Growing up, I would visit the St. Louis Park home of a civically engaged family that displayed a portrait of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism.

For a century, Jews throughout the world associated Herzl with redemption, national renaissance and sovereignty, even if they had no intention of leaving the land of their births. Herzl represented the possibility of Jews as guardians of their own destiny.

Herzl’s book “Altneuland” (“The Old New Land”) was the political testament of Zionism at a time of rising nationalism in the world.

This week, 111 years after Herzl wrote that book, President Obama will lay a wreath on Herzl’s grave on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

Our president will take his trip to Israel at a time when support for Israel in the United States has never been stronger, according to the most recent Gallup polling on the subject. The two nations’ ties run deep.

If the president were leaving from his hometown of Chicago, he might be driven down Ben Gurion Way, then land at Ben Gurion Airport outside of Tel Aviv. It was President Harry Truman who recognized Israel on May 14, 1948, just minutes after Israel’s future first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, read Israel’s Declaration of Independence as Arab armies launched a war to destroy the infant state.

The year 1948 could have brought into existence a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state at the end of the British mandate if Arabs outside and inside of Palestine had accepted the 1947 U.N. decision to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states — instead of declaring war on Israel and the idea of Jewish self-determination in their historic land.

Obama, quite appropriately, will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and advance the 20-year pursuit of two states for two peoples that began under the auspices of President Bill Clinton. This is underscored by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s recent assertion that “Palestinians have an unassailable right to a state of their own.”

In this ancient land, President Obama will see Israel prospering (despite a worrying increase in social inequality that is worse for Israeli Arabs) in the new economy of high technology, cutting-edge medical breakthroughs and innovative agricultural techniques benefiting the entire world. He will visit a country that per capita has absorbed more immigrants — black and white — than any other nation. He will visit a country that wrestles vigorously and democratically with religious, secular and territorial issues resulting from wars foisted upon Israel.

The president will also see the wisps of the possibility of peace between Israeli and Palestinian and Jew and Arab if the debilitating emotion of conflict became the productive energy of commercial cooperation with the potential to raise the standard of living for the entire Middle East.

New challenges bedevil Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the Middle East unravels. Syria is prostrate in bloody civil war between Bashar Assad and rebels, which include factions aligned with Al-Qaida. Turkey’s bellicosity toward Israel is impairing its own ability to recognize its national interest. Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, is unsettled in its governance and uncertain about its peace treaty with Israel.

Meanwhile, Iran casts a shadow over the entire Middle East with the potential to precipitate a nuclear arms race throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

Israel, for its part, confronts these significant challenges with a new, perhaps more moderate government, and certainly one with coalition partners that have more charismatic leaders.

Obama’s trip to Israel no doubt underscores the strong U.S.-Israel relationship. As the president has said in the past: “Our commitment to the security of Israel is rock solid. This is a bond that is based not only on our mutual security interests and economic interests, but is also based on common values and the incredible people-to-people contacts that we have between our two countries.”



Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.