At first glance, Basel is just another quiet, Germanic city straddling the Rhine River. Crossing the border from France to drive in, there are no particularly special landmarks to catch your eye.
However, knowing that Basel was the location of the First Zionist Congress, held just over 119 years ago, there’s a hint of something special in the air.
On November 15, 2016, I traveled to Basel as a member of the Jewish Diplomatic Corps (JDC) of the World Jewish Congress (WJC). Along with approximately 170 others from 37 countries, the JDC undertakes diplomatic activities on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide. We traveled to Basel for the first Global Summit of the JDC, the inaugural meeting of the entire group, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the founding of the WJC and to get to know one another.
In my mind, Basel was more of a concept than an actual place. When I thought of Basel, I thought of a cause, a meeting, and a person: the foundation of a Jewish State, the first Zionist Congress, and Theodore Herzl.
As an ardent, stubborn and passionate Zionist, driving into Basel I thought about what Herzl wrote in his diary after the close of the First Zionist Congress:
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 I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.
Now, with that private proclamation at the front of my mind, I was driving into Basel as part of a massive contingency of young Jews representing not only Israel but also the worldwide Jewish community. Certainly, 50 years after Herzl wrote that in his diary, the dream of a Jewish homeland was realized but, now, 119 years later, a strong group of committed Jews was returning to Basel to reaffirm their commitment to Israel and to worldwide Jewry.
A funny thing happened on the way into the city when the tour organizer made the following announcement: “Our security team has asked that, for safety reasons, Israelis please refrain from speaking Hebrew. Actually, try not to be Israeli at all.”
This comment elicited an eruption of laughter from the bus since, well, it was funny, and we all knew what he meant about Israelis being Israeli tourists. However, there was a certain element of tragedy to the warning against speaking as an Israeli – i.e. against being overtly Jewish – in the small Swiss city where the Jewish State was founded.
We drove in, likely, on the same roads used by the 200 delegates from 17 countries attending the Zionist Congress 119 years ago. Though not likely speaking Hebrew back then, many would have spoken Yiddish, appearing overtly Jewish as they arrived by train, wagon or horseback. They were unafraid, unashamed, and curious to see what Herzl was about to propose. This dichotomy between our arrival and theirs made me smile because, aside from the coach bus, our arrival was not all that different. However, the tragedy lay in the necessity of the caution about displaying the very thing we were coming to Basel to celebrate.
We disembarked at l’Hôtel Les Trois Rois (Three Kings Hotel), the famous inn on the banks of the Rhine where Herzl stayed during the First Zionist Congress. It was at this hotel that, during the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, the iconic photograph of Herzl leaning on the balcony of room 117 was taken. We went up to the balcony, adopted the mandatory Herzl-esque poses, and stood for a group photo taken from the other side of the Rhine. The entire group, including Ambassador Ronald Lauder, President of the WJC, occupied every balcony of the iconic hotel and paid homage to the legacy of Herzl, the dreamer.
Later, Ambassador Lauder addressed the group to lay out his vision for the JDC. He implored us to “Be like Theodore Herzl,” to “have a vision, work hard, and never stop defending the Jewish people.”
We heeded his call, assembled at the stunning Basel Synagogue to learn about the history of Zionism, and drafted mission statements and our vision for the future. We met with leaders of the Swiss Jewish community to forge stronger bonds across borders and committed ourselves to doing all we could in our respective countries to protect and defend the Jewish people.
After a long day of exploring, meeting, and questioning, we got back on our buses, left Basel behind, and returned to each of our home countries.
Traveling to Basel from Canada in 2016 is obviously different than traveling there from Kiev, Lvov or Paris in 1897. We are now 68 years past the goal line of what that gathering of pioneering Zionists aspired to achieve: a Jewish State. However, the reality for which those proto-Zionists laid the foundation 119 years ago can only survive with this generation’s constant renewal of its commitment to the dream envisaged at that first Basel Congress.
It is our willful commitment to Zionism that will see a thriving Jewish State, community, and people. As the saying goes, “If you will it, it is no dream.”