Our mission is to continue to build, to strengthen the foundation of our country – the Jewish state – and develop it in the spirit of the great Benjamin Zeev Herzl’s vision.

 PM Netanyahu addresses Knesset special session marking the 150th anniversary of Herzl's birth

 

Knesset

[translated from Hebrew]

In world history and in the history of our people, there are very few cases in which one can point out a certain man who almost single-handedly saved his people from extinction. Benjamin Zeev Herzl was one.

The thousands of years of the people of Israel’s history are filled with great leaders – judges, kings, prophets, military leaders and great thinkers. However, there are not more than a handful of people among them who showed up at those fateful moments that determined whether we will live or cease to exist, and who single-handedly turned the wheel of Jewish history from death to life.

Joseph saved the House of Jacob from starvation; Moses led Israel from slavery to freedom; Judah the Maccabi saved his people from forced assimilation; Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai built a dam to hold back the tide of disintegration and desperation. There are certainly a few more people we could add to this list.

Herzl is part of this elite group of historic leaders, and follows in the footsteps of the giants of the past in our modern era. He worked at the dawn of the 20th century, a century during which the Jews’ fate was reversed twice: once downwards during the Holocaust and the second time upwards during the revival. One can say with certainty that if it were not for Herzl, the fate of the Jews would only have been reversed once – downwards. That is why it is no coincidence that his image is on the wall here behind us. Were it not for Herzl, we would not be sitting here today.

What was so unique about Herzl was his ability to see the danger of the annihilation of the Jewish people and that the establishment of a Jewish state was the solution to this danger.

It must be said that there were people who saw the problem, although perhaps without fully understanding it, and there were people who independently started moving in the general direction to resolve it, although again not fully. An example of this is the Hovevei Zion group. I refer to people like Hess, Lilianblum, Klisher, Alkalai and first and foremost Pinsker. But Herzl was different from these great people.

The astuteness with which he diagnosed the problem of anti-Semitism led to the sharply formed solution he proposed. Herzl’s revolutionary solution was to gather the Jews in their own country and to re-establish their sovereign country. He believed that this was the only way the Jews would be able to control their destiny again.

However, ladies and gentlemen, even this rare combination of far-sightedness regarding the problem of Jewish existence and its solution does not yet explain Herzl’s full greatness.

Because Herzl also possessed an ability to propose practical steps, practical institutions to realize the solution and a tremendous charisma that allowed him to win over world leaders and simple people alike in order to bring about his solution. This is a combination of four things: the ability to see the danger, the ability to propose a solution, the practical ability to establish institutions to realize the solution and the charisma needed to mobilize the leadership and popular forces to accelerate the process he believed in.

I believe that this combination allowed him to do something that, if we thought about it in terms of today, we would understand just how inconceivable it was, because Herzl only worked between the ages of 36 and 44 – only eight years.

He worked for eight years and started a process that saved the Jewish people from destruction. I believe that if Herzl had lived another 20 years, he would have been successful in convincing the world powers to establish the Jewish state after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire – which, by the way, he correctly predicted.

Because of this, it is obvious that the events that our people experienced after the First World War would have played out completely differently if the Jews had had a country which could serve as a sanctuary during the 1930’s, when no other country was willing to take them in.

Therefore, although Herzl’s appearance on the stage of history completely altered the fate of the Jewish people, his premature disappearance as a visionary leader exacted a heavy toll.

Nevertheless, even though it happened too late – after the horrible tragedy of the Holocaust – Herzl’s vision came true. I refer not only to the establishment of the country, but also its character.

Herzl was not an assimilated stranger to Judaism who only became enlightened as a result of anti-Semitism. In fact, an important study was recent published that shows Herzl’s deep Jewish roots. He visited synagogues and went with his father many times. He read from the Torah during his Bar Mitzvah. Jewish history coursed through his veins. He understood the vital need to connect the treasures of our people’s ancient past with the modern vision that would preserve our existence in the future.

This is what he said to the First Zionist Congress:

"Zionism is a return to Judaism even before it is a return to the land of the Jews."

He continued: "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… it is additional proof, if such proof was needed, that the Jews are a nation. This union could only be possible against a national background."

Herzl’s determination was not a utopian vision or the result of an innocence disengaged from reality. Herzl knew very well that not all the Jews would accept Zionism with open arms. Even today there are those who reject Zionism, who cling to the old and dismiss anything new, or alternately those who deny Zionism by embracing the new and rejecting anything that has a connection to Jewish heritage.

But with his tremendous foresight, Herzl knew that both these groups would be found on the fringes of history, and that the ancient Jewish home would indeed be part of the modern return to Zion without losing either its body or its soul. And Herzl was the person who connected the past to the future. He envisioned a modern, democratic country, one that was open to the world, with a free economy and sensitivity to social issues.

He wrote of this in great detail, I must say. He envisioned a great many things that we today view as permanent facts of life. He envisioned a flourishing port in Haifa and an electric train that would travel between the port and the top of Carmel Mountain – in other words, the Carmelit. There are many more examples detailed in his vision that have become reality.

In his vision, he made a connection between construction and development and between preserving what we currently call the quality of the environment. In his writings, he outlined basic guidelines in almost every field – the economy, education, development, culture, science, the military.

Herzl repeatedly said – repeatedly – that we must establish a Jewish army. It was one of the things that was ridiculed almost as much as the idea of a Jewish state. He said a Jewish army was necessary for the existence of a Jewish state.

Over the past several years, a strange trend has taken root – to seek out some detail of Herzl’s vision that has not become realized in the State of Israel and to illuminate it.

Of course there are details that did not materialize – how could it not be so?  However, a balanced examination actually inspires admiration: how alike the vision of a man born 150 years ago is with the reality of our lives here in the State of Israel of the 21st century.

Members of Knesset,

Our mission is to continue to build, to strengthen the foundation of our country – the Jewish state – and develop it in the spirit of the great Benjamin Zeev Herzl’s vision.

Several days ago, during an interview for Independence Day, I was asked what I would tell Herzl if I was honored enough to meet him today. I would tell him: we willed it!

I would tell him: "You said, ‘If you will it, it is no dream’ – and we willed it and made the dream reality."