World Zionist Organization convenes hundreds in Basel to mark 125th anniversary of First Zionist Congress


(JTA) — Hundreds of Jews from around the world have traveled to Basel, Switzerland, to mark the 125th anniversary of a historic gathering of Zionists there.

The event was organized by the World Zionist Organization, a group inaugurated during the First Zionist Congress that Theodor Herzl, considered the father of modern Zionism, convened in Basel in 1897. At the 1897 congress, 200 participants from 17 countries voted to adopt as an explicit goal the creation of “a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine” for Jews.

“At Basel, I founded the Jewish state,” Herzl famously wrote in his diary at the time, noting that while not everyone recognized the import of the congress then, they would in 50 years — precisely predicting the moment when Israel would become an independent nation.

The 125th anniversary event, which began Sunday, is not meant to set or debate specific policies. Instead, it aims to celebrate the degree to which Herzl’s vision has transformed into a thriving reality in modern-day Israel.

“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, in a statement.

The two-day conference consists of a series of speeches and panel discussions about both the successes of Israel and the challenges facing it and the Diaspora. Among the many Jewish leaders from Israel, the United States and Europe on the agenda are Micah Goodman, a philosopher of modern Zionism; Shuly Rubin Schwartz, the chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary; Shais Rishon, a Black Orthodox rabbi and commentator; Ruchie Freier, the first Hasidic woman to serve as a civil court judge in New York; Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

Israeli president Isaac Herzog, a former leader of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which connects Jews in Israel and abroad, attended, did Israeli minister of Diaspora affairs Nachman Shai, who called in a speech for a rethinking of the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

A companion convening of entrepreneurs from both the business and nonprofit sectors is focused on Israel’s contributions in business and technology.

Critics of Israel held a protest near the gathering Sunday. A video posted to social media by the Geneva chapter of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction Movement, known as BDS, shows a crowd marching behind a banner that says “Free Palestine. No Zionist Congress.” The Swiss government, including the local government in Basel, the country’s third-largest city and home to only a small Jewish community, reportedly paid to enhance security during the World Zionist Organization event.

Organizers said they also planned to recreate a famous photograph of Herzl taken in Basel in 1897. The picture, in which Herzl gazes over a hotel balcony, gives a sense of the bearded Jewish leader peering intently toward an uncertain territory and is an iconic image of Zionist history.

The gathering comes as Herzl, who died at 44 in 1904 and was reburied in Israel shortly after its founding, enjoys a wave of attention. A creator of the hit Israeli TV show “Shtisel” is reportedly developing a miniseries based on his life.

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