“Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word – which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly – it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it” (Theodor Herzl, diary entry, 3 September 1897)
I had the honor of participating—along with an esteemed B’nai B’rith delegation led by Honorary President Charles O. Kaufman and CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin—in events in Basel, Switzerland in late August marking 125 years since Theodor Herzl convened there the first Zionist Congress. Basel was chosen by Herzl as the site of the first congress only because the Jewish leadership in his preferred cities—Munich and Vienna—were afraid such an event would jeopardize their community’s hard-won rights and prevented him from doing so in those bigger and more central prominent cities. Still, Basel had the advantage of an encouraging Chief Rabbi and Christians who supported the notion of the Jews’ return to the Holy Land. Also, being conveniently located exceedingly close to the German and French borders made it a convenient crossroad for such an international meeting, with delegates converging on Basel from 17 countries.
Basel is not one of the more striking cities in Switzerland—no soaring mountains or Alpine-fed lakes in sight, only the meandering Rhein—but it was welcoming enough to host far more pre-State Zionist congresses—ten to be exact—than any other city. It was witness to some of the most vociferous arguments that ripped at the very core of the Zionist Movement, including the Uganda Plan in 1903 and the rush to independence in 1946 that left Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion at loggerheads.
The Jewish story in Basel is not limited to the Zionist Congresses, though. Jews had been repeatedly persecuted, expelled and burned in Basel and surrounding towns and villages from 1294 to 1560, and discrimination continued until 1874. Based on archeological findings, Jewish history in the city actually goes back to Roman times, when a legion of Jewish soldier from Palestine were apparently granted land in the area after completing the compulsory 25 years of service and made it their home.
Overshadowing the carping about the cost of last month’s festivities—which saw some 1,400 Zionists converge on the city from around the world—and about the program minutia, the event undoubtedly gave a lift to the Zionist spirit. Being in the same room in the Statcasino where Herzl opened and presided over the First Congress was electrifying. Although no recording of Herzl’s voice exists, one could imagine him delivering his brilliant welcoming address, relevant until today: “Since time immemorial the world has been misinformed about us. The feeling of solidarity with which we have been so frequently and violently reproached was in the process of disintegration when we were attached by antisemitism. Antisemitism gave it new strength. We have returned home, as it were. Zionism is a return to Jewishness even before there is a return to the Jewish land … Zionism has already brought about something remarkable and heretofore regarded as impossible: a close alliance between the ultra-modern and the ultra-conservative elements of Jewry. The fact that this has come to pass without undignified concessions on the part of either side and without intellectual sacrifices in additional proof, if such proof be needed, for the peoplehood of the Jews.”
Reflecting on the accomplishments of the Congress—that included passage of the Basel Program that established the goal of the Zionist movement to “secure for the Jewish People a publicly recognized, legally assured homeland in Palestine”—just ten days later in his paper “Die Welt,” Herzl wrote: “But here is the most significant result of the Congress: it turned out that the Jewish national idea possesses the unifying power to weld together people with linguistic, social, political and religious difference into one united shole. This possibility was most vehemently denied in the past, and yet this very fact was most brilliantly demonstrated in Basel. Partisan conflicts, which noisily erupted wherever there are differences, instantly became silent at the first appeal to the nation. The brothers have found each other.”
Some of this togetherness sensed at the gala was interrupted when the highest-ranking non-Israeli to address the event, Swiss Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin, introduced a highly discordant note that was met by applause from some in the audience when he used the podium to endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state. I much preferred President Isaac Herzog’s message in which he 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. Zionists, he said 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 … It is the mission of our generation.” As someone who served as minister of Diaspora Affairs, minister of Immigration and Absorption and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Herzog knew how to echo Herzl’s spirit of Jewish unity. It remains to be seen if indeed the high moral values planted by Theodor Herzl into Zionism from its earliest days in Basel can be reestablished in today’s environment.
The B’nai B’rith World Center, Jerusalem, coordinates B’nai B’rith’s activities at the World Zionist Organization
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B’nai B’rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B’nai B’rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, click here.