How the Zionist movement predicts Israel’s future from Basel

In his speech, Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog called for regaining control over the interpretation of the term Zionism. Michael Buholzer/Cornerstone

“We must appropriate the term Zionism again,” said Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Basel. At an event marking the 125and anniversary of the first Zionist Congress in the city of Rhine, many ideas were discussed on how to achieve this. But some don’t go hand in hand.

This content was posted on September 02, 2022 – 08:45

Anyone wishing to participate in the event must pass in front of a horde of soldiers and police from all over Switzerland. Swiss German is rare. The more than 1,000 delegates and guests, including entrepreneurs and philanthropists, come from almost every region of the world. In addition to Hebrew, English is the vehicular language. On the podium, two words return, most often in exclamatory form: “Dreamer!” (“Dreamer!”) and “Visionary!” (“Visionary!”).

These terms sometimes refer to early Zionists, but most often Theodor Herzl. The Austro-Hungarian journalist and writer convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel on August 29, 1897. He was the initiator and later founding president of the World Zionist Organization. “If you want it, it’s not a dream,” he wrote, alluding to a Jewish state that protects the Jewish population from anti-Semitic persecution and discrimination.

The dream continues

“If you want it, it’s not a dream” can also be read on posters and projections on August 29, 2022. The country, however, has been very real for a long time: the State of Israel will celebrate next year with 75and birthday. He also entered the reality and contradictions of everyday life. But Theodor Herzl’s dream did not end with the creation of a state.

A hug as part of the jubilee festivities. Michael Buholzer/Cornerstone

It was with the motto “Remembering the past and building a vision of the future” that the moderator welcomed the audience last Sunday. The two-day event sometimes resembles a TED-Talk conference, with sophisticated speeches combining personal history with big ideas.

However, even the round tables leave no room for questioning from the public. Furthermore, any contradictions are not addressed, at least in the plenary session. The celebration is unanimous. We talk about the 2000 years of exile and the extermination of six million Jews during the Holocaust. Many underline their concern at the general increase in anti-Semitic attacks and reaffirm their willingness to take firm action against them.

How does Zionism see the future?

But there are differences regarding the vision of the future. When Yaakov Hagoel, president of the World Zionist Organization, announces that within ten years most Jews and Jews around the world will live in Israel, one wonders if this is in the interests of the diaspora. Of the fifteen million Jews in the world, the majority now live outside Israel, in the United States.

Nachnam Shai, Israel’s Minister for Diaspora Affairs, places more emphasis on participation. He outlined in Basel the project according to which Israel should offer Jews and Jews from all over the world the possibility of participating in Israeli political life.

Rabbi Azman, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, explains the importance of the right to immigration to Israel.

Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Azman arrived in Basel by train, with flights to his country suspended. “For Jews who have nothing, Israel means everything,” he said. For those fleeing today, “aliya”, or the possibility for all Jews and Jews to immigrate to Israel, is of great importance.

Moshe Azman illustrates this with his own example. More than thirty years ago, he and his wife left the disintegrating Soviet Union. While waiting for the connecting flight in Vienna, his wife, pregnant to the teeth, even received a pineapple from a fan she wanted so much.

The “aliya” is older than political Zionism, but essential according to him. Zionists are convinced that political and social emancipation without a Jewish state does not guarantee security. “At 19and In the 20th century, optimistic Jewish thinkers believed that the ‘Jewish question’, anti-Semitism, discrimination would disappear with emancipation,” explains bestselling Israeli author Micah Goodman in his speech.

At the time, under the influence of Enlightenment ideals, it was thought that the persecution had been overcome. Theodor Herzl contrasted this promise of emancipation with the conviction that anti-Semitic hatred was only suppressed in Western Europe. “If emancipation is not the solution, what is the solution? Zionism succeeds where emancipation fails.” This, according to Micah Goodman, is the essence of Theodor Herzl’s first essay: The State of the Jews.

A particularly patriotic moment to close the anniversary gala.

