At first glance, Basel is just another quiet, Germanic city straddling the Rhine River. Crossing the border from France and driving in, there is nothing particularly eye-catching, nor are there are noticeable landmarks that catch your eye.
However, knowing that Basel was the location of the First Zionist Congress, held just over 119 years ago, there’s a hint of something special in the air.
On November 15, 2016 I traveled to Basel as a member of the Jewish Diplomatic Corps (JDC) of the World Jewish Congress (WJC). Along with approximately 170 other individuals from 37 different countries, the JDC undertakes diplomatic activities on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide. We traveled to Basel for the first ever Global Summit of the JDC, the first time the entirety of the group was brought together, in order to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the founding of the WJC and to get to know one another.
Though I’m not sure exactly how to describe the following, I suppose Basel in my mind was always more of a concept and less of an actual place. By that I mean that when I think of Basel, I think about a cause, a meeting, and a person: the foundation of a Jewish State, the first Zionist Congress, and Theodore Herzl.
As an ardent, stubborn and passionate Zionist, driving into Basel I thought about the line that Herzl wrote in his diary after the close of the First Zionist Congress:
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 greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.
Now, with that sentiment at the front of my mind, I was driving into Basel as part of a massive contingency of young Jews representing not only Israel, but the worldwide Jewish community. Certainly, 50 years after Herzl wrote the above in his diary, the dream of a Jewish homeland was realized, but now, 119 years later, a strong group of committed Jews was returning to Basel to reaffirm their commitment to Israel and worldwide Jewry.
That being said, a funny thing happened on the bus on the way into the city when the tour organizer made the following announcement: “Our security team has asked that for safety reasons, Israelis please refrain from speaking Hebrew – actually, try not to be Israeli at all.”
This comment elicited an eruption of laughter from the bus since, well, it was funny and we all knew what he meant about Israelis being Israeli tourists. However, if you were thinking about it, there was a certain element of tragedy to the warning against speaking Israeli i.e. being overtly Jewish, in a small Swiss city where the Jewish state was founded.
We drove in, likely, on those same roads that were used 119 years ago by the 200 delegates coming to attend the Zionist Congress from 17 different countries. Though likely not speaking Hebrew back then, many were speaking Yiddish, many overtly Jewish in their looks, many arriving by train, wagon or horseback. They were unafraid, unashamed, and arriving in Basel curious to see what Herzl was about to propose. This dichotomy of our arrival with theirs made me smile, because aside from the coach bus, our arrival was not all that different. However, the tragedy lay in being warned about displaying that which we were coming to Basel to celebrate.
Upon arriving, we disembarked at the Hotel Les Trois Rois (Three Kings Hotel), the famous inn on the banks of the Rhine where Herzl stayed during the First Zionist Congress. It was also at this hotel that during the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, Herzl was iconically photographed leaning on the balcony of room 117. We went up to the balcony, made the mandatory Herzl-esque poses, and stood for a group photo taken from the other side of the Rhine. The entire group, including Ambassador Ronald Lauder, the President of the WJC, occupied each and every balcony of the iconic hotel, and paid homage to the legacy of Herzl the dreamer.
Later, Ambassador Lauder addressed the group and laid out his vision for the JDC. He implored us to “Be like Theodore Herzl”, to “have a vision, work hard, and never stop defending the Jewish people.”
We heeded his call, assembled at the stunning Basel Synagogue to learn about the history of Zionism, and drafted mission statements and our vision for moving forward. We met with leaders of the Swiss Jewish community to forge stronger bonds across borders, and committed ourselves to the doing what we can in our respective countries to protect and defend the Jewish people.
After a long day of exploring, meeting and questioning, we got back on our buses, left Basel behind, and flew back to each of our home countries.
Traveling to Basel in 2016 from Canada is obviously different than traveling there from Kiev, Lvov or Paris in 1897. We are now 68 years past the goal line of what those pioneering Zionists gathered in the hopes of achieving – we have a Jewish State. However the reality that those proto-Zionists laid the foundation for 119 years ago can only survive with this generation constantly and actively renewing its commitment to the dream set forth at that first Basel Congress. It is that willful commitment to Zionism that will see a thriving Jewish State, community, and people, and as the saying goes, “If you will it, it is no dream.”