A century and a quarter later

September 9, 2022 by Michael Kuttner
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Basel in Switzerland was the venue for a recent 125-year anniversary reunion commemorating the first Zionist Congress.

Michael Kuttner

In Israel, this historic gathering garnered hardly a mention in the local media apart from an iconic photo of Israel’s President posing for a photo opportunity on the same hotel balcony which Herzl had gazed from. His speech to the assembled multitudes was, as usual eloquent and relevant, which is more than can be said for some of the other speakers of which there was no shortage.

Lurking in the background or should I say “the elephant in the room” were some politically incorrect topics which needless to say, never received any exposure. With the Swiss Government and local Canton representatives as honoured guests and a whole host of Jewish machers eager to be seen and heard, there was never going to be an opportunity for some hard truths to be aired and acknowledged.

As a spectacle and extravaganza, the Basel locals no doubt lapped it up, but for Zionists who have actually made the resurrected Zionist nation our new home, the inflated rhetoric and back-slapping plus all the social accompaniments remained an irrelevant budget-busting affair.

Perhaps some non-PC thoughts might explain why.

One of the persistent themes echoed by speakers and media alike was the notion that a return to Zion was born in Basel. Anyone, of course, with even a scant knowledge of Judaism, would know that attaining Jewish sovereignty in the Promised Land is as old as our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, in other words, since the dawn of our history. Certainly, the objective of returning from exile dates at least from the exodus from Egypt and thereafter from Babylonian and Roman dispersions.

Yes, Herzl did indeed manage to organise a political framework to facilitate a modern-day return, but in doing this, he merely trod in the footsteps of Ezra and Nehemiah and other previous generation leaders. The founder of the modern Zionist movement was an ardent assimilationist until he was rudely awakened to reality by the Dreyfus trial and his belated realisation that there was no Jewish future in Europe despite the so-called enlightenment. As “death to the Jews” resounded from the mobs jeering Dreyfus as he was degraded from the French army, the urgency to find an answer to Jewish powerlessness became Herzl’s short life’s obsession.

After rejection by many of the Jewish establishment figures of his day, he finally organised the first gathering of those who saw in his ideas the perfect opportunity to regain sovereignty in what was then Ottoman Palestine. Secular leaders feared accusations of “double loyalties”, and religious leaders who were Reform denied Jews were a nation, while many Orthodox Rabbis preferred to await the advent of the Messianic Age and avoid upsetting authorities.

Why did he choose Basel as the venue?

I suspect that Switzerland was an ideal spot because it was conveniently placed as far as rail travel was concerned for those coming from western and eastern parts of Europe, and it was politically neutral. However, perhaps if those involved had been a bit more cognizant of Switzerland’s dubious relationship with Jews, they might have considered a more suitable place.

It was only in 1866 that Jews were given the right to settle and live anywhere in Switzerland. In 1893, that is four years before the Congress, Switzerland banned shechita, a ban which is still in place until today. Of course, neither of these inconvenient events featured in the laudatory speeches in Basel then and now. Switzerland’s shameful behaviour since 1897 only confirms a disgraceful record. In the 1930s Jews fleeing Nazi persecution were turned back at the border, and Swiss insurance companies and banks were complicit in refusing to return money belonging to the heirs of murdered Jews.

Today we have the spectacle of the Swiss Government funding anti-Israel NGO’s. According to NGO Monitor, between 2021 and 2024, the Swiss Govt. is expected to grant CHF32 million (US$32.5 million) directly and indirectly to NGOs, some of which promote antisemitic rhetoric and have ties to the PFLP, a designated terrorist organisation by the USA, EU, Canada and Israel.

Naturally, all this was swept under the carpet as cocktails were drunk, toasts made and backs slapped in Basel.

Amidst all this exchange of mutual admiration, there were some serious thoughts given as to the status of the Zionist enterprise today and the challenges it faces.

It is obvious that 125 years after Herzl envisaged a resurrected Jewish State, his prophetic visions have been more than fulfilled. Nobody back then could have in their wildest dreams ever imagined that Israel would survive to become a world leader in so many fields. At the same time, unfortunately, one of Herzl’s greatest beliefs was that Jew hate would disappear once Jews had control of their own destiny, never materialised and is never likely to. The virus of Jew hate has now morphed into Zionist hate, which in turn delegitimises Israel and those who support it. The word “Zionism” has become a symbol of colonial oppression, apartheid discrimination and a target for every sort of denunciation from both the right and left of the political spectrum. In addition, from the time of the Protocols, conspiracy theories abound, all focused on the Zionist enterprise.

One would have thought that these realities were threatening enough and that therefore coherent plans might be formulated to counter this latest tsunami of hate. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I read a report of the speech given by the founder and president of the Mitrelli Group. What stuck in my mind was his reported assertion that “Zionism’s new global mission must be a desire and action for a better world.”  According to Google, the objective of the Mitrelli Group is “empowering people to help nations grow.” Now, while this is a most laudable objective, does his plan for Zionism mean that all its current goals have been achieved? What about educating the next generation of switched-off Jewish millennials about Zionism’s core agenda?  Have we already convinced the bigoted ignoramuses of the validity of the Jewish national movement for sovereignty? How does advocating “a new global Zionist mission” allay the global conspiracy theorists?

Ingathering dispersed Jews from countries of persecution, connecting those who are tuned out, combating deliberate distortions and making Israel a home where Jews do not need to hide their ethnicity remain the core values we should be promoting. Zionism’s challenges have not diminished. In fact, they have multiplied, and many Diaspora communities are already finding that the odds against them are increasing. Whether it is outright violence, overt prejudice or bullying of Jewish children in public and private schools, the reasons for a strong Zionist movement remain the same as they did at the time of Herzl and the first Zionist Congress in Basel.

The Zionist vision of a rebuilt Jewish homeland has been an outstanding success. We now need to redouble our collective efforts to ensure that Israel grows even stronger and that those who plot our demise are defeated.

Anything less than that will not suffice.

Michael Kuttner is a Jewish New Zealander who for many years was actively involved with various communal organisations connected to Judaism and Israel. He now lives in Israel and is J-Wire’s correspondent in the region.

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