Scrapped: Basel event to mark 120 years since Herzl’s First Zionist Congress
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The World Zionist Organization may have willed it, but it was just a dream

Scrapped: Basel event to mark 120 years since Herzl’s First Zionist Congress

Netanyahu was to travel in August to Swiss city where Herzl in 1897 ‘founded the Jewish state.’ But poor planning has doomed the celebration, and recriminations are flying

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Theodor Herzl on the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, Switzerland, 1897 (photo credit: CC-PD-Mark, by Wikigamad, Wikimedia Commons)
Theodor Herzl on the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, Switzerland, 1897 (photo credit: CC-PD-Mark, by Wikigamad, Wikimedia Commons)

The Swiss town of Basel, where Theodor Herzl raised the curtain on political Zionism, will not be hosting the prime minister of Israel for the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress there, The Times of Israel has learned. A major event in the city in August, long planned by the World Zionist Organization to celebrate the landmark anniversary, has been scrapped.

The reasons for the cancellation are disagreed upon by the various sides, with explanations provided by officials from Israel and Switzerland citing a mix of poor planning, arguments over money, and the Swiss authorities’ inability to arrange the required security measures in time for the event.

The result is that Basel, which hosted 11 Zionist Congresses between 1897 and the start of World War I, will not be holding any official anniversary event this summer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had planned to travel to Basel on August 27 to celebrate the anniversary of the three-day 1897 conference, which took place in the city’s casino and is widely recognized as a major milestone in Zionist history. Over 200 delegates attended the gathering, which was covered by 26 members of the press.

Theodor Herzl addressing the First or Second Zionist Congress in Basel, in 1897-8. (courtesy GPO)
Theodor Herzl addressing the First or Second Zionist Congress in Basel, in 1897-8. (courtesy GPO)

But the Basel authorities have told Jerusalem they will not be able to host the planned event as scheduled, and offered to reschedule it at a later date. The World Zionist Organization decided instead, however, to scrap plans for a ceremony in the Swiss town, and to organize a celebration in Jerusalem in September.

Discussions between Israeli and Swiss officials began in February, and plans for the event were launched two months later. But foot-dragging on the Israeli side and the municipality’s inability to mount a major event with insufficient advance notice, coupled with disagreements over who would pay for security, led the cantonal authorities of Basel-Stadt to announce the event could not take place on the actual anniversary date.

A "membership card" for delegates to the First Zionist Congress 1897 in Basel / Yaacov Saar/GPO)
A “membership card” for delegates to the First Zionist Congress 1897 in Basel / Yaacov Saar/GPO)

“The city council made this decision based on a report of the project leaders. It extremely regrets this since it is aware of the event’s significance,” the city said in a June 16 statement.

“Their decision was made based upon security considerations: the time had become too short to be able to organize the personnel and measures to properly guarantee the security of the people and the event,” Noémie Charton, a spokesperson for the Swiss Foreign Ministry, told The Times of Israel this week. “Although it is regrettable that it will not take place at the end of August, the possibility of it being organised at a later date remains, however, open.”

There were also disagreements over who would pay for the approximately NIS 35.5 million needed to secure the event, according to various sources.

Both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment on the fiasco. But in private conversations, officials in Jerusalem blamed “a difference of opinion regarding the financing of certain aspects of the event.”

In this April 18, 2010 file photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at posters of stamps carrying the portrait of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, in Jerusalem. (Photo credit: AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
In this April 18, 2010, photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at posters of stamps carrying the portrait of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, in Jerusalem. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

According to Avraham Duvdevani, who chairs the WZO, preparations for the Basel event started about six months ago. However, the organization then had to wait for two months to get a green light from Netanyahu’s office.

“We stopped everything until we got confirmation from the Prime Minister’s Office about the date and about the Israeli government’s participation in covering the costs for securing the event,” Duvdevani told The Times of Israel.

