BASEL – The streets in the center of Basel, Switzerland, would usually be filled this time of year with people celebrating the end of the summer vacation. Yet the events celebrating the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress have turned the city center into the most secure area of this peaceful country. The streets are almost empty.
Instead of local and international tourists, the streets are occupied by Zionists, both Jews and non-Jews from all religions and denominations.
Something positive and refreshing is happening in what is considered to be the remains of the once huge and influential movement.
Modern Zionist history relived
“I can’t remember the last time that the World Zionist Organization held such a meaningful and central event,” said one of the so-called “elders” of the movement that was the force behind the establishment of the only Jewish State in the world.
For years, the events of the WZO were the best-kept secret in the Jewish world. The only ones that participated in these events were delegates or members of political parties and representatives of the different streams of Judaism. The average age of the participants looked to be over 60, at least.
Yet on Sunday, thousands of Jewish leaders and supporters of Israel gathered in Basel and made a very good case for the fact that they should still be relevant as an organization and a movement. The masses arrived in Switzerland in order to mark the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in a three-day event, corresponding with the same dates of the original gathering in 1897.
Why is this event different from all the others?
The event will begin in the Stadtcasino Hall, where the First Zionist Congress took place. This is where the first 208 delegates discussed their vision for the establishment of the Jewish state.
So why is this event different from any other of the WZO’s events? For the first time in decades, this event attracted hundreds of people from outside the official Zionist movement. Heads of philanthropic foundations have made a special effort to attend, and a delegation of Knesset members and mayors of Israeli cities also arrivedl. Members of major Jewish organizations from across the world understand that this week, Basel has become the center of attention and discussion.
Usually, these foundations and organizations would make fun of the WZO and ask why it is still relevant. Suddenly, many of them literally begged the organizers of this historic event to arrive as participants or for a few minutes on stage during one of the many plenaries. An additional group of Israelis and Jews from the Diaspora participated in a conference for social and economic entrepreneurship. Some 125 leading entrepreneurs from the hi-tech industry were carefully selected from thousands of nominations and requests.
Finally, the Jewish world’s secret conference is getting attention from the broader Jewish world and of the Israeli government, business people and foreign governments.
If you will it, it is no dream
What still is missing are young Jewish and Israeli leaders. The age demographic is younger than it was in the past few decades, but wouldn’t it be amazing for college students or high school students to visit Basel and learn about Zionism?
The events were initiated by the current WZO chairman Yaakov Hagoel. He welcomed the hundreds of Israeli participants in the two chartered flights to Basel. He is one of those political leaders that always has done creative initiatives, such as lighting up Times Square in New York City with Israeli videos for Independence Day. He also reenacted the announcement of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 with live actors and vintage vehicles.
The WZO also had the largest vote for the Congress about a year ago, than it had in decades. There still is a long way to go in order for the Zionist movement to return to its glory, but it is definitely on the right track. Or as Theodor Herzl once said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”