I am writing to you from Basel, Switzerland, where today I had the privilege of addressing a delegation of Jewish leaders representing 38 countries around the world. It is a momentous occasion and a great honor to be here.
125 years ago today, on August 19, 1897, a privileged, assimilated, secular Jewish academic from Vienna acted on his premonition that a great tragedy would befall the Jews of Europe. Theodor Herzl awoke to the undeniable reality that Jews would never be safe in the world without a Jewish state, and wrote to Jewish leaders in various countries asking them to join him in Basel, Switzerland, for what became known as the First Zionist Congress. This convening was, as far as we know, the first time since the Romans had violently exiled most Jews 2,000 years prior, that Jewish leaders began preparing for a collective Jewish return to Zion, otherwise known as Jerusalem.
Herzl’s Zionism was only political in the sense that it demanded Jewish sovereignty, and that it existed within the context of the rise of nation-states and the fall of empires. Recognizing that the Jews were not simply a religious group, but a people, a nation, with a common ancestral home, the Zionist movement Herzl launched was the continuation of thousands of years of intrinsic and inseparable Jewish connection to Zion––embodied in Jewish culture, identity, worship, spirituality, longing, and the aspiration to return home.
Herzl’s Zionism was progressive in every sense. It saw the world with courage and clarity, knowing that historically persecuted minority communities––especially one like the Jewish community, a tiny people scattered around the globe which had faced pogroms, oppression, violence, stigmatization, ghettoization, dhimmitude, forced conversion and genocide––needed to fend for themselves. His Zionism envisioned a world in which oppressed peoples––the Jews, and many others––could liberate themselves and manifest their own self-determination.
Herzl’s Zionism also had flaws. It primarily focused on a return to the land of Israel of Jews then living in Europe, and did not go far enough in recognizing the vast diversity of the Jewish diaspora or the intense needs of Jewish communities across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Russia and Central and South America. Without modern communication methods, Herzl and the early political Zionist pioneers did not even know how many Jewish diasporas existed or how far and wide the Jewish people had spread during the Roman exile. When we listen to the stories of Ethiopian Jews, Kaifeng Jews, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, and all the many Jews of all races and geographies, a stunning picture emerges that reminds us of a central truth: The Jewish people, the world over, are Zionist in our bones and in our hearts. For thousands of years in the diaspora, in safe times and dangerous times, we prayed in the direction of Jerusalem; we declared “Next Year in Jerusalem” on our momentous occasions; We offered comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem upon the passing of a loved one. And while we may have different lived experiences, communal histories, cultural norms and first languages, the Jewish people were always united in their longing to return.
The extraordinary, miraculous and historic success of Herzl’s modern political Zionist movement has reunited the Jewish people through the “ingathering of the exiles” and has reminded us of the strength of our nationhood, our peoplehood, the core of which is our relationship to Zion.
On this day in 1897, Herzl wrote, “In Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years, certainly in 50 years, the world will know it.” He was prophetic in more ways than one.
Herzl also famously declared at Basel that, “[i]f you will it, it is no dream.” He was, tragically, not alive to see the fruits of his labor on May 15, 1948, when the Jewish state of Israel was reborn as a recognized member of the community of nations. But Herzl, and the thousands of Jews who fought for the Zionist dream, knew and remind us what can be accomplished with unshakeable will. At Zioness, this quote inspires us, not only to continue the Zionist fight for the Jewish people, but the fight for the same liberation for all oppressed peoples, just as Herzl insisted we must.
On this 125th anniversary, Herzl’s legacy continues in all of us.
With love and solidarity,
P.S. Here are a few of my very favorite inspiring reads on Zionism:
- Judaism and Zionism Are Inseparable, by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch in Sapir Magazine
- Anti-Zionism and Anti-Feminism, by Dr. Einat Wilf in Tablet Magazine
- We Should All be Zionists, by Dr. Einat Wilf
- Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein Halevi
Amanda Berman is the Founder and Executive Director of the Zioness Movement.