Meet the Kennedys of Israel

Many have said that Herzog is as close to Israeli royalty as it gets; his family is even sometimes referred to as “Israel’s version of the Kennedys.”
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets President Isaac Herzog for their first working meeting since taking office, on July 12, 2021. (Photo: Arsen Ostrovsky on Twitter)

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The sounds of the shofar filled the chamber. “Long may the president of the State of Israel live!” “Long may he live, long may he live, long may he live!” This may sound like a ceremony that would happen in ancient history, but did you know that it was part of the inauguration of Isaac Herzog as Israel’s 11th president two weeks ago?

Daniel Gordis explained in a blog post that this sequence of the presidential inauguration ceremony is modeled after King Solomon’s coronation, from 1 Kings 1:39: “The priest Zadok took the horn of oil from the Tent and anointed Solomon. They sounded the horn and all the people shouted, ‘Long live King Solomon!’”

Although the modern State of Israel does not have a king, the role of the Israeli president does have a few things in common with royalty: the role is largely ceremonial and has limited political power. With Herzog’s inauguration, we wanted to unpack: Who is he and what kind of “power” does an Israeli president have? And what is the legacy that former president Reuven Rivlin is leaving behind?

Many have said that Herzog is as close to Israeli royalty as it gets; his family is even sometimes referred to as “Israel’s version of the Kennedys.” His father, Chaim Herzog, was the sixth president of Israel, and his grandfather, Rabbi Isaac Herzog (his namesake), was Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi. His uncle, Abba Eban, served as Israel’s foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S. and U.N. We’ll unpack more of Herzog’s background, but first, let’s explore the job of an Israeli president.

The president of Israel: A living symbol of the Jewish state

Every nation has a head of state — a symbolic leader who represents the nation but who does not exercise executive or policymaking power. In the U.S. system, the president serves as both the head of state and head of government (as well as commander-in-chief), but in many other countries, these roles are separated. For example, in the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson is the head of government and Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state.

The head of government (who holds executive authority and is responsible for running the government) is usually called the prime minister. Meanwhile, the head of state may take the form of either a hereditary monarch or an elected president.

According to Paul Kubicek, a political science professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., the role of head of state includes personifying the state itself. In his book “European Politics,” Kubicek recalled former French president Charles De Gaulle’s statement that a head of state should embody l’esprit de la nation (the spirit of the nation). 

“The head of state is thus a living symbol, and in this role he or she is removed from day-to-day political squabbles,” Kubicek explained. “Americans might think of this as the office of the president versus the actual person of the president. The office of the head of state…can be thought of mainly as a symbolic or affective power that is designed to unite all of the people of the country.”

According to Gov.il, the Israeli government website, the president acts as “a symbol of national unity that represents the core values of the state.” Accordingly, the presidents who are elected “are usually people of excellent character who contributed to the Zionist endeavor and to the state, and are well-liked by all sectors of Israel’s population. Many of the world’s Jews regard the president not only as the president of the State of Israel, but also as the president of the Jewish people.”

The Israeli supreme court characterized the office of the presidency this way: “The president represents the state and its moral and democratic values…. His status is that of a non-partisan representative of the country who symbolizes the characteristics that connect and unify the various segments of Israeli society. In his personality, he is to reflect the good, proper, moral, and unique characteristics of Israel’s population. He is to serve as a model and an example in the fulfillment of his duties as well as in his personal conduct.”

Although Israel’s president is largely a ceremonial role, it includes limited political powers such as the ability to pardon people and reduce the sentences of convicted individuals. The president also plays a key role in determining which Knesset member gets the mandate to form a government following elections. The president’s ceremonial duties include signing every law (except those pertaining to the president’s powers) and international treaty, ceremonially appointing the prime minister, and confirming and endorsing the credentials of ambassadors.

The Knesset elects presidents to serve for a single seven-year term. Israel’s first president was the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann who tasked Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with forming the first government. When Weizmann died in 1952, Israel asked Albert Einstein if he would serve as the next president and relocate to Israel. Einstein turned down the offer, stating, “I am deeply moved by the offer…and at once saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept it. All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions.”

Who is Isaac Herzog?

