Theodor Herzl

The Basel Congress’ unexpected result, 120 years later

One hundred and twenty years ago, on Sept. 3, 1897, a Viennese journalist named Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary: “In Basel I founded the Jewish state.” He then added a curious note: “If I were to say this out loud today, everybody would laugh at me. In five years, perhaps, but certainly in fifty, everybody will agree.”

This was two days after he returned from Basel, Switzerland, where, against all odds, he managed to put together the First Zionist Congress — the event that symbolizes the Jewish claim to self-determination.

Herzl had good reasons to feel elated about Basel: 208 delegates from 17 countries, the elite of European press, all dressed in solemn tuxedos, packed Basel’s casino to discuss his proposed solution to the “Jewish Problem.”

For three days, delegates listened to fiery speeches, debated and finally came up with as clear a definition of Zionism as one can possibly articulate: “Zionism seeks to establish for the Jewish people a publically recognized, legally secured homeland in Palestine.”

Sure enough, upon returning to his office at the Neue Freie Presse newspaper in Vienna, Herzl’s co-workers greeted him with obvious mockery, as the “future head of state.” But that was the least of the problems Herzl had to face; skepticism, sarcasm and opposition loomed all over the world. The Vatican issued a letter protesting the “projected occupation of the Holy Places by the Jews.” (Sound familiar?)

The Ottoman authorities had their suspicions aroused and began to restrict the manner in which Jews were acquiring land in Palestine, especially near Jerusalem.

But the worst opposition came from fellow Jews. Orthodox rabbis condemned Herzl’s attempt to hasten God’s plan of redemption, while Reform rabbis saw it as interference with their vision of becoming a moral light unto the nations by mingling among those nations.

Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the French philanthropist who supported Jewish agricultural communities in Palestine since the 1880s, was adamantly against efforts to obtain international legitimization of Jewish national claims. He feared (justifiably) that such efforts would lead to tougher Ottoman restrictions, and that Jews like him would be subject to charges of dual loyalty.

Ahad Ha’am, the most influential Jewish intellectual of the time, wrote about his time in Basel that he felt  “like a mourner at a wedding feast.” His motto was, “Israel will not be redeemed by diplomats, but by prophets.” He could not forgive Herzl for luring the world jury with false hopes of a diplomatic solution.

But the cleavage between Herzl and Ahad Ha’am was much deeper. Ahad Ha’am claimed it is futile and possibly harmful to argue the Jewish case in diplomatic courts when the Jewish people are spiritually unprepared for the task. What must be done first, he wrote, is “to liberate our people from its inner slavery, from the meekness of the spirit that assimilation has brought upon us.”

Herzl, on the other hand, understood that the very act of bringing the Jewish question to the international arena, regardless of its outcome, would change the cultural ills of the Jewish masses and rally them to the cause.

In retrospect, he was right. There were several forerunners of Jewish self-determination (for example, Moses Hess, Yehuda Alkalai, Leon Pinsker, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Ahad Ha’am himself), but their writings were directed inward,  toward the intellectual cliques in the Jewish shtetl; their overall impact was therefore meager.

Bringing the Jewish claim to an international court created the cultural transformation that Ahad Ha’am yearned for — the shtetl Jew began to take his own problem seriously and the Zionist program became one of his viable options.

History books make a special point of noting that Herzl’s predictions were miraculously accurate. Israel was declared a state on May 14, 1948, 50 years and eight months after Herzl wrote: “In Basel I founded the Jewish state.”

However, I believe Herzl in effect founded the Jewish state much earlier. True, Herzl’s specific plan to persuade the Ottoman sultan to allocate land for a Jewish state was sheer lunacy and led to painful disappointments. But transforming Jewish statehood into an item on the international political agenda was a monumental achievement — it maintains this position today.

Moreover, the idea that Jews are reclaiming sovereignty by right, not for favor, completely changed the way Jews began to view their standing in the cosmos. It transformed the Jew from an object of history to a shaper of history.

This new self-image was the engine that propelled history toward a Jewish statehood already in the early 1900s. The 40,000 Jews who made up the Second Aliyah (1904-1914) were different in spirit and determination from the 35,000 Jews who came earlier with the First Aliyah (1882-1903). At their core, they knew they were building a model sovereign nation and that Zionism is the most just and noble endeavor in human history. They established kibbutzim, formed self-defense organizations, founded the town of Tel Aviv and turned Hebrew into a practical spoken language. This spirit of hope, purpose and immediacy emanated from the Basel Congress, not from the utopian “in time to come” Zionism of Ahad Ha’am.

The diplomatic efforts that led to the Balfour Declaration and the subsequent ideological immigration of the Third Aliyah (1919-1923) all were direct products of the Zionist movement and made statehood practically inevitable.

The miracle of Israel was planted indeed in 1897.

