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

“I think that what Herzog represents is the centrist position,” Dartmouth professor of government Bernard Avishai told Yahoo News from Jerusalem. “In the elite, there are many like that.”

Herzog is already furiously negotiating with both pro-Netanyahu conservatives and opposition liberals to make sure the next version of the judicial reforms is more palatable to Israeli society. But there is little evidence that Netanyahu will ultimately relent, since for the hardliners in his government, the judicial plan is a top concern.

In fact, a plan to “reform” judicial selection by giving politicians more power to move judges was moving through the Knesset for a vote, seemingly eroding the very possibility of compromise.

“It is certainly a sign that the [governing] coalition wants to handle the negotiation while a gun is pulled at the head of the opposition and that it wants to be able to return to plan A without delay,” Michal Halperin, a prominent Israeli attorney now a fellow at Harvard, told Yahoo News.

Critics also say that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians — a stateless people confined to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in increasingly desperate conditions — precludes the possibility of democracy. And if demographic trends strongly favoring the settlers and ultra-Orthodox continue, in due time even the judiciary will succumb to the country’s shift towards theocratic nationalism.

“A compromise solution concerning judicial reform will be a Band-Aid alone,” wrote Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer earlier this month of the fissures in Israel society. After weeks of protests, many Israelis are relieved that there is any Band-Aid to speak of. But there are already questions about how long such a stop-gap measure can hold.

“Netanyahu is a political survivor, so he will do everything in his power to keep his position and his coalition intact,” Middle East expert Dan DePetris of Washington think tank Defense Priorities told Yahoo News. “His decision to pause the judicial reform plan is a way of kicking the can down the road.”

Huge crowds in Tel Aviv protesting against the government's controversial judicial overhaul bill
Huge crowds in Tel Aviv protesting against the government's proposed judicial overhaul bill. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

But as the nation plunged into crisis over Netanyahu’s controversial plan to curb judges’ independence earlier this year, Herzog emerged as a surprisingly powerful voice of moderation, trying to calm both Netanyahu’s right-wing governing coalition partners and the hundreds of thousands of Israelis marching nightly against Netanyahu in the streets.

“He who thinks that a real civil war, one that costs lives, is a line we won’t reach, is out of touch,” Herzog said in a sobering March 15 address that received worldwide coverage and made him the face of compromise. “The abyss is within reach.”

The compromise proposal he introduced that day would maintain some judicial independence but also grant some of the measures conservatives wanted. “From among the crises, a hero rises,” the historian Gil Troy wrote in the Jerusalem Post of Herzog’s offer.

Even though Netanyahu instantly rejected Herzog’s plan, the West seized on the president as the lone responsible statesman in a Cabinet seemingly full of bumbling hardliners emboldened by Netanyahu’s deteriorating political instincts.

“We’re glad that they’re talking,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told Yahoo News, about Herzog’s effort to reach a compromise, at a White House press briefing several days after Herzog introduced his proposal. “The president was encouraged by the efforts of President Herzog to come up with some alternatives.”

Antony Blinken with Isaac Herzog
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Herzog in Jerusalem, Jan. 30. (Ronaldo Schemidt/Pool via Reuters)

In keeping with Jewish custom, Herzog has recently grown a beard out of mourning for his mother, who died at the age of 97 in early January. In recent weeks, he has seemed to be mourning for Israel, too, trying to save a country that was slipping from his grasp.

“On this journey there is one point in time that stands before me and it is 2028 — the year in which Israel turns 80,” he said in a speech earlier this year, noting that there were two ancient Israeli kingdoms that failed to reach that mark before collapsing. He hoped that the modern iteration of the Jewish state would avoid that fate.

“We must remember that we share this home,” he said. “We can reach our 80th anniversary, united.”

For many, the question is not whether Israel will survive but whether Israel will survive as a modern secular democracy. Or if, instead, it will come to increasingly resemble the autocratic neighbors it had long regarded with condescension for their repressive governments.

Monday’s pause proved a relief, a validation that democracy was still possible in Israel — for now. “This has been a mass uprising of Israel’s secular community,” Avishai said.

It was also a validation of Herzog’s efforts, even if those efforts never yielded an actual compromise (he appears to have revived his push for reconciliation, Israeli outlets reported on Tuesday). As the first and most prominent elected official to speak out against Netanyahu’s plan, he legitimated the opposition without ever joining it.

“He cares deeply about this issue,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran U.S. diplomat and Middle East expert. But he added that Herzog was “far too generous” to Netanyahu in the compromise plan, which would have increased the ability of politicians to interfere in the judicial branch, if not exactly to the extent the prime minister had initially thought.

Counterprotesters rally in Jerusalem in support of the Israeli government's proposed judicial overhaul
Counterprotesters rally in Jerusalem in support of the Israeli government's proposed judicial overhaul. (Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Others also saw the celebration of Herzog’s role as premature, with American Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg charging the president with falsely equating anti-democratic extremists with principled protesters waging existential battle on the streets.

“Herzog’s picture of impending civil war falsely portrayed two sides at each other’s throats, equally responsible — equating the attacker and the attacked,” Gorenberg wrote in the Washington Post.

Such criticisms reflect the frustration with an Israeli left that has grown substantially weaker over the last two decades.

Of the many colorful signs carried by protesters, one showed Theodor Herzl — the founder of the Zionist movement that led eventually to Israel’s creation — shedding a tear. But the Hungarian-born journalist and playwright, who died in 1904, might already not recognize Israel in 2023.

In his 1902 novel “The Old New Land,” Herzl imagined a progressive nation built on the principles of cooperation and peace — “a Jewish Wakanda,” as the writer and researcher Ariel Sophia Bardi has called it, in reference to the self-sufficient and powerful African nation in the popular “Black Panther” films of recent years.

In Herzl’s novel, there is no decades-long dispossession of the Palestinian, whose humanity and territorial aspirations Herzl’s Jewish characters recognize.

“The Jews have enriched us,” a Palestinian character says.

Nationalism is anathema to the fictional Jewish colony, which Herzl called the New Society. “If you adopt that stupid, narrow-minded policy, the land will go to wrack and ruin,” one character says of a push to restrict New Society citizenship.

Herzl’s vision could be dismissed as fanciful, if only it came from the source of the real-life vision of Israel too. “It is significant that many of history’s most zealous Zionists did not envision a homeland that looked like this,” Bardi wrote last year.

Theodor Herzl in 1897
Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland, for a Zionist organization meeting in 1897. (Imagno/Getty Images)

Last year, Herzog went to Basel, Switzerland, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Zionist summit meeting that initiated the long process that culminated in Israel’s creation. While there, he posed for a re-enactment of a famous photo of Herzl gazing out over the Rhine River from a hotel balcony. He wrote in an op-ed article that his goal as president was to “strengthen our collective Jewish sense of togetherness.”

With his storied family history — his grandfather was the first chief rabbi of Israel; his brother Michael is the Israeli ambassador to the United States — Herzog has little in common with crude anti-Arab demagogues like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, men whom many say Netanyahu should have known better than to empower.

Over drinks in Washington or via WhatsApp messages from Tel Aviv, Israeli officials will readily complain (off the record) that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are embarrassing their country. But the fact is that the nationalistic and ultra-Orthodox factions they represent are ascendant both demographically and politically.

These factions view the judiciary branch as a final reserve of high-minded elitism, overly obeisant to Palestinians and the LGBTQ community, unable to see Israel as the realization of a historical birthright, not merely a collection of laws.

To supporters of Netanyahu’s plan, defense of the court as the final arbiter of all national affairs, relies on the notion “the majority of Israelis, and in particular their representatives in the elected branches, are insufficiently sophisticated to maintain a republic and run a government,” Moshe Koppel of the influential, conservative think tank Kohelet Policy Forum, which was instrumental in shaping Netanyahu’s judicial agenda, recently wrote. “Hence, a powerful cadre of self-selecting elites must watch over them to ensure that they don’t destroy the country.”

Israel's President Isaac Herzog
Herzog addresses the European Parliament plenary ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Brussels, Jan. 2. (Virginia Mayo/AP)

Herzog’s own journey through Israeli politics is representative of the rightward shift and the demise of the Labor Party over the last two decades, a development spurred by the growing recognition that a two-state solution with the Palestinians had become a virtual impossibility.

Making peace with the Palestinians through an agreement that created a Palestinian state in the occupied territories was once a pillar of Herzog’s outlook — and a key pillar of Israeli policy. As he mounted a bid to become the country’s next prime minister in 2014, Herzog said a lasting peace with the Palestinians was necessary. He charged Netanyahu with essentially relegating that peace to a background concern and instead focusing almost obsessive preoccupation with Iran, which appeared to be approaching the capability to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

Herzog’s political ascent (he had been elected to lead Labor the year before) seemed to reinvigorate the possibility of a Middle East peace, which had been shattered by successive tremors: the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which lasted between 2000 and 2005; military incursions into the Gaza Strip; the methodical walling-off of the West Bank, where millions of Palestinians lived in refugee camps; the continuing takeover of the West Bank by illegal settlers, despite international condemnation.

Maybe the unassuming Herzog could reverse all this. As the election neared, the Atlantic magazine wondered, “Can Isaac Herzog Steer Israel to the Left?”

Three months later, Netanyahu won handily. It was apparent why, as polls showed Israel becoming an increasingly religious and nationalist country. The anxieties over Israeli democracy being sounded loudly today began to surface as Netanyahu embraced then-President Donald Trump and authoritarians like Viktor Orban of Hungary.

As the newly elected president, Herzog indicated his willingness to shift with Israel’s political winds that November by marking the first night of Hanukkah in a Jewish settlement in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank.

“Herzog Decided He Wants to Be the President of the Settlements,” Haaretz lamented in an editorial. A columnist for the liberal newspaper mused that the visit to Hebron was the beginning of his 2028 campaign to become prime minister.

Herzog’s future is unclear, though it appears he has banked considerable good will both at home and abroad for his recent efforts. Israel’s future is unclear, too, as Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition seek to regroup. But it seems indisputable that the unified, optimistic society roused by Chaim Herzog to defend its borders in 1967 has all but disappeared.