This week in Basel, Switzerland, Israel is commemorating the 125th anniversary of the 1st Zionist Congress. At the conclusion of that congress, Theodor Herzl, who organized the conference and was the driving force behind the Zionist movement in its early years, wrote in his diary: “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word … it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State.” The purpose of this week’s event is to both celebrate that seminal conference, and just as importantly, to discuss contemporary Zionism, its vision, or lack thereof, and its challenges and pitfalls going forward.
Indeed, the Jewish state is well founded. Israel is a strong and solid country, and it seems like even humanity has largely come to accept the existence of a Jewish state. Now I hope that we are correcting the world and that we will not vanish but keep on moving forward.
However, in order to advance, the State of Israel must go beyond securing its survival. It must come to a state where it agrees with our sages, who said that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is our all-encompassing law, and that this should be the basis for the existence of all the nations.
Despite Herzl’s initial assimilationist approach, by the time he conceived the idea of establishing a Jewish state, it seems like he had completely abandoned the idea of amalgamation among the nations. In fact, he concludes his book, The Jewish State, with words that imply that he even embraced our sages’ legacy that the Jews must serve as a model nation. In his words, “The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity.”
There will certainly be challenges ahead. Our argumentative and opinionated character will pit us against each other, but we will learn how to funnel it toward constructive routes. It will take time, but we will learn how to forge unions while embracing contradictions of opinions and without suppressing ideological minorities. We will learn it not because we want to, but because this is our duty to the world, the wisdom we must project to all of humanity, and the only modus operandi that will create true and lasting world peace, once it is implemented.
Herzl’s words were correct. To the extent that we are close to one another within the people of Israel, we will bring the nations of the world closer to each other. The reason there are war and conflicts in the world today is that there are war and conflicts among us, Jews, and particularly the Jews in Israel. These are not my words; these are the words of our sages throughout the generations, and the words of many thinkers who were considered antisemitic for saying these very words.
Herzl, in that sense, was a special human being. He was a channel through which the awareness that Jews must have their own state came to the world. At the end of his book, as we saw, he also connected our return to the physical land to our spiritual calling, our duty to be a model of unity and solidarity, but this we have yet to accomplish. We must explain this first to ourselves, then begin to implement it among us, and then explain this process to the world. If we are sincere, the world will endorse our efforts with all its might. If we remain divided and derisive toward each other, the world will scathe us and deny us the country.
There are voices that say that we have lost our way and we need another Herzl. I do not think we need another Herzl; I think we need many people vocally supporting the right kind of Zionism, the Zionism of connection among Jews as an example for the world. We need many people to understand the process, embrace it, and act on it, for our sake, and for the sake of humankind.
*Read these books for more information on the obligation of the Jewish people to be a model nation: The Jewish Choice: Unity or Anti-Semitism, Historical facts on anti-Semitism as a reflection of Jewish social discord, and Like a Bundle of Reeds: Why unity and mutual guarantee are today’s call of the hour.