Still, it was a full four months ago, he said, that the WZO told the Basel authorities it intended to proceed with the event. “We told them early enough.”

The WZO then hired a production company and presented the Swiss with a detailed program, said Duvdevani, who himself travelled to Basel a month and half ago to meet with municipal authorities. “They said it was all good and even sent us a protocol of the meeting,” he said. “But then they wrote to us saying they want to sit with us again, because they were missing some details and want to discuss how much security would cost,” Duvdevani said.

Given that Israelis know how to arrange visits from a host of world leaders in the blink of an eye — as proven recently by the state funeral for Shimon Peres — authorities in Israel were confident that two and half months was sufficient time for the Swiss to figure everything out, he explained.

“But they dragged on and on and on, and then, about two weeks ago, they called our ambassador to the Foreign Ministry [in Bern] and told him, ‘We’re sorry but we cannot make it happen in this time frame.’” The Basel authorities offered to host the event at a different date, Duvdevani said, but the WZO decided to call the whole thing off and instead mark the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress at an event in mid-September on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl.

A woman sits next to the grave of fallen soldier from the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem (Michal Fattal/Flash90)
A woman sits next to the grave of fallen soldier from the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

“We’ll do something huge in Israel instead. Not big — huge,” Duvdevani promised, saying he expected “tens of thousands of people” at the event, including Netanyahu.

The prime minister might still visit Basel at a later stage, he said, “but that visit won’t be connected to the anniversary.”

The Basel account

The Swiss authorities rejected any blame for the cancellation, saying they were informed about the event “on short notice.”

A first meeting with the Israelis about the issue took place in February, and “then more than two months passed, but very little actually happened,” municipal spokesperson Marco Greiner told a local newspaper in May.

Basel — a town of less than 200,000 people — would need to close down large areas and request help from police in other cities, officials said. “Important questions that the organization of such a major event poses could not be answered,” the city council said in its June 16 statement. “There is no longer sufficient time to take the required measures, namely with the canton police and other security agencies. Furthermore, it would be difficult to continue keep the population in the dark.”

Basel’s Jews were always skeptical over the municipality’s ability to pull off such an event in time. In March, as rumors of Netanyahu’s planned arrival first made local headlines, the president of city’s Jewish community, Guy Rueff, said that “five months of planning would be an extreme challenge for local politicians and police.”

In 1997 — for the centennial of the First Zionist Congress — Basel did hold a large event, which was attended by the speaker of the Knesset. Local Jews were disappointed, at the time, that Israel did not send a higher-ranking official. (Netanyahu was prime minister at the time.)

Twenty years later, however, not all members of the city’s Jewish communities were looking forward to hosting Netanyahu. Some said they didn’t need another major event merely two decades after the last one. Most non-Jews in Basel fail to understand the symbolic significance of a 120-year anniversary, and it would therefore likely garner only limited global interest, they argued.

Pierre Loeb, the president of the Swiss branch of the dovish New Israel Fund, said he feared Netanyahu would use the festivities to promote his hawkish policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

“Celebrating an anniversary and reflecting about what Zionism was, is and is supposed to be actually quite appropriate,” he told the Tachles weekly in late March. “But I fear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to instrumentalize the event for his policies, and is not interested in historical reflection.”

Resonant history

The First Zionist Congress is widely seen as the first step on the Jewish people’s path to re-establish a nation-state in their ancient homeland. “At Basel, I founded the Jewish state,” Herzl he noted in his diary a few days after the conclusion of the three-day event.

“If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, certainly in 50, everyone will realize it.”

His vision became a reality, as the State of Israel was founded almost exactly half a century after he wrote these words.

Famous picture of Theodor Herzl on the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, Switzerland (photo credit: CC-PD-Mark, by Wikigamad, Wikimedia Commons)
Famous picture of Theodor Herzl on the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, Switzerland (photo credit: CC-PD-Mark, by Wikigamad, Wikimedia Commons)
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