If I had to choose the single most significant impact that the Basel Congress has had on our lives here, in 2017 Los Angeles, I would name one forgotten statement that Herzl made in his first speech at the Basel Congress. On the morning of Aug. 29, 1897, after 15 minutes of wild cheering, Herzl took the stage and said, “Zionism is a homecoming to the Jewish fold even before it becomes a homecoming to the Jewish land.”

As I observe how the miracle of Israel is becoming the most powerful uniting force among our divided communities, and as I witness the excitement of our children, grandchildren and college students as they internalize the relevance of Israel to their identity as Jews, Herzl’s statement about “homecoming to the Jewish fold“ stands out perhaps as more visionary than his prediction about Israeli statehood. It was the future of the Jewish people, not just of Israel, that was forged there in Basel, 120 years ago.

JUDEA PEARL is Chancellor’s Professor of Computer Science and Statistics at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

A Jewish state grows in Basel

Basel, Switzerland, could be thought of as the cradle of modern Zionism. It was here that the First Zionist Congress was held in 1897, and the city remains a pilgrimage site for many American and Israeli Jews.

One of the most powerful and attractive locations that still draws visitors is Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois (” target=”_blank”>, an ambitious smartphone and tablet app launched in 2014 for Jewish travelers to Basel. It offers a multimedia walking tour that covers the 800-year history of Jews in the city. 

Although Jews living in Switzerland today coexist relatively peacefully with Christians, it is important to remember that Basel, like other European cities from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, was a place where Jews were subject to second-class-citizen status, vocational restrictions, persecution and pogroms. In 1349, for example, 600 Jews were burned at the stake and the surviving 140 children forcibly baptized.

According to various sources — including my Basel Tourism guide Armgard Sasse, a registered city tour guide well versed in Jewish history and with close ties to the Jewish community — Jews were required to live outside Basel’s city walls and restricted to the money-lending trade. Until recently, one gate leading into the present-day central business district featured a plaque dating to the early 18th century listing entry tolls and warning Jews to be out of the city when a loud curfew bell was rung.  

Relief came to Swiss Jews starting with the Great Council of Helvetia (1798-1799), where some of Switzerland’s most liberal citizens advocated civic equality for the Jews and attacked the ancient prejudices of intolerance. Ambassadors of France, England and the United States insisted that the right of settlement should be granted to all citizens of their respective countries, without distinction of creed. After years of conferences and debates, all restrictions concerning the right of Jews to establish residence were finally abolished in 1866. Eight years later, the nation’s new constitution declared full emancipation.

During World War II, Swiss Jews were protected by the nation’s neutrality, yet a number of government initiatives prevented the entry of Jewish refugees. Its banks also have been accused of working closely with Nazis and of holding assets of Holocaust victims. Under pressure from the international community, Switzerland was forced to confront its behavior during the Holocaust, and one result has been restitution for aging survivors.

Out of all the darkness, there’s light as well in this city. One can visit the Stadt Casino, which still retains its Belle Epoque aesthetic, with light fixtures and artwork still cleaned and maintained by hand. You can also stroll through Israel Park, a grove of 40 trees presented to the city by Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog.

Basel also is the site of Switzerland’s only Jewish Museum (Basel’s neo-Byzantine Great Synagogue was built in 1868 and enlarged in 1892. Its basement houses a kosher fine-dining restaurant. 

Sasse, my guide, is close friends with Joel Weill, the Basel Jewish community’s head of administration, and the three of us had lunch at Topas (” target=”_blank”> features several of Marc Chagall’s revered studies of rabbis as well as a moving portrait of his wife, Bella, and an idiosyncratic self-portrait. Just outside the city, the Fondation Beyeler (” target=”_blank”>, located in the middle of Basel, and walking distance from the train stations and trolleys to the city’s central shopping areas and attractions, makes a great tour base for Jewish families, especially with its excellent kosher-food program on request. 

Jewish travelers to the city will find more helpful information from SIG/FSCI, Switzerland’s Jewish Federation (

Basel opens first new Orthodox synagogue in 83 years

Basel, a city with a Jewish population of some 2,000, saw the opening of its fifth synagogue.

Monday’s opening was the first dedication of an Orthodox synagogue in the city of Zionist fame since 1929.

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski, a Chabad emissary who settled in Basel 10 years ago, will run the synagogue, which is near the Chabad House. It is part of the Feldinger Chabad Jewish Center, named for a Jewish family that hosted Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

The dedication was “a very exciting day for the community,” Wishedski said.

Joel Weill, the Basel Jewish community’s head of administration, worried that the new synagogue could be divisive.

“We value Rabbi Wishedski’s work on education, but we’re not so happy about the synagogue,” Weill said. “We fear it will further divide the community. We have 1,000 people who go to synagogues. This isn’t New York.”

Weill added that the community was “diminishing” in size.

Basel hosted the inaugural congress of the World Zionist Organization in 1897, chaired by Theodor Herzl. “At Basel I founded the Jewish State,” Herzl wrote in his diary.