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Herzog calls to ‘reclaim Zionism,’ turn it from a slur to a source of pride

President makes his remarks in headline speech at event marking 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Switzerland

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

President Isaac Herzog addresses an event marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, on August 29, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog addresses an event marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, on August 29, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

President Isaac Herzog on Monday called for the reclamation of the word Zionist as a positive term, saying it has been turned into a slur to abuse Jews and Israelis.

Speaking at an event marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, Herzog said Zionists — people who believe in the right and necessity of Jewish self-determination in the biblical land of Israel — must work to take back the word to be “an expression of our own national identity, traditions, hopes, pride, enlightened values, justice, and commitment to tikkun olam,” the latter being a Hebrew term meaning “repairing the world.”

Herzog, speaking in Hebrew at the mostly English event, made his remarks at the Stadtcasino concert hall in Basel, Switzerland, the same location where the First Zionist Congress first met on August 29, 1897.

“Today, 125 years after that formative moment when a handful of pioneering, inspirational Zionist leaders, changed human and Jewish history forever here in Basel, the cradle of political Zionism, in the hall where Theodor Herzl opened the First Zionist Congress, I stand before you as the President of the State of Israel, having come from Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the nation-state of the Jewish People,” Herzog said.

In his speech, which gave a broad overview of the history and philosophy of political Zionism, Herzog called on those present to reclaim the term.

The president, who previously served as the head of the Jewish Agency and as a long-time Knesset member and government minister, said the word Zionist has increasingly been used as an epithet, as a way to make antisemitic comments under the guise of legitimate criticism of Israel

“Around a year ago, there was a discussion about whether the word ‘Zionist’ should be censored on social media, for fear that it is being used as a term of antisemitic abuse against Jews and Israelis, or whether, to quote the counterargument, the word ‘Zionist’ is a term of legitimate criticism of Israeli policy,” Herzog said.

President Isaac Herzog addresses an event marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, on August 29, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

“I was appalled because, inconceivably, at no point did anyone suggest that ‘Zionist’ might actually be a positive term!”

Herzog then called for Zionists to reclaim the term, declaring this to be “the mission of our generation.”

To Herzog, Zionism includes making Israel a Jewish and democratic state, maintaining the “cohesion” of the “diverse, opinionated” Jewish people, and also helping to solve the “greatest challenges of humanity” as part of the “family of nations.”

Composite photo showing Theodor Herzl, left, on the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, Switzerland, August 1897, President Isaac Herzog, top-righ, on the same balcony on August 29, 2022, and his father, Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog on the same balcony in 1987. (GPO)

Earlier in the day, Herzog recreated a famous photograph of Herzl that was taken at the nearby Hotel Trois Rois, of the bearded Zionist leader looking out from a balcony over the Rhine River. Coincidentally, Isaac Herzog’s father, Chaim Herzog, who also served as Israel’s president, did the same thing during a state visit to Switzerland in 1987.

Some 1,400 people were in attendance at the event, principally representatives from the Israeli government, top officials from international Jewish groups and Jewish businesspeople from around the world.

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