125th Anniversary of WZC Basel Conference

I arrived in Basel, Switzerland alongside Jews from Israel and around the world who gathered to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s first Zionist Congress. In August 1897, about 200 Jews from 17 countries had gathered to adopt the Basel programme (later replaced by the Jerusalem Programme), stating that “Zionism seeks to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognised, legally assured homeland in Palestine”. 125 year later, seven times that original number of Jews from many more countries returned to the very spot, including a new generation of those born or living in a sovereign Jewish State restored as a result of that initial declaration. The conference of 2022 was thus a reinforcement of the importance of Zionism that Herzl had re-awakened in the Jewish spirit after millennia of exile, dispossession and statelessness.

“Many of us were born into the reality of the State of Israel existing as a sovereign, powerful, Jewish and value-based entity. But just five generations before, it was a distant dream,” said Yaacov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization who hosted the conference.

The purpose of the two-day conference was not to debate or discuss policies or ideologies that exist within the wide spectrum of Zionism, but to celebrate the fact that we have this spectrum in the first place alongside a Jewish State to give it life and meaning. The conference, which took place at Basel’s Congress Center in the centre of town, contained a remarkable set of speeches, panel discussions, meetings, networking opportunities, a dinner featuring legendary Israeli mentalist Lior Suchard and a gala event.

The President of Israel, Isaac Herzog, was in attendance alongside Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai, former director of the Mossad Yossi Cohen, Jewish Agency chairman Doron Almog, Moshe Yaalon, former Minister of Defense, Miriam Adelson, wife of the late Sheldon, Baroness Ariane de Rothschild (who lived for a time in South Africa), philanthropist Sylvan Adams, Miriam Peretz, Israel prize winner, and numerous others who spoke including Micah Goodman, a brilliant philosopher of modern Zionism, Shais Rishon, an African-American Orthodox rabbi and activist, David Wolpe, Rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, Ruchie Freier, the first Hasidic woman serving as a civil court judge in New York, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Brooke Goldstein, director of the Lawfare Project, Sivan Yaari, founder of Innovation Africa, and many others.

President Herzog wrote in an op-ed published in Switzerland for the occasion that Herzl “left us unfinished business” and highlighted that “one item is still a work in process: the strengthening of Jewish feeling and consciousness” and that we ought to “reinvigorate our sense of shared Jewish identity and destiny.” Herzog said, “we, Israeli and Diaspora Jews, can only do this together.” He elaborated that this is the “primary task of our generation. It is also a core mission of my presidency: to strengthen our collective Jewish sense of togetherness. To reaffirm that we all belong to the same family”. He stated that “the Jewish People are one big family, and being family means regularly checking in with each other”. At the conference, Minister Nachman Shai said in a speech that today, “The State of Israel is thriving and leading in many fields — and it is now time to ask what Israel can do to secure the destiny of the Jewish people and Jewish resilience around the world”. He reinterpreted a quote from Kennedy in saying “Ask not what the Diaspora can do for Israel – ask what Israel can do for the Diaspora.” This is an important message for us Jews in South Africa, alongside other Diaspora Jewish communities around the world, who plan to work ever more closely with Israel to strengthen the relationship and partnership between each other for the benefit of the Jewish People.

The event culminated in a spectacular gala celebration at the Stadtcasino Basel, which was the concert hall venue where the very first congress took place (taking place on the very day, 125 years later). A plaque inside the venue commemorates this startling fact. Herzl’s presence was palpable throughout the gala, and we were entertained and immersed in a multimedia spectacle produced by Israeli technology in a full-circle moment of history that recreated scenes from the first congress, alongside Herzl’s dream and the manyfold successes of Israel over the decades. I highly recommend watching the video stream of the event available on the SAZF’s website.

The day after the conference, after a night of revelling, we stood individually on Herzl’s balcony overlooking the Rhine at the Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, and dreamily looked towards the future. We now stride forward as Jews and Zionists with pride, optimism and hope towards the next 125 years of Israel and Zionism. Here’s to the next celebration of our eternal People and their enduring Jewish State. Chag Sameach.

Rowan Polovin
National Chairman
South African Zionist Federation