The most significant Jewish events of the past 125 years revolve around the founding of Zionism and the establishment of Israel. No doubt. No debate. No question.
The First Zionist Congress was magical.
The attention that the Israeli and Jewish media has dedicated to commemorating the 125th anniversary of this momentous event – an event that took place during the last few days of August 1897, a full 125 years ago, in Basel, Switzerland - is well deserved.
This singular gathering transformed the Jewish future. The First Zionist Congress set in motion events that changed the Jewish future. Those events have brought the Jewish world to today, to now, to this very moment.
No one, not a single one of the 200 people who attended that Congress could have envisioned the Israel of today. Not in their wildest imaginations could they have conceived of the miraculous, productive, creative, independent, Jewish state called Israel.
Theodor Herzl may have penned that famous diary entry that reads “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State” but he, too, had no idea that what he started would turn into the Israel of today.
Seventeen women were in attendance in Basel, in 1897. That first year, women were not permitted to participate in the voting process. By 1898, that slight was amended.
For Herzl, this was not just a gathering of Jews. It was an event that needed to convey the grandeur of his dream. And so, the Congress held its events in the Stadtcasino Basel concert hall. Formal dress was required. That meant top hat, tails, white gloves and even, at certain events, white ties.
OVER HALF of the delegates at the First Zionist Congress were from Eastern Europe, where this style of dress was reserved for the aristocracy. While they were certainly uncomfortable with the dress code, Herzl’s intended message was well understood and carried through. Pictures show that, indeed, attendees were all frocked out in formal attire. Some men wore their koppels (big kippahs), like surgical scrub hats.
Seeing press coverage of Jews dressed like the powerful aristocracy and the leaders of the world pleased Herzl. He felt great pride in those images. But that feeling was not shared by certain other world leaders. It was because of those images that the leadership of Czarist Russia conceived of and crafted the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the contrived conspiracy about Jewish power.
After photos of powerful-looking, aristocratic-looking, proud, self-assured Jews from seventeen countries around the world gathered in Basel gained the attention of the world, it was not a gigantic leap to fabricate a conspiracy myth that Jews were plotting to control the world. That is, of course, the theme of Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The First Zionist Congress was more than about pomp and appearances. It was about securing the future of Jews from around the globe in their own home, in their own state, in a Jewish state. Its most important achievement was the adoption of the Basel Program.
The first goal of the Basel Program was to move people to Palestine. To successfully accomplish this, the Basel Program offered, as a second goal, for Jews to live in groups, providing strength and support. Goal number three was strengthening Jewish feelings and Jewish awareness. And finally, the fourth goal of the First Zionist Congress was negotiating with governments to facilitate Zionist goals.
It was in Basel that “Hatikvah” was adopted as the official anthem of the movement. A nine-verse poem, written by Naftali Herz Imber, it describes the yearning to return to Israel, set to the tune of a work, unmistakenly borrowed from the Czech composer Smetana, still sets our Zionist hearts soaring today.
The dream of one person, Theodor Herzl, took on a life of its own.
The wave of Zionism grew. The romance of transforming the Jewish people from victims into the masters of their destiny was intoxicating. Jews were responsible for their own protection. Jews were not dependent on anyone for their daily lives. Jews were in charge of Jews. It was life-altering. But it wasn’t all milk and honey.
During the first years of Zionism and during the first years of the creation of Israel, the focus was on survival. While security will always be crucial, always a goal of the state, the focus of Israel is now on creativity and ingenuity.
Israel turns dreams into reality. Here’s to the next 125 years of Zionist dreams.
The writer is a columnist and a social and political commentator. Watch his TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS.