As a devoted Zionist, I was honored to represent Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, at the events held August 28 to 30 in Basel, Switzerland, celebrating the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress.
I came to Zionism at age 15 when I attended a meeting of Junior Hadassah. My family was secular and my father, who was Russian, just wanted to be an American. I learned many things by attending Zionism meetings and my love for Israel and Zionism grew.
Although my parents laughed at me and said I had become a zealot, I studied and learned more about this phenomenal movement called Zionism, founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897. To be a part of the extraordinary events in Basel was awe-inspiring and to represent Hadassah, the organization that has taught me the meaning and importance of Zionism, was an immense honor.
With me in Basel were Rhoda Smolow, Hadassah’s 27th National President; Ellen Hershkin, the 26th National President; Naomi Adler, CEO; Barbara Goldstein, Deputy Director, Hadassah Offices in Israel; and Esther Serok, from Hadassah Israel.
Attendance was estimated to be somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people of all ages from all over the world. Even a baby in a carriage attended. Yaakov Hogoel, the current Chairman of the Executive of the World Zionist Organization, opened the conference
In many ways Israel has exceeded the dreams of Herzl, who died at 44 in 1904. What would he think of the modern society of Israel, the hi-tech advances, etc. But there are still more complex issues to deal with such as immigration and absorbing new immigrants, security for Israel, reducing income gaps among Israelis and in connecting people.
There were speakers, panels, discussions, videos, and time to network with fellow Zionists. Excitement and good spirits filled the air. Some speakers made us jump to our feet with applause. Others had us overwhelmed with emotion.
There was not a dry eye when Miriam Peretz spoke. She lost two sons during their army service. She became an educator on Zionism and living with loss. She turned her life of sorrow into a life of giving to others and fostering the work of Zionism. She was awarded the Israel Prize.
Two very moving and impressive speakers were Sheik Mowafaq Tarif, head of the Druze community in Israel and Sheik Ahmad el Mansuri from Abu Dhabi. Both expressed their support for Israel, to thunderous applause. Doron Almog, newly elected Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency, spoke about the need for diversity in Israel. Emphasizing that Israel is the homeland for every Jew, Almog said his goal is establish a bond between the Diaspora and Israel. He suggested that every Israeli build a bond with a Diaspora family. He believes this bond would ensure the endurance of the Jewish people.
Conference participants could enter two tracks: Leadership or Technology and Entrepreneurship. Both had excellent speakers and programs. In the Technology and Entrepreneurship track, Israeli Canadian businessman and philanthropist Sylvan Adams spoke about bringing athletic events to Israel and letting the world get to know the country in a very different manner. It was a unique way of thinking about promoting the many positive aspects of Israel.
In the Leadership track, there was much discussion about Zionism and the state of the world today, such as the rise of antisemitism, especially in Europe, which the Jewish community there is actively combating . Speakers emphasized that Zionism is alive and well and will continue to thrive and combat antisemitism.
Although there are those today who speak against Zionism and say they cannot support it, a comparison could be made with Herzl’s time. Many derided his vision. Many thought he was only a dreamer. Many Jewish leaders wanted to emphasize the need for Jews in to assimilate into their countries. They did not believe Jews needed a homeland. However, Herzl pursued his dream and became the father of the Zionist Movement. As he said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
The gala was held at the venue of the First Zionist Congress. Originally, Herzl was not happy with the very first venue offered to him and wanted the gala moved to a more opulent setting. He insisted that everyone be dressed formally and even sent his assistant home because he did not wear a tuxedo.
Today, it is the Stadtcasino. Opulent is the word for it. It was quite impressive. Security had been very tight but this evening, when President Isaac Herzog joined us, it was very secure. He spoke about the legacy of Herzl and the bright future of the Zionist Movement.
Several children of the original delegates to the Congress joined us and spoke very touchingly about their ancestors. The evening was rounded off by a moving video and a Herzl impersonator. Attendees left on an emotional high. It was a true reminder of the importance work of the very First Zionist Congress.
The next day, there was a short meeting of the Va’ad po’el, (the governing body of the World Zionist Organization ). We then went to visit the beautiful Basel Synagogue. Herzl had received an aliyah there the night before the opening of the Congress. He said he was more nervous about that than the rest of the event!
A major event for our group was held at the luxurious Les Trois Rois Hotel (Three Kings Hotel), where Herzl stayed, and which was the setting for the famous photo of him leaning on the balcony. We were led to the same balcony and one by one, had a photo taken in the same spot . It is a photo that I will always treasure.
Although Herzl did not live to see the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, his legacy was the formation of the Zionist Movement and the establishment of a national homeland for the Jewish people. It is truly an accomplishment to be celebrated.