Photos of Herzl and Bibi side by side
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he reveres Theodor Herzl. But what would the founder of Zionism make of Bibi's new government?

Q&A: Herzl’s biographer on what the founder of Zionism would make of Israel’s new government

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the polarizing Likud party head who, on Dec. 29, was sworn in as Israeli prime minister for an unprecedented sixth term, has a genius for politics. But he is no visionary, the Harvard University historian Derek Penslar told J. recently.

Penslar is perhaps today’s preeminent biographer of a true visionary, in his view: Theodor Herzl, the progenitor of modern Zionism and a massive figure not only to Penslar but to supporters of Jewish nationalism across the globe, including, of course, Netanyahu.

In his recent book “Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader,” Penslar, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Stanford University and his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, paints a portrait of a man in Herzl who, in a relatively short life and an even shorter career as the world’s advocate for a Jewish national home, found a calling.

Though not without his shortfalls (in diplomacy, for example) or psychic pain, with his personal magnetism and penchant for rousing speeches, Herzl (1860-1904) became the head of a nascent political movement — a man who both shaped, and was shaped by, the collective desires of a people.

To Netanyahu, too, Herzl is a venerated figure. The 73-year-old politician often refers to Herzl as the “modern Moses” and he has been known to hang a picture of the young, bearded Viennese intellectual on his office wall. Envisioning himself as following in the footsteps of Herzl and other Zionist founders, Netanyahu recently said today’s Israel had “surpassed Herzl’s vision.”

The two leaders share some qualities.

First, a name: Herzl’s Hebrew name is Binyamin Ze’ev (Binyamin, or Benjamin was Jacob’s beloved 12th son, a man described in Genesis as a “ravenous wolf.” Herzl’s name drives that point home with the addition of “Ze’ev,” the Hebrew word for wolf).

Also, they both share a certain charisma, though Penslar argues of differing kinds, and they both have an affection for the Jewish people. And a strong belief in the role of Jewish nationalism as a solution to antisemitism.

And yet that is where the similarities mostly end.

In a recent interview, Penslar discussed Netanyahu as he takes over as the head of Israel’s most right-wing government in its history, his veneration for the Zionist founder and the idea that he is continuing his legacy.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gabe Stutman: I think it’s fair to say this is the most far-right government in Israel’s history; extremists in the government include Itamar Ben-Gvir, who represents the Otzma Yehudit party, which literally translates to Jewish Power. We can talk about how Herzl would have opposed the idea of a Jewish Power party. I’m also thinking about Herzl’s view of democracy itself. He was pretty skeptical of what he called “unlimited democracy.” He envisioned what he called an “aristocratic republic.”

Derek Penslar
Derek Penslar

Derek Penslar: When individuals use democratic institutions, and democratic ideals, to undermine democracy, which is exactly what this current Israel government aspires to do, this is not democratic. This is something that the German constitution, for example, the post–World War II German constitution, understands — that it is antidemocratic to use democratic means to overthrow democracy.

For example, the override clause that would allow the Israeli parliament to override court decisions destroys the separation of powers, without which there cannot be a truly democratic government. There have to be checks and balances on legislative power, or else you have tyranny.

Now, as far as Herzl’s political thinking, Herzl was not the prime minister of a state. Herzl was the head of a nationalist movement of a stateless people. There was no room in that movement for the kind of vigorous, highly structured democracy that you would have in a state.

In his pamphlet “The Jewish State,” which was written when he was 36 years old in 1896, and just beginning his Zionist career, he wrote a little bit about the politics of a future Jewish state. But again, this is a man writing at a time when there’s nothing even remotely approaching the State of Israel.

Herzl was not a liberal democrat, but he was a liberal. And there is so much about the new Israeli government that is so deeply illiberal. To say that it is in some ways a continuation of Herzl’s legacy is an obscenity.

Herzl writes in “The Jewish State” that “the army shall remain in its barracks, and the rabbis will remain in their synagogues.” [Ed. note on Herzl’s actual text: “We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks”.] Meaning, there will be separation of church and state. That’s not exactly been the case in the state of Israel, and particularly this current government.

