In late August 1897, some 200 Jews from 17 countries arrived in Basel, Switzerland.
Dressed in festive formal attire, the delegates entered the municipal casino concert hall, which was decorated with blue and white flags for the occasion. They heard three knocks of the gavel that launched the Congress and then watched Dr. Karpel Lippe, the oldest delegate, make his way up the stage. He covered his head, and to the tears of the delegates, recited the sheheheyanu blessing, thanking God for bringing the Jews to this time.
With this blessing, that Sunday morning, the first day of Elul, the Jewish state began its journey.
The journey that was embarked on in the First Zionist Congress was not merely a process that would lead to the establishment of the State of Israel. It was the beginning of a Jewish transformation.
Herzl famously stated: “At Basel, I founded the Jewish state.”
He immediately clarified that such state is not simply a geographical representation, nor a collection of citizens who happen to live in a given territory. He wrote: “The essence of a state lies in the will of the people for a state... A territory is merely the concrete basis. The state itself, when it possesses a territory, still remains something abstract.”
It is that abstraction, that ideology, that Herzl founded in Basel and which continues to serve as the bedrock of the Jewish state.
Herzl outlined such a vision in his opening speech. One of the delegates, Mordecai Ben-Ami, described the reaction: “For a few moments, the hall shook from the shouts of joy, the applause, the cheers and the feet-stomping. It felt as if the great dream of our nation, of 2,000 years, was now solved, and in front us stood Mashiach Ben-David.”
Right after the speech, the intense work began, turning the will of the people into actions: deliberations on national aspects, economic aspects, analysis of the conditions in the Land of Israel, reports of the state of the Jews in various communities, discussions about the revival of the Hebrew language, of Hebrew literature.
Another delegate, Israel Zangwill, reflected on the atmosphere:
“On the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. On the river of Basel we now sit and resolve: We will weep no more.”
From morning to night, the delegates planted the seeds for building state institutions: The Jewish National Fund, the Zionist Organization. Herzl drew from his experience as a journalist in Paris, closely observing French government, politics and world affairs. He reflected: “It now became clear why I had to attend the Palais Bourbon sessions four years on end.”
The Zionist “palace” that Herzl was formulating was even better than the one that inspired it. It was organic, it was romantic, it was staunchly ideological. Herzl learned from the faults of the French system and applied them to the benefit of Zionism.
He ran an efficient and methodical operation in Basel. The Congress rules were kept and the agenda was followed closely, although at one point a deviation from the program was necessary.
With reporters and representative from all major Jewish communities present, word of the Congress quickly went “viral.” Already, in the afternoon of the first day, Herzl got up to the stage and apologized.
“The program calls for giving a report on incoming mail. The amount of mail we received is so magnificent that it is impossible to report detail on it. There are over 550 telegrams, support letters, suggestions and the like. The petition that was received has about 50,000 signatures. Every moment brings new telegraphs from all over the world.”
As the days progressed, debates inside the hall and side rooms were fierce, differences of opinions abundant. After all, this was the first time world Jews came together in such a format. Assimilated Jews from England alongside religious Yiddish-speaking Jews from small villages in Poland and intellectual Russians from Odessa.
When argument heated up, one of the older delegates, Prof. Zvi Hermann Schapira, would remind delegates that they were all there for a common cause and should suppress their personal prejudice. Delegate Nahum Sokolow described the moment.
“A dramatic scene followed. The professor called upon every delegate present to raise his right hand and they all did so and repeated after him: ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.’”
That pledge remained a thread of unity through Congresses to follow, a pledge that Herzl took himself.
Navigating through unity and division, egos and conflicts, Herzl, like the skillful playwright that he was, wove it all together. He reflected, “Everybody came to me for advice about every conceivable matter, trivial as well as important. Four or five persons were always talking to me at once. Since I had to give each of them an immediate and definite decision, it required an immense exertion of my mental powers. I felt as though I were being obliged to play 32 games of chess simultaneously.”
Yet he was able to persevere. His eyes not dimmed, his force not abated, he brought each of those games to checkmate. The congress produced tremendous accomplishments – most importantly, the crafting and approval of the Basel Program, a detailed plan for the establishment of a Jewish home in their ancestral land.
The exodus was set to begin. The Congress was Passover in Elul.
Like Moses, Herzl understood that getting to the Promised Land was just the beginning. Philosophical infrastructure must be put in place that would enable the Jews that attain a state to keep their state.
He declared, “Our Congress must live forever. Not only until the redemption from the old misery, but especially after.”
Herzl was not the only one focused on the “morning after.” Zionism’s Jewish adversaries and nay-sayers were skeptical about the Jewish state’s sustainability.
Even a year before the Congress, Herzl was mocked by Jewish-owned Austrian newspaper Wiener Allgemine Zeitung, which reacted to his Zionist idea by publishing a humorous depiction of the Maccabees running away in a panic. Yet, 50 years later, exactly in accordance with the time frame Herzl predicted, the Maccabees were there, and they did not run; they prospered.
Herzl knew how to balance between instilling his Zionist Torah – the infinite ideal that must be nurtured long after the state was founded – with acknowledging that the nascent movement had already scored significant achievements.
“Zionism has already managed to accomplish a wondrous thing, previously thought to be impossible: the firm bond between the most modern elements of Judaism with the most conservative,” he stated.
“Since this has occurred without the need for either side to make undignified concessions or to make mental sacrifices, it is additional proof, if such proof was needed, that the Jews are a nation. This union could only be possible against a national background.”
Herzl understood that the Jewish state would exist not out of charity, but because it would be a necessity for the world. He provided the template for making that happen: “The day that the plow will be held by the empowered hand of the Jewish farmer, the Jewish problem will be solved.”
Today, the plow is indeed held by the empowered hand of the Zionist entrepreneur, who is advancing humanity through technological breakthrough, saving lives around the world through medical ingenuity, addressing famine by turning air into water. In doing so, Zionism has turned out to be not only a light to the nations but indeed vital to the world. The Jewish problem was solved with a Zionist answer.
After three days of deliberations, dozens of presentations, numerous committee meetings and a few bottles of Beaujolais wine, which were consumed on the terrace of the Three Kings Hotel, the Congress was set to conclude.
But Herzl would not close the Congress before clarifying yet again a point he made repeatedly.
“I can assure you that Zionism is not intending to do anything that would harm the religious belief of any aspect that is within Judaism.” The statement drew standing ovation and with that the Congress came to an end.
Delegate Max Bodenheimer described the scene:
“The conclusion of the Congress unleashed an explosion of enthusiasm that was contained until then... All hugged and kissed one another.”
Later that night, at the Congress’s after-party, the delegates rejoiced. Bodenheimer recounted that the festivities lasted till the early hours of the morning, with delegates dancing around Prof. Schapira, perhaps dancing to celebrate the fulfillment of what they pledged: The Jews will never forget Jerusalem.
The next morning, the delegates dispersed. Fifty years later, the State of Israel was founded; 120 years later, it continues to thrive.
“We are coming home,” Herzl declared in the Congress.
“Zionism is the return to Judaism even before it is the return to the land of the Jews.”