"They sounded the horn and all the people shouted, 'Long live ...!'”

Thoughts on the inauguration ceremony of Isaac Herzog as Israel's 11th President

Israel inaugurated its eleventh President, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, yesterday, in a ceremony at the Knesset. The President has limited political power, so his inauguration garnered significantly less attention outside Israel than did, for example, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett’s successfully assembling a Knesset coalition a few weeks ago, followed by Bennett’s becoming Prime Minister.

But yesterday’s proceedings were important on many levels. The outgoing President, Reuven Rivlin, restored some of the long-lost luster to the office of the President. (He will undoubtedly be most remembered for his famous “Tribes Speech,” which is a bit more controversial in Israel than many realize, and which we’ll cover in a post in the next few weeks.)

One of the main purposes of Israel from the Inside is to highlight the goings-on inside Israel that get little to no attention outside, especially when they are critical to understanding this country. Yesterday was a prime example, so for those interested, here’s a set of moments to watch in the hour-long ceremony .

The ceremony was carried by the Knesset Channel, and is posted on its website here (to my knowledge, at least, it has not been posted anywhere with English subtitles). Open the video in one window and follow these prompts in another; I think you’ll agree it’s worth the time. Here are a few things worth pointing out about it.

One thing worth noting is that almost everyone is masked. If you look at videos of Bennett’s election in Knesset a few weeks ago, that was not the case. Sadly, Covid is making its way back to Israel. It’s not yet clear how “back” it’s going to get, and so far, the vaccine seems to more or less be holding strong; still, this is a striking visual change from the Knesset we saw a few weeks ago.

00:06   Mickey Levy, the Speaker of the Knesset, entering the chamber with Reuven Rivlin, the 10th and outgoing President, and Isaac Herzog, the incoming President. Israel’s not a very “pomp and circumstance” country, to put matters very mildly, but yesterday was a bit of an exception. Note the honor guard on the sides as they enter.

01:30   Military honor guard and trumpets

03:10   As the camera scans the crowd, it also showed people sitting in the balcony (very much as would happen in the coverage of a Joint Session of Congress). Israeli media made much of the fact that Michal Herzog was seated so as to be a separation between Gilat Bennett and Sarah Netanyahu – rumors are that their relationship, like the relationship between Naftali and Bibi, is more than a bit icy.

03:35   As the camera pans those sitting below, note the Chief Rabbi sitting a row in front of the top military brass. The presence of the two groups front and center says a lot about what and who matters in this country.

05:25   As Speaker of the Knesset Mickey Levy is speaking in his opening address, at this point you can hear the timbre of his voice shift dramatically … as he is acknowledging the presence of a seemingly endless list of VIPs, he acknowledges the representative of “bereaved families” – those who have lost children in Israel’s many wars, and the families of captured soldiers, in this case, the Goldin and Katz families. That’s just part of almost every Israeli ritual.

13:12   At this point, Mickey Levy includes in his prepared remarks the “Priestly Blessing” (Numbers 6:24-26). Note that when he hears it, Rivlin puts on a kippah. That might seem obvious, or irrelevant. But remember that Herzl did not put on a kippah at the Zionist Congresses, or that David Ben-Gurion was fastidious about not putting on a kippah even at the creation of the state. The old-guard’s almost-rabid-secularism of yesteryear has given way in Israel to a warmth to tradition among many, even among those not observant. The old anger at the Jewish tradition, which Hayim Nachman Bialik and others argued was the reason that the Jews were weak, has softened.

Rivlin is “secular.” Herzog, though the grandson of the first Ashkenzi Chief Rabbi of Israel, is also “secular.” But religious symbolism, as we’ll shortly see, permeated the event. Why does that matter? It matters because to understand Israel, we need to appreciate that “secular” here doesn’t mean what it does outside of Israel. “Secular” in Israel means “non-observant,” but in no way does it connote “divorced from Jewish content.” Many, many non-observant Israelis are steeped in Jewish content in some way, shape, manner or form, as is the “secular” country. That’s a huge change in Israel. As many Diaspora communities are shifting away from religion (see shift by generation in the Pew Report), Israel as a whole is warming to it. That has enormous implications for the future.

26:40   Nothing visual, but here, Rivlin notes that he was nine years old when the State of Israel was created. He reflected on his memories of the day the flag went up, and the importance of not taking Israel for granted. At 27:28, he noted, quite correctly (without specifically mentioning the Diaspora, though that seems to have been his intent) that there are too many people who see the mere existence of the state as entirely unsurprising or obvious. It isn’t, and it was important to Rivlin to note it.

27:50   Given the usual raucous-like divisiveness of the Knesset (if you watched the videos of the day that Bennett was “elected” and the constant interruptions of his speech, you know), yesterday was notable for its decorum and for the wall to wall applause for Rivlin, who was really a very much admired President.

If you look carefully, though, you’ll note that Bibi Netanyahu (grey hair with his back to the camera towards the left of your screen), made a point of not applauding. I thought it was a sad, somewhat infantile expression of his political frustration. That he is a man fallen from genuine greatness is denied by few, even in the Likud. That he couldn’t contain his bitterness even at that moment of national unity says a great deal about the small person he has become.

28:36   Herzog takes the oath of office, his left hand on a Bible, and again, as noted above, a kippah on his head. Actual oath is at 29:15.


After the oath of office, two military personnel sound the Shofar (I’m guessing that not many armies have shofar-blowers). After that, Mickey Levy says “Long may the President of the State of Israel live [yechi], to which those in attendance respond, yechi, yechi, yechi [Long may he live, long may he live, long may he live]. You might be scratching your head and asking, “What on earth ….?”

Until you read I 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!”

The ceremony is right out of King Solomon’s coronation. Many people here refer to 1948 not as the “establishment” of the Jewish state, but as the “re-establishment” of the Jewish state. One cannot understand Israel without appreciating the sense of continuity from an ancient past which permeates this society.

34:47   Herzog dons a kippah once more, and recites the following prayer:

May it be Your will, Lord my God, that no mishap in determining the halakha transpires caused by me, and that I not fail in any matter of halakha, and that my colleagues will rejoice in me. He specified: And that I will neither declare pure that which is impure, nor declare impure that which is pure and that my colleagues will not fail in any matter of halakha, and that I will rejoice in them.

It’s taken from the Talmud (B.T. Berakhot 28b), and is the prayer that a certain Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakah would recite upon his entrance into the study hall. Herzog didn’t need to start that way; he chose to. Again, what does it mean to say someone is “secular” in Israel?

57:00   No need for any explanation here. The assembled sang Hatikvah. Behind masks, but still Hatikvah. Look at this photograph from the Second Zionist Congress, in Basel in 1898. They sang the Hatikvah then, too.

The penultimate line says “to be a free people in our land.”

Theodor Herzl gives the keynote address at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1898. Photo from the National Library of Israel via Wikimedia Commons

Could those people assembled in Basel, in 1898, have imagined the Knesset yesterday? I suspect not. We can disagree about politics, personalities, policies and all the rest. But as a friend of mine once said to me, “Whether you believe in God or not, the State of Israel is clearly providential.”

There’s more than a bit of truth to that.

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