You write that Herzl saw himself as the “self appointed guardian of the Jewish people.” I think Bibi in many respects fashions himself the same way, as the protector of the Jewish people, who are beset by danger on all sides.

Right. You’re probably right that Netanyahu would claim that tension, but I don’t think that claim would hold up under close analysis or scrutiny.

Herzl was himself an example of something he wrote about in “The Jewish State,” what he called the gestor. A term he uses in “The Jewish State” [is] the gestor negotiorum. In a Roman legal sense, it’s essentially like a good samaritan. When there is no one in place to take action when action is needed, then somebody steps into the breach.

So Herzl saw himself, indeed as a self-appointed guardian of the Jewish people because there was no one else to turn to. There was no Jewish state. There was no Jewish government. The Jews were highly scattered and powerless.

So I think Herzl perceived himself accurately.

But for Netanyahu to make such an assumption, which I agree with you he does, neglects the fact that Israel is a strong, powerful state, 75 years old. And that there are well-established mechanisms in place about what the relationship should be between Israel and the diaspora. So I think this is chutzpadik [presumptuousness] on his part.

Both men were similarly pessimistic about the possibility that Jews would simply fit in, or that antisemitism would go away. Herzl wrote in 1896, “The Jewish Question still exists, it would be foolish to deny it. It is a remnant of the Middle Ages which civilized nations do not even yet seem able to shake off.”

Netanyahu is often asked in interviews about rising antisemitism in the U.S. or around the world. His response, as far as I’ve heard, is that antisemitism is “the oldest hatred.” It’s been around for 2,000 years, it was around wherever Jews have lived and it’s not going anywhere. And the solution [nationalism] is pretty self-evident.

Right. But you’ve just put your finger on not only what they share in common, but the main difference between them.

On the one hand, you’re right that Herzl and Netanyahu were pessimists about the Jewish present. Herzl did not believe that Jews could be accepted under current conditions. And he believed that the Jewish state was the only solution to it. The difference, which is enormous, is that Herzl believed that the Jewish state in and of itself would put an end to antisemitism.

Every aspect of Herzl’s political vision is antithetical to Netanyahu’s.

He believed that once a Jewish state existed, the Jews would be honored and respected by the world. And antisemitism would ebb. And that those Jews who stayed behind — and Herzl did not envision all Jews would move into the land of Israel — would be free to assimilate if they wished.

Herzl believed that the Jewish state would put an end to antisemitism. Netanyahu believes that antisemitism exists not only in spite of the Jewish state but because of the Jewish state. And yet the Jewish state must continue.

In other words Herzl was a short-term pessimist, but a long-term optimist. Netanyahu is a long-term pessimist.

You could say Netanyahu, though, may be more correct. Herzl was not proven correct in that hypothesis.

But it points to a difference between them: that every aspect of Herzl’s political vision is antithetical to Netanyahu’s.

Herzl was fundamentally optimistic about the Jews. He believed the Jewish state would be created, he believed it would be accepted by the world and he believed that the Jews would be respected because of it.

One of the guiding principles for the Israeli right is the idea of messianism — both religious messianism and political messianism. Religious settlers believe ‘God promised us this land so we’re going to move there.’ While Bibi often will say, ‘These are the ancient Jewish kingdoms of Judea and Samaria, and that’s why we belong there.’ This seems antithetical to the ideology of Herzl, or Ze’ev Jabotinsky or any of the Zionist founders. 

It’s also interesting that Netanyahu claims a direct connection with Jabotinsky, who would have been similarly horrified. Jabotinsky was a profoundly secular, cosmopolitan, European intellectual. Deeply anti-messianic. And not enslaved by history, and Herzl wasn’t either. That is, whatever happened thousands of years ago in the Land of Israel was immaterial. What mattered to Herzl, and he was right, is that the Jewish people have a sense of connection to the Land of Israel, and this is the territory that Jews will be willing to make the necessary sacrifices for and efforts for, to attain the homeland where they will be safe. That is, Herzl, himself, was an anti-messianist.

