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Switzerland prepares to host Zionism centennial festivities

BASEL, April 6 (JTA) — This northwestern Swiss city at the border of France and Germany is busy preparing to host celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of a landmark event in the history of the creation of the Jewish state. On Aug. 29-31, 1897, the first session of the Zionist Congress was held here to set out the goals of the Zionist movement in a manifesto that later became known as the Basel Program. At that time, the 196 delegates to the congress established the World Zionist Organization to further the chief goal of the Basel Program: “The establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael.” “In Basel, I have created the Jewish State,” Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism and the first president of the WZO, wrote in his diary during that first congress. Now, with a budget of $1 million at its disposal, the canton, or state, of Basel is acting as the official host of the commemorative events scheduled for the summer. The budget was made available by the government and by private sponsors including the Swiss Bank Corporation, the Basel Cantonal Bank and several department stores, according to Dennis Rhein, the director of the Basel Tourist Office who is serving as project manager of the centennial celebrations. While some funding is coming from the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland, little of the budget came from the Jewish Agency for Israel and none from the Israeli government, Rhein added. The highlight of the celebrations will come Aug. 31, when Israeli and Jewish officials will join guests from all over the world to mark the anniversary in the same hall that the Basel Program was drafted 100 years ago. Among the Israeli attendees will be Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency, and Dan Tichon, the speaker of the Knesset. Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, is also expected to attend. Swiss officials are keenly aware that the celebrations will take place at a time when their country has come under a barrage of accusations — spearheaded by the WJC — that Switzerland laundered gold plundered by the Nazis during World War II and withheld the assets of Jews deposited in Swiss banks during the Holocaust. In January, when the controversy between Swiss and Jewish officials over the Swiss role during the war was at its most heated, Israeli President Ezer Weizman canceled his plans to attend the centennial events. “Of course, the present discussions about Switzerland’s past during the Holocaust has had some influence on the preparations” for the centennial, Rhein said. Swiss officials have been careful to keep the celebrations separate from the controversy over Switzerland’s wartime past, said Thomas Lyssy, vice president of the federation of Swiss Jewish communities. In an effort to underscore what they describe as their warm ties to the Jewish world, Swiss officials are planning a number of cultural events keyed to the anniversary, Rhein said. The University of Basel, for example, will sponsor an exhibit from June through September focusing on the changing face of European Jewry during the past century. Other planned events include symposia about the Zionist ideal, a “Rock Against Hate” concert and a program of Israeli music, Rhein said. Last week, citing security concerns, the Swiss government approved a request to mobilize several units of the Swiss army to help local police during the anniversary celebrations. It will be the first time in more than 60 years that the Swiss army will be mobilized for domestic duties. “There are some risks not only from Middle East terrorists, but also from some neo-Nazi groups,” Urs von Daeniken, the head of the Swiss federal police, said at a news conference. “Security experts concluded that important arrangements are necessary and that the local Basel authorities could not fulfill” all precautions on their own, said Adolf Ogi, the minister of defense. Basel will be the focus of international attention, Ogi added, “and we want to ensure that this event can take place with honor and respect.”