125 Years On: Why the First Zionist Congress Still Matters
Theodor Herzl addresses the First or Second Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897-98. (National Photo Collection of Israel)

125 Years On: Why the First Zionist Congress Still Matters

Over 1,300 Jewish leaders from around the world have gathered in Basel, Switzerland to mark the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, the event convened in 1897 by Theodor Herzl that led to the establishment of the State of Israel.

The guests of honor at the event are Israel’s President Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal. The Israeli president is scheduled to give the keynote address at the 125th-anniversary celebration of the first congress, part of his official visit to the Swiss Confederation, which begins on Monday. He will also meet with Swiss President Ignazio Cassis and other government officials, as well as the leaders of all the Jewish communities of Switzerland and representatives of the country’s various Jewish organizations.

Some 208 delegates from 16 countries participated in the first congress, held in the Basel Casino, where the commemorative event also is being held. This first congress approved the Basel Plan, which stated: “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” The plan defined the goals and principles of the Zionist Movement, including the settlement of Jews working in agriculture, the arts, and trade in Palestine; the federating of Jewish people into local or general affiliate groups; and the strengthening of their Jewish consciousness.

It also adopted the song “Hatikvah,”or “The Hope,” as its anthem, which later became the national anthem of the State of Israel.

This week’s conference is led by the World Zionist Organization, which was founded at the First Zionist Congress; the organization also is celebrating the anniversary of its founding at the congress.

Herzl wrote in his diary following the first 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 l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in 50 years, everyone will perceive it.”

And today, certainly, they would. The question is, what would Herzl think about his Jewish state.

The state was founded a half-century later, on May 14, 1948, the day that Israel declared its independence following the withdrawal of British troops at the end of the British Mandate in Palestine. The date on the Jewish calendar, the fifth day of the month of Iyar, is observed in Israel as its Independence Day.

“The heart of this visit is a historic milestone: the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, which was a formative event for the Jewish people and for humanity at large,” Herzog said in a statement on Sunday. “Zionism is the ideal combination of Judaism’s deepest roots with groundbreaking innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. As the president of the nation-state of the Jewish people, I am astonished and filled with pride every day anew at the sight of Herzl’s vision coming to life in front of our eyes, and I feel the heavy duty and responsibility for the future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Most Jews today have only lived in a world where there is a State of Israel. They have never lived in a world where there is no refuge for persecuted Jews. This can lead Jewry to be complacent about the state and its place in the wider world.

Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization, in a statement, called Israel a “sovereign, powerful, Jewish, and value-based entity.”

“The vision of the prophets slowly became a reality. In a conference hall in Basel, the hearts of the delegates of the First Zionist Congress were stirred, paving the way for the establishment of the Jewish state,” he said. He called the First Zionist Congress in Basel the place “where Jewish tradition, culture, and language met, where the people of Israel awoke from 2,000  years of exile and united from every corner of the earth to finally return home.”

The Israeli president is set on Monday to recreate the iconic photo of Herzl ostensibly pondering Zionism, while leaning on the balcony railing at the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois, overlooking the waters of the Rhine River. His father, Israel’s sixth president Chaim Herzog, recreated the same photo in 1987.

Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, leans over the balcony of the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois during the first Zionist Congress, August 29, 1897, in Basel, Switzerland. (GPO via Getty Images)

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