Herzog was first elected to the Knesset in 2003 as a member of the Labor party. He held ministerial positions including housing, tourism and welfare. In 2015, he ran for prime minister as the Labor party candidate. Most recently, he served as the chairman of the Jewish Agency, which works to build connections between Jews across the globe and Israel.

In an interview with Jay Sanderson, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Herzog said that one of the most profound Jewish moments of his life was watching his father deliver a speech on live television to the U.N. General Assembly in 1975 — rejecting the U.N.’s resolution equating Zionism with racism.

In the speech, Chaim Herzog (then Israel’s ambassador to the U.N.) said, “The issue is not Israel or Zionism. The issue is the continued existence of this organization which has been dragged to its lowest point of discredit by a coalition of despotisms and racists. The vote of each delegation will record in history the country’s stand on antisemitic racism and anti-Judaism.”

Herzog was born on September 22, 1960 in Tel Aviv. When he was a teenager, his family moved to New York City: he attended the Orthodox Ramaz school and spent summers at Camp Ramah. He returned to Israel when he was 18 and enlisted in the IDF, serving as an intelligence officer. Following his army service, he studied law at Tel Aviv University.

In an interview last year with David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, Herzog said his time living in New York City helped him understand “what it is to be Jewish abroad” and inspired him to bring the two communities closer. “I am adamant about the need to be a bridge between Israel and the Jewish people and to keep this bridge going, because I think it’s a clear need of the Jewish people to do whatever they can not to split,” Herzog said.

Herzog was elected in early June in a Knesset vote of 87 to 26 over Miriam Peretz, an educator who lost two sons in Israel’s wars. Herzog received more votes than any other presidential candidate in Israeli history, winning support from both the political right and left.

In his inauguration speech, Herzog pledged to be a “president for everyone” and to “change the tone, lower the flames” of the country’s intense rhetoric. “Baseless hatred, polarization and division are exacting a heavy price,” he said. “The heaviest price is the erosion of our national resilience. My mission — the goal of my presidency — is to do everything to rebuild hope.”

President Rivlin’s legacy

In a speech following Herzog’s swearing in, outgoing president Reuven Rivlin underscored that “the Jewish state is not something to be taken for granted” and urged Israelis to overcome their differences. “We will prevail only if we know how to embrace complexity… if we know how to hold that tension, finding within it the balances and compromises,” Rivlin said. “Only then will we be able to preserve this miracle, our home.”

The idea that Israel’s diverse society must find ways to come together was a theme of Rivlin’s presidency. He will perhaps be most remembered for his “Four Tribes” speech at the 2015 Herzliya Conference, in which he argued that Israeli society is split into four communities “essentially different from each other”: secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab. He urged Israelis to “look bravely at this reality,” arguing that all four tribes are here to stay. Rather than be cajoled “into sectarianism and separation,” Rivlin implored the different communities to find common ground as Israelis.

Israelis had a range of reactions to the speech. While some commentators applauded Rivlin for acknowledging the “real” face of Israel and promoting partnership between its diverse groups, others argued that Rivlin’s division of the country into four categories was an oversimplification. For example, on a recent episode of TLV1’s “The Promised Podcast,” Noah Efron, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, argued that the four tribes that Rivlin outlined “bleed into each other in a million ways. There aren’t four tribes, there are 50 tribes [that] interact in all sorts of different ways.”

As a former Knesset member in the right-wing Likud party, Rivlin supported the idea of “Greater Israel,” one Jewish state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. However, he also believed that everyone living under Israeli sovereignty should have equal rights. One of the criticisms Rivlin often received was that his vision of a one-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians as fully equal citizens was impossible to achieve in practice. Rivlin himself acknowledged that this was not a pragmatic solution but was a utopian vision of the future.

In a piece about Rivlin’s legacy, The Jerusalem Post editorial board wrote, “During the last seven years, Rivlin has earned the respect of most Israelis, Jews in the Diaspora and foreigners,” and “leaves office as a beloved leader” who played the role of “Israel’s grandfather” as a “wise and responsible” figure. “Rivlin proved that he had the ability to listen, learn and repair. He generally succeeded in putting himself above politics during his term as president.”

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