But in the future, Israel and the Jewish diaspora should refer more to Theodor Herzl’s second influential work: Altneulândia (“Old Earth, Newfoundland”). The book could contain the next generation of Zionism. A Zionism that finds “Jewish solutions to universal problems”. Micah Goodman cites global warming and political polarization as examples, which he sees as “the social counterpart of global warming”. The applause that follows is frantic.

an egalitarian utopia

Altneulândia, published in 1902, tells the story of an ideal Jewish society in Palestine: democratic, united, with equal rights for all. Even for the Arabs. So, did Micah Goodman thematize the Middle East conflict in a coded way?

The question must remain open, but it imposes itself. As long as the occupation continues, the concept of Zionism is unlikely to become exemplary beyond the Jewish world. The Middle East conflict is absent and present in much of the conference.

The Middle East conflict, an elephant in the room

It’s the elephant in the room, like Yves Kugelmann, editor-in-chief of tachlesa German-speaking Swiss Jewish weekly, and Jewish Review, its French version. But it’s not taboo. In an interview with, Israeli lawmakers Moshe Tur-Paz, from the liberal party, and Shirly Pinto, from the right, speak openly about their perspective on the matter.

Theodor Herzl on the terrace of the hotel “Drei Könige” in 1897 in Basel, where he stayed during the first Zionist congress. Angular stone

Moshe Tur-Paz lives in a West Bank colony whose origins are certainly older than the State of Israel, but considered by the United Nations to be contrary to international law. He states: “I believe that all of Israel was promised to my ancestors. But I’m not blind.”

Moshe Tur-Paz has contact with the Arab population living in the region – sometimes with an Israeli passport, sometimes not. Some are his friends, he says. “Like most people in Israel, I long for a solution that is somewhere between autonomy rights and a full-fledged country,” the Knesset member added.

For her part, Shirly Pinto stresses that it is essential to “develop the Palestinian economy and improve the living conditions of the Palestinian people”. As far as Israeli Arabs are concerned, the state must ensure “that they have everything that others have.”

Shirly Pinto is the first deaf member of the Israeli Knesset.

The Israeli legislative elections will take place in two months. Shirly Pinto and Moshe Tur-Paz highlight the importance of the current presence, for the first time, of an Arab-Islamic party in the ruling coalition. Israel is a Jewish state, but this goes hand in hand with equal rights for all citizens.

The dream of a nation

Asked about their understanding of Zionism, Shirly Pinto and Moshe Tur-Paz also allude to the terms “Visionary” and “Dreamer”. “Zionism is the story of the Israeli nation that dreams of returning to Zion and making the best use of it after 2,000 years of exile.

Since the creation of the state, this has meant that Jews from all over the world can orient themselves towards Israel,” explains Moshe Tur-Paz. Shirly Pinto notes that in Israel any contribution to coexistence is a contribution to Zionism: “Whether it’s educational work or service in the army, it’s all part of Herzl’s vision.”

It is the speech of former Mossad director Yossi Cohen that arouses the most enthusiasm. According to him, the Israeli secret service is a component of established Zionism in Israel. He describes how the Mossad helped stop the making of an Iranian atomic bomb.

Guy Parmelin applauded

Later, the closing gala is accompanied by a light, smoke and pop music show. The interpretation of Theodor Herzl’s work then takes on sometimes absurd forms. For example, he is compared to the director of a start-up that helped Israel achieve success through crowdfunding. Swiss gala speakers, Basel Prime Minister Beat Jans and Federal Councilor Guy Parmelin, address the conflict in the Middle East.

Guy Parmelin is applauded when he speaks out in favor of the two-state solution. Of course, Israeli President Isaac Herzog is also referring to Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism who turned “Jewish identity into an effective political doctrine.” A year ago, a “leading social media platform” discussed whether the word “Zionism” should be treated as an insult.

It is misused as anti-Semitic code. During the gala evening, Isaac Herzog therefore made the following request: “We must re-appropriate the term Zionism”. Take back the power of interpretation and translate it positively.

Throughout the jubilee, it feels like a great profession of faith to understand Zionism in an idealistic, even utopian way. But the question of how the ideal society ofAltneulândia by Theodor Herzl can be translated into realpolitik remains open. Unlike the dreamer Theodor Herzl, today’s Zionists are not faced with a blank slate.

Translated from German by Zélie Schaller

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