(Deborah in front of a mural of Theodor Herzl, founder of the World Zionist Organization in 1897)
When I first heard a few years ago that the World Zionist Organization was planning to hold an event in Switzerland to mark the 125th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress I really didn’t think it would ever actually happen, nor that I would actually participate in the event. The five days I spent in Basel last week felt a little dreamlike, but how to make sense of the visit and its significance now I am back in the ‘real world’ of Israel?
World Emunah is a proud and long-standing permanent member of the World Zionist Organization and as such, representatives of World Emunah sit as part of the WZO Executive committee (Vaad Hapoel), and our President Dina Hahn is a highly respected and hard-working member of the management board (the Hanhala). Because of this we were invited to take part in this special anniversary conference and 6 World Emunah participants from Israel joined the 1400 people who converged in Basel, 125 years to the very day after the first Zionist congress had gathered there. The first Zionist congress was convened by Theodore Herzl and was a pivotal milestone in the development of the modern Zionist movement that ultimately would lead to the creation of the State of Israel, based on the right of the Jewish people to self determination in their historical homeland. Herzl was a visionary, a dreamer, a writer, and a charismatic leader. Today perhaps we would call him an influencer. Certainly, he was the star of the 125th Anniversary conference, with his face everywhere and his words echoing in our ears as we discussed his vision for the Jewish homeland, the reality of the state that now exists and the future challenges and opportunities that await us. I wonder if he could have imagined the success that Israel has achieved in the last 74 years, or the threats our small country and the Jewish people everywhere still face today.
The conference in Basel included a meeting of the Vaad Hapoel with President Isaac Herzog in attendance, as well as two days of speakers with simultaneous tracks, one for young innovators and entrepreneurs focusing on impact and the other for more ‘traditional’ Jewish leaders from Israel and around the world. It was an inspired decision of Yaakov Hagoel, The Chairman of the WZO and the conference organizers to invite 150 young people from Israel who are each at the forefront of new technologies and innovation within the business and non-profit sectors and who brought with them an energy and creativity that was inspiring and invigorating. The more traditional track for Zionist leaders was also inspiring with high caliber speakers such as the architect Daniel Liebskind and the ex-head of the Mossad Yossi Cohen, ensuring our minds were challenged to think conceptually and strategically about Jewish memory and responses to modern day antisemitism as well as the existential threats to Israel and our response to them, amongst many other fascinating and important subjects. The fact that every participant could attend any session meant that old time ‘professional’ Zionists and young entrepreneurs could mix and network and learn from each other. I am sure many came away as I did, enriched by the experience of both tracks.
Due to the conference starting on Sunday, some of us arrived in Basel on the Friday and were privileged to be able to experience Shabbat at Basel’s heavily guarded Great Synagogue. The warm welcome from the community, the extraordinary choral service as well as the knowledge that Theodor Herzl himself received an Aliyah to the Torah in this shul, on the same Shabbat Re’eh, which was also Rosh Chodesh Elul exactly 125 years before, made this a Shabbat I will never forget. The security throughout the whole time we were in Basel, including many blocked roads and a heavy presence of police and army on the streets, provided by the Swiss government at great cost, was necessary because of demonstrations against the Zionist congress by the BDS movement in Switzerland and other anti-zionists. They made a lot of noise but in no way disturbed the conference. The irony was that while they were busy protesting, inside the conference hall, H.E. Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori of the United Arab Emirates, founder of the first Holocaust memorial gallery in the Arab world, was a key speaker. Thanks to the Abraham Accords there is a new dynamic in relations in the Middle East, which I think gives us great cause for optimism. We thanked the police and Swiss army personnel who ensured our safety every time we passed them. I wonder what they made of it all.
Back in 1897 when the first congress took place in Basel, there were two hundred delegates from 20 countries and only 17 of them were women. Reports from the day point out that a few were there in their own right, but most were accompanying their husbands. In 1897 at the first Congress women did not have the right to vote, something that was changed for the second congress in 1898. This was, of course, a long time before women were given the right to vote in many countries and is a sign of the progressive approach that the early Zionist leaders took to women’s participation. Today Emunah sits together with the women’s organizations Naamat, WIZO, Hadassah and Amit and many other women who are involved with the leadership of the World Zionist Organization and its work in Israel and around the world. The role of women in the Zionist movement and the part they played in the foundation and continued development of the state, was celebrated in the Gala event at the end of the conference in the Stadtcasino Hall, the place where the first congress was held. Rebbetzin Sarah Herzog z’l, the founder of World Emunah was one of the great women highlighted and we felt enormous pride at her inclusion. Her grandson, President Isaac Herzog speaking at the conclusion of the conference emphasized the need for togetherness. Zionism has always been a movement that championed shared responsibility and today more than ever, he told us we need to work together to believe in Zionism and to be proud of it, to keep our country and our people safe and all the time to foster a respectful, enriching, and responsible dialogue between all parts of the Jewish people wherever they are in the world. It was a stirring speech and one that challenges us all to action, together.
Zionism is a concept for us to embrace today, to ensure it is as relevant to future generations as the new technologies and innovations that are now being developed in our tiny country will be. We were asked to think about Herzl and his vision as being like a startup company, with all the stages that any startup would go through from the initial idea to reaching the market. The past 125 years have been extraordinary, but there is so much more to be done. During the conference I met an impressive young Israeli woman who runs a food tech startup company developing alternative sources of protein. She told me that in her opinion, Israel is great at developing startups, but not so good at scaling up. This is the next challenge for us all. Scaling up our Zionism for the next 125 years so that Israel can thrive rather than just survive.
Before we left Basel we had a chance to stand on the famous balcony and to look out over the river Rhine, just as Herzl did all those years ago. What was he thinking then? What would he think if he could see Israel today?
What did I think about as I looked out? I reflected on Herzl the man, his many achievements and how tragic it was that he was only 44 when he died, just 7 years after the first Zionist congress. I thought about how privileged I am to be able to call myself an Israeli and to have made my home in this incredible, complex, and often challenging country, and how fortunate I was to have been given the opportunity to experience this whole event on behalf of Emunah.
Returning to Israel inspired by the conference I am surer than ever that Emunah and our affiliate members around the world will play a part in the future of Zionism and the wellbeing of the Jewish people, now and in the future. Am Yisrael Chai – if you will it, it is no dream.