Musings and thoughts from the 125th anniversary of the World Zionist Organisation and Congress recently held in Basel, Switzerland
By Rolene Marks
It doesn’t matter where I am in the world or what I am doing, if I hear the opening strains of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, my heart swells and my eyes tear up. The feeling of pervasive pride is visceral. It is not just that I am a proud Israel, it is the knowledge that the words have sustained Jews in our darkest times – and also our greatest triumphs. Whether it be the scenes of Jews singing in Bergen-Belsen after liberation or Linoy Ashram standing proudly on the podium as she receives Olympic gold, I get the feels.
So you can imagine what I felt last week in Basel, Switzerland as I joined my WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organisation) delegation and over a thousand others as we stood in the Stadtcasino, 125 years after the first Zionist Congress and sang the anthem of the country that had been but a dream a century and a quarter before.
Over a hundred years ago, when a young journalist called Theodore Herzl, recognising the growing threat of antisemitism and motivated by the sham trial of French Jew, Alfred Dreyfus, wrote an article and then two books called The Jewish State and Altneuland, where he presented his vision of what that would be. Herzl recognised that this state could only manifest in the ancestral and historical homeland of the Jewish people – Eretz Yisrael, then called Palestine. The Romans, seeking to wipe out any reference to Jewish history and culture had named it thus.
“The Jews who will it shall achieve their State. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die. The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind,” Herzl said.
Herzl also famously said, “If you will it, it is no dream”. And so they gathered in Basel, laying the foundations of willing a Jewish state. From these seeds would spring forth the World Zionist Organisation, the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Just a couple of years later, the Women’s International Zionist Organisation would be founded. All of these organisations, would help prepare the land and the ingathering of the exiles for what would be the fulfillment of the Zionist dream – a Jewish state.
“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 fifty, everyone will know it,” mused Theodor Herzl.
Herzl, like Moses millennia before him, would lead his people to the Promised Land – but never enter it himself. Herzl died on the 3 July 1904, in Edlach, a village inside Reichenau an der Rax, Lower Austria, having been diagnosed with a heart issue earlier in the year, of cardiac sclerosis. A day before his death, he told the Reverend William H. Hechler: “Greet Palestine for me. I gave my heart’s blood for my people.” He certainly did.
Herzl’s vision would come to life with the birth of the modern state of Israel in our ancient, ancestral homeland. The Jewish people had come home.
In Basel some 125 years later we would gather to celebrate this vision and pay homage to the man who inspired hope in so many. And gather we did from the four corners of the world, 1 400 Zionists, representing different communities and ages and holding many different opinions. We were all there – the organisations, the social media personalities, familiar faces, those whose opinions veered to the right, those firmly in the centre and those to the left. In the city that birthed the modern Zionist movement, we debated, argued, agreed and discussed.
A stand out moment for me was the honouring of Druze Sheikh, Mowafaq Tarif and the presence of Emirati Sheikh Ahmed Ubeid Al Mansur.
Yaakov Hagoel, the chairperson of the World Zionist Organization, said of Al Mansur, “Herzl never dreamed that the day would come that a brave Arab leader would participate in a Zionist Conference together with thousands of Jews from all over the world whose goal is to strengthen and develop the independent and sovereign state of Israel.”
This gathering in Basel was not just a prime opportunity to pay tribute to Herzl or to discuss the challenges facing the Jewish world like rising antisemitism, the Iranian threat or how we will contribute to the fight against climate change; but also allowed us a moment to stop and take stock and marvel at the miracle that is the embodiment of our dream – the state of Israel.
In the presence of our President, Isaac Herzog, whose own family story is a reflection of Jewish history and First lady, Michal, we took a moment to look back – and forward to the future – of what Israel has achieved in a matter of a few decades. When Herzl envisioned a state that would see “the world be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness and whatever we attempt there for our own benefit would redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind”, I don’t think even his wildest imagination could see what we have achieved.
In that hallowed halls, in the presence of the President and in the company of those who from generation to generation take up that promise to keep building, singing Hatikvah has never sounded so sweet.
Standing on the balcony of “Les Trois Rois”, where the iconic visionary once stood I contemplated what he must be thinking as he watched on from high in the heavens.
How proud he must be. His will is no longer a dream. It is a reality. And it is ours.