August 29-31, 1897, 125 years ago this week, visionary leader Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. The name “Zionism” was derived from the longing for Zion (recited in our daily prayers), one of the biblical names of Jerusalem. At the Congress the delegates adopted the “Basel Program,” which stated: “Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.” ("Palestine,” which was the name given to the area by the Romans, was used at that time as a purely geographical term, with all residents, including the Jews living there, called Palestinians. The area itself was under Ottoman rule).
The Program goes on to delineate the means to achieve this goal:
- The promotion of the settlement of Jewish agriculturists, artisans, tradesmen, and manufacturers in Palestine.
- The organization and uniting of all Jews by means of appropriate local and international institutions, in accordance with the laws of the various countries.
- The strengthening and fostering of Jewish national sentiment and national consciousness.
- Preparatory steps toward obtaining the consent of governments, where necessary, to achieve the Zionist purpose.
In 1897, and at subsequent Zionist congresses, Herzl and delegates from various countries and societies created the institutions that would form the basic structure of the future State of Israel. They also strove to gain international recognition and support for a Jewish state.
Theodor Herzl was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1860, where he was raised and educated in a secular Jewish home. In 1878, following the death of his sister, he moved with his parents to Vienna, where Herzl studied law, receiving his doctorate in 1884. Soon after, Herzl turned away from law, opting instead to pursue writing and journalism as a career. He became the Paris correspondent for the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse, and it was there that he first encountered the antisemitism, which would be the driving force behind his dream of building a Jewish State.
In 1894, Herzl wrote a play, The Ghetto, rejecting assimilation and conversion as solutions to the problem of antisemitism. That same year, the Dreyfus affair - when a French Jewish army officer was falsely accused of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment – caused dissension in French society. Herzl covered the trial for his newspaper.
In Paris, Herzl witnessed large rallies at which people shouted "Death to the Jews." This, combined with other influences, led Herzl to conclude that the Jewish people needed a homeland of their own. In June 1895, he wrote in his diary: "I recognize the emptiness and futility of trying to combat antisemitism." (Sadly, we continue to be challenged by increasing antisemitism.)
The Jewish state he envisioned in both the short book he wrote the year before Basel – The Jewish State – and a futuristic novel he wrote five years later – Altneuland (“The Old New Land”) – not only eventually came into existence…it has thrived! Herzl died in 1904, never seeing the founding of the State of Israel.
Before his death, Herzl wrote in his diary: "In Basel I established the Jewish State. If I were to say it publicly today, the response would be laughter from all directions. Perhaps in another five years, 50 years at the most, everyone will recognize it." The UN Partition resolution that mandated the creation of a Jewish state was passed 50 years later in November 1947 and six months after the State of Israel was born.
Neither Herzl nor the Basel Congress invented Zionism – Jews, since
70 CE (destruction of the Second Temple and the exile) longed to return to Zion and their ancestral homeland. What Herzl did was mobilize and organize a movement that made the realization of those hopes possible.
“…Herzl is immortal," Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion once said. "His tombstone is the State of Israel, which will be built and will grow in love with its sons and builders."
Many of us were born after 1948 and the founding of the State of Israel. Five generations before, Herzl only had a dream. Yet, Herzl wrote in the preface of his novel Altneuland, "Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen.” -- commonly translated in Hebrew as:
אם תרצו, אין זו אגדה
(im tirtzu, ein zo agada)
If you will it, it is no dream.
It is one thing to be a dreamer. It is another to have that vision become a reality.
As Israel celebrates her 75th anniversary next year, the Jewish Federation will be taking its historic trip to Israel in March 2023 (limited spots remain) and convening synagogues and Jewish organizations to hold a series of community-wide programs and events. More information to come.
On a different note, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet President (and commencement speaker at my college graduation in 1992), passed away on Monday. "Glasnost" (openness, especially in regard to the media and information) and "perestroika" (restructuring, specifically of the economy and political system) were the words of the day. Together, these reforms would make the Soviet Union more democratic and incorporate some features of capitalism to revitalize the economy. Eventually, the Soviet Union would collapse.
As part of this new thinking, Gorbachev began to allow Jews to lead a Jewish life, study Hebrew, go to synagogue, and be openly Jewish. Moreover, Gorbachev lifted restrictions preventing Soviet citizens from traveling abroad, prompting over one million Jews to emigrate. Think of the impact that has had on Israel and even our own community.
Natan Sharansky wrote this interesting Op-Ed in the Washington Post.
A few reminders: