After convening the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary: “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 answered by universal laughter. If not in five years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.’”
Herzl also memorably said, “If you will it, it’s no dream,” and 51 years later, as it happened, David Ben-Gurion realized his Zionist vision by declaring the establishment of the State of Israel.
On March 24 this year, 113 years after the First Zionist Congress, the connection between Ben-Gurion and Basel will soar to new heights.
Israir plans to launch a flight between Ben-Gurion International Airport and Basel Airport on that date.
The airline announced this month that it would operate two weekly flights (on Monday and Wednesday) between Tel Aviv and Basel. It is the first Israeli airline to offer flights to the Swiss city, and the starting price of the ticket is $412.
The airline is also offering a seven-day package over Pessah for $695.
EasyJet announced earlier this month that it would begin operating a flight to Geneva, a more popular tourist destination, but not as historically meaningful.
Israir said the flight to Basel joins six other international routes to which it flies: Rome, Milan, Berlin, Nice, Ljubljana and Moscow.
“We are happy to be the first company to offer Israelis direct flights to this important and interesting destination,” said CEO Ofer Green. “The strategic location of Basel played an important role in our decision to open an additional route. With one ticket, the Israeli tourist can enjoy a visit to three different countries.”
Green said Basel is an attractive destination to both business people and tourists because of its proximity to France and Germany.
Located at the meeting point of the Swiss, French, and German borders, it is also a convenient stop for people continuing on their travels to other destinations in Europe, he said.
But Basel itself has a lot to offer the Israeli tourist.
It is Switzerland’s third most populous city, with a population of almost 200,000. A cosmopolitan center on the banks of the Rhine, it is known for being an international arts and culture hub, with 30 museums and an array of markets and fairs, including the Fasnacht Carnival and Art Basel. It also has the oldest university in Switzerland founded in 1460.
A busy night life includes top-class restaurants and theaters as well as music and jazz clubs, music festivals and a wide variety of bars and discotheques.
The Basel municipality claims that the sun shines more often in the city than elsewhere in Switzlerland. It is also a bicycle-friendly city, and bikers are encouraged to explore the area on the Three-Countries Cycle Route.
Historically, it has been chosen for international peace negotiations and conferences since 1499, when the famous Treaty of Basel ended the Swabian War.
The Jewish community of Basel today numbers only 2,000 (about ten percent of the total number of Jews in Swizerland), but it boasts the country’s only Jewish museum, a beautiful Great Synagogue built in 1868, a community center and library, a Jewish day school and several kosher establishments.
Chabad recently celebrated the opening of the Feldinger Chabad Jewish Center by dancing in a new Torah.
The small Jewish museum includes an exhibition on the First Zionist Congress as well as the history of the Swiss Jewish community, and offers tours in German, French and English.
The Jewish community was well established in Basel by the 13th century, with a synagogue and a cemetery, and in 1213, was said to be one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, with many Jews working as money lenders.
The community flourished until 1348, when Jews were accused of poisoning wells during the “Black Death” plague.
Some 600 Jews were burned at the stake on January 9, 1349 and the community was effectively dissolved.
A church edict in 1434 required attendance by any remaining Jews at proselytizing sermons, and Jews were officially banished from the city in 1543.
A few Jews managed to return to the city, however, in the 16th century when Christian printers needed Jews to proofread Hebrew texts and several hundred Jews received residency permits. In the 19th century, Jews from nearby Alsace as well as Germany and Eastern Europe settled in Basel.
During the Holocaust, Switzerland provided refuge to about 25,000 Jews, but turned away more than 30,000 others.
Despite the fact that most of Switzerland’s Jews left after the Second World War, the majority making aliya, the Jewish community is small but strong and well-organized.
Several Jewish leaders of Basel have served in local government and one was even appointed a minister in the Swiss cabinet.
Tourist sites not to be missed in the city include the Three Kings Hotel, where Herzl stayed in August 1897 during the Zionist Congress. The famous hotel has also hosted a string of historical figures including Napoleon, Dickens and Voltaire.
The Congress itself was held at Stadtcasino, a concert hall, and to the right of the stage there is still a plaque that reads: “On Theodor Herzl’s initiative and under his guidance, the first Zionist organization was established, leading to the foundation of the State of Israel.”
Prominent Jews from Basel include the acclaimed film producer Arthur Cohn and Marcel Hess, the “Sausage King,” both of whom now have homes in Israel.
“I will fly to Basel at least twice a year,” Hess said, noting that he still had family there. “I think it will be very popular. It’s a very nice region, close to Alsace in France, Germany and, of course, Switzerland itself.”
Hess said the Jewish community is of particular interest to the Israeli visitor.
“The Basel community has a very rich history, and its members range from Reform to Orthodox. We have a big tradition of hazanut
, and the hazan
in the Great Synagogue is always a man with a great voice.”
Hess said that he had initiated a special commemoration for the 100th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, noting that the second and third congresses were also held in the city.
“I was a member of parliament for eight years and I introduced a law that the government make a celebration for the 100th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress,” he said. “It was approved by parliament, and the Speaker of the Knesset came for the event. Basel has a special connection to Israel.”