Much is written in your book about Herzl’s charisma. It’s such a big part of how people understand Herzl; his “Assyrian beard,” his beauty, his clear eyes, and his manner, and his oratory. 

I think it’s hard to deny that Bibi has a certain amount of charisma. He obviously turns a lot of people off — as Herzl did, too — but Bibi captivates people. People love him. The right loves him. He’s a rockstar to them. I wonder what you make of that.

I think there’s two different kinds of political charisma. There’s the kind of charisma of a Herzl. A visionary, a rather distant figure. Someone who you adore, or even venerate, but you don’t really see as a person. He’s not a regular guy. He’s something larger than yourself. Which is exactly what the Jewish people needed 125 years ago.

Netanyahu is a consummate politician who is able to put his arm around you, and talk to you, and look you in the eye and make you feel like the most important person in the world. That is the kind of glad-handing skill of a successful politician.

Herzl was actually very bad at that sort of thing. Herzl could not pretend to be your friend. Herzl did not make you feel like the most important person in the room. You felt that Herzl was the most important person in the room.

Herzl was an object of veneration. Bibi is more like a populist demagogue who the crowds shout for, who they feel is very much one of them. Think about Donald Trump, for example, who has charisma, for sure. Or Victor Orban, who has charisma of his own. Or any of these right-wing, populist demagogues. They have a different kind of charisma than Herzl’s. So it’s not that one is charismatic and the other isn’t. It’s a question of how their charisma functions.

I think about both of their origin stories. You write about Herzl’s actual origin story, and then the one he told an early biographer: of coming from the descendants of forcibly converted Spanish Jews who nevertheless remained secretly loyal to their faith.

I think about Bibi’s origin story. It’s not the story of his ancestors, but the reason why he got involved in politics in the first place: His brother Yonatan was a commando, an elite soldier who was killed during the raid on Entebbe, and he remembers the cries of his mother when she learned that he had died. And for Bibi, this was like an awakening, and he devoted himself to the safety and security of Israel and the Jewish state.

I’m struck by the discrepancy between those two origin stories as the two men tell them. One is about spiritual loyalty, and identity, oddly religious considering Herzl. The other is more about this sense of being in danger and aggrieved, and revenge.

I think you’re right to focus on the emotional side of it.

Herzl was really a man from the outside, looking in. Trying to find a place in the world. Trying to establish a strong sense of identity. And he found it, in his mid-30s, in Zionism.

Whereas Bibi was raised with a very strong sense of who he was. Very strong, anchored sense of identity bequeathed to him from his father.

And you’re right, the pessimism, the pessimism and a sense of fear for the Jewish people can actually be, psychologically, quite stabilizing. You know exactly who you are. I don’t think Bentzion Netanyahu, Bibi’s father, worried too much about his Jewish identity. He knew exactly who he was. And I think that sense of confidence, and pessimism, and of mission, is something that Bibi might very well have had even if his brother had not died tragically.

There’s a big difference between the two men, in that one of them [Herzl] is someone looking for an anchor. And then you have Netanyahu, who is someone who is always very psychologically anchored.

Fear factors prominently in Netanyahu’s political coalition — and it can’t be written off as unfounded. Iran is by all accounts trying to develop a nuclear weapon, and would, if it could. It certainly sees Israel as an enemy. There are such traumatic incidents of violence in Israel, both its wars and terrorist attacks.

It’s complicated, in the sense that Netanyahu has built his political coalition around security, and the idea that ‘we’re beset by danger.’ On the other hand when you look at the situation, you might think, well, maybe he’s right.

The worst thing for Netanyahu would be if Israel were to become a more peaceful place. His entire political brand, as you said, rests on security. But let’s keep in mind that there are people in the State of Israel, and there have been historically, who do not share his deep pessimism, or his deep fears — but who are not deluded. That is, they live in the same country, they’ve endured the same terrorist incidents, they’ve endured the same threats from Iran. But they don’t necessarily feel the same way that he does.

The question is not what are the dangers facing the State of Israel. We all agree about those dangers. The question is, what’s the best way to respond to them?

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.