It’s easy to mock the Israeli President’s to do list: kiss babies – check; issue holiday greetings — check; host another reception for another ambassador – check. But in a young democracy with a volatile political system, the President’s to do list is more challenging. Every ceremony should be a bank shot: advancing a broader agenda while hitting its intended audience. After all, the President is not just Israel’s one unifying figurehead and Israeli democracy’s high priest, he is the President of the Jewish people too. And these days, we need a cheerleader-in-chief, an educator-in-chief, and a story-teller-in-chief too.
To frame thousands of seemingly random events, Isaac Herzog should identify a clear agenda, articulate a vision demographically not just conceptually, and shape a timetable, progressing from 2021 to 2028. The Prime Minister must face Israel’s most pressing problems; the President can shape Israel’s soul.
Today’s primary presidential mission is keeping Israelis united as proud, constructive citizens in an increasingly diverse society. In 2019, the Harvard political scientist Danielle Allen, emphasizing that she as an African-American was quoting a slaveholder – George Washington, echoed Washington’s cry: Choose Unity. Dictators impose unity, citizens choose it – then cultivate it. We check certain ideals and impulses to cooperate with others, cultivating consensus on some matters, following orders on other matters and dissenting when necessary.
As liberal-democrats, choosing unity means fighting intensely for our parties during elections, but rallying around our new government equally intensely. It means distinguishing between your frustrations with a prime minister or a policy – and with your country. And it means that while championing positions passionately, we lose graciously, because only dictators always win – with violence not grace, tolerance, acceptance.
Beyond leading rhetorically, the President should lead practically: convening a blue-ribbon commission to strengthen Israel’s political infrastructure: assessing Israel’s electoral system, considering regional representation, reimagining the court-Knesset dynamic.
As a Jewish State and a Jewish people, choosing unity is not just a kumbaya call – it means being able to identify our enemies clearly and mobilizing against them. The President must help Israelis sift between political disagreements and existential threats, while challenging Diaspora Jews to bury that silly, distracting argument: “which is worse, right-wing Jew-hatred or left-wing Jew-hatred?” We need zero tolerance for all bigotry: be it directed against us, directed toward others, or directed by some of us against others.
While Choosing Unity, the President should be Telling our Story. With his rich family history, and a well-honed sense of history, Herzog knows how knowing the story of your own people and our people express-delivers values, anchors, identity, inspiration, community, meaning in a me-me-me, my-my-my, now-now-now world that eviscerates those essential compasses we humans need. Strong narratives and good anchors are essential tools in today’s Culture War against drift, selfishness, anomie.
Beit HaNassi – the President’s House – should be Israeli democracy’s Holy of Holies, symbolizing our commitment to build our State together. It should also be Israelywood, generating images, plot lines, biographies in words and images, telling our story as Jews, as Zionists, as Israelis.
Herzog should tailor these two easy, essential messages to five key audiences: Ruby Rivlin’s Five Tribes. This framing acknowledges social, cultural, religious, ideological, and ethnic diversity within our unified polity while emphasizing particular stories that resonate. Even when addressing the world, President Herzog should speak to Israel’s:
secular Jews – addressing their values crisis, while reaching out to the over-burdened middle class;
religious Jews – challenging them to develop a Religious Zionism which isn’t just about land but also about how we live on the land;
ultra-Orthodox Jews – sparking discussions about a new covenant with the State;
Israeli-Arabs – validating them as President Rivlin did magnificently — while helping articulate a new awareness of their rights and responsibilities;
and Diaspora Jews – pursuing a Global Jewish Council to restore ties, among other initiatives.
Each tribe needs to hear common unity-building stories and bonding values – perhaps through regular Zionist salons — while each needs to be invited to the table, listened to, respected – and pushed to stretch, to overcome the particular problems facing each community while contributing to our broader mission as a Jewish-Democratic State and as a Jewish people. Of course, seeking shared solutions to shared problems, from domestic violence to high child poverty rates, also bonds us.
To keep that conversation fresh, Herzog should frame his seven years with a formula: 75-50-80. Israel will celebrate its 75th birthday in 2023 – the focus should be on telling our story, Israel’s story, to celebrate this living miracle. Beit HaNassi could issue creative, compelling, “history-bursts,” from one-minute Diamond Jubilee Videos – 75 snippets from our past – to granting honors celebrating 75 heroes – and 75 regular citizens – who built Israel. Then, building toward 2025, the 50th anniversary of the UN’s Zionism-is-Racism resolution which Chaim Herzog fought so eloquently, this President Herzog should spearhead a worldwide counterattack against the Big Black-and-White lie falsely comparing the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians to any of the world’s racial conflicts, from South Africa to the American South.
Finally, from the moment he moves to Jerusalem, Herzog should be thinking – and get us thinking – about 2028 – when Israel turns 80. What particular initiatives might make Israel a happier, healthier, fairer place seven years from now? To move the needle, what can he do? What can we do?
By repeatedly coming back to these agenda-items, this framing, these dates, Herzog will animate his presidency, giving it a sense of mission, reinforcing its relevance, inspiring the people. These big ideas will reinforce the little moments which make up the mosaic of every presidency.
Fortunately, Isaac Herzog has the vision and the values to pull this off.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.