Melvin Salberg, national president of the AZM and chairman ofthe Conference of Presidents of Major American JewishOrganizations.
More than a century ago, Theodor Herzl was a prominent Europeanjournalist who lived in Vienna and was essentially a Jewishassimilationist. He wasn’t much concerned about Jewish life oridentity. As an intellectual, he considered himself a citizen ofEurope.
Then came the assignment that would change his life, and worldJewry, forever.
Herzl traveled to Paris to cover the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, theJewish French army captain who had been framed as a traitor. “It wasa great shock for Herzl,” says Dr. Michael Ben-Levi, theadministrative vice president of the American Zionist Movement andthe chair of the Zionism Centennial Committee. “He witnessed activeanti-Semitism on the part of the French, who were supposed to be socultured, and suddenly realized assimilation was not the answer tothe Jewish question.”
The impassioned Herzl returned to Vienna and began to outline whatwould become the basis of his philosophy. He pondered the variousnationalist movements that were arising in Eastern Europe and came torealize that the fundamental “Jewish problem” was homelessness. Theonly solution, he concluded, was the creation of a Jewish state inPalestine.
Herzl put pen to paper and wrote a book, “The Jewish State,” inwhich he described a country that would be a light unto the nations,based on the prophetic concept of social justice.
The volume was an immediate sensation, and even Herzl wassurprised by how fervently it was embraced, particularly amongEastern European Jewry. The author, not only a visionary but apragmatist, soon called for the convening of the First ZionistCongress.
The gathering took place in August 1897 in Basel, Switzerland,where several hundred representatives of world Jewry founded theWorld Zionist Organization, which would become an umbrella group ofZionist organizations dedicated to the establishment of a Jewishstate. It was, in short, the founding of political Zionism and thebeginning of the modern period of Jewish history.
Today, 100 years after that crucial conference, the Los AngelesJewish community will commemorate and celebrate the landmark event.More than 50 organizations — left- and right-wing, secular andreligious — will co-sponsor the Zionism Centennial Sunday, slatedfor Sept. 21, at 2 p.m., at Temple Beth Am. It is a pluralisticgathering, with groups ranging from the Religious Zionists of Americato the Workmen’s Circle.
The fete will begin with greetings by representatives of theevent’s main sponsors: Rhoda Braverman, president of the AmericanZionist Movement of Greater Los Angeles; Yoram Ben Ze’ev, generalconsul of Israel in Los Angeles; and Herbert Gelfand, president ofthe Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.
Then Melvin Salberg, national president of the AZM and chairman ofthe Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations,will take the podium. He will talk about his recent trip to Basel,where he joined the centennial celebration in the very auditoriumthat housed Herzl’s congress, and he will address the unfinishedtasks to be completed in the second century of Zionism.
A performance of Zionist folk songs by Lisa Wanamaker and areception with Salberg and Ben Ze’ev as guests of honor will follow.