The World Zionist Organization is on Monday marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, which opened on August 29, 1897, in Basel, Switzerland, by putting on a massive event in the city.
However, the lavish and very expensive quasquicentennial event to “recreate the congress in Basel” has come under fire, not only for its big-budget extravagance but also for the fact that it will be almost completely inaccessible to the vast majority of the Jewish people.
Some 1,400 people were flown in from around the world for the event — mostly from Israel and the United States — and put up in four- and five-star hotels, where they will be treated to cocktail hours, galas, panels and speeches. Those who came early for the event and spent the weekend in Basel got their swanky rooms at deeply discounted prices.
Spokespeople for the World Zionist Organization refused to divulge the full cost of the event. But an internal document obtained by Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew language sister site, gave insight into the approximate cost of the two-day event.
According to the document and conversations with WZO officials, the conference is estimated to cost NIS 20-30 million ($6.14 million-$9.21 million).
That comes from the cost of flights, hotel rooms, food and the production of the conference itself. Participants pay a fee of $500, though this is far below the actual cost: a single night in the five-star Hotel Les Trois Rois, where some participants are staying, costs upwards of $400 and one night in the four-star Hotel Mövenpick, where others are staying, costs upwards of $300 — both without meals.
Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, who helped convene the First Zionist Congress in 1897, stayed at the Hotel Les Trois Rois for that event, posing for a now-famous photograph from one of its balconies. President Isaac Herzog, who is attending the event, will attempt to recreate the photograph on the same balcony overlooking the Rhine River.
In large part, the World Zionist Organization’s funding comes from the Jewish National Fund, or Keren Kayemet LeIsrael, which owns some 12 percent of the land of Israel. The JNF — a nonprofit that is overseen by the government and has come under increased scrutiny amid corruption allegations in recent years — has seen its coffers bulge in recent years due in large part to Israel’s booming real estate market. This has led some to speculate that the organization was looking to spend money quickly through the World Zionist Organization to prevent the government from seizing its revenues.
The extravagant affair is being attended by Herzog, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, newly installed Jewish Agency chairman Doron Almog, several Knesset members, and senior officials from nearly every major international Jewish organization, as well as a number of young Israeli businesspeople, who are taking part in a portion of the conference focusing on entrepreneurship.
The conference was organized by the chairman of the World Zionist Organization, Yaakov Hagoel, the head of World Likud.
Asked about the event and its high budget, Hagoel directed Zman Israel to the WZO spokesperson, who refused to answer.
“The World Zionist Organization is proud to initiate this non-partisan event that sends an important message to millions of Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora and to the entire world about the relevance of the Zionist movement today and about the challenges facing it today,” the spokesman said.
However, the event is by invitation only and is thus not actually open to those millions of Jews around the world, not even virtually. Only the gala event scheduled for Monday night will be livestreamed on the World Zionist Organization’s Facebook page. The rest of the multi-day event, including most of the speeches by top Israeli and Jewish officials, will not.
Asked why this was the case, another spokesperson for the WZO told The Times of Israel it was a decision by the production company and refused to elaborate.
Many of those participating in the conference defended the event as a legitimate means of highlighting and commemorating a seminal event in Zionist and Israeli history.
“This is a historic event, something beautiful and symbolic, with the president of the country in attendance. What could be more beautiful than that?” asked Arnan Felman, deputy chairman of the JNF.
Yigal Tzahor, a former chairman of the Labor Zionist movement, was somewhat more critical of the event’s inflated budget, though he too thought its goal was a valid one.
“Zionist institutions ought to properly discuss the significance of an event like this. If it’s important to them to emphasize the legacy of Herzl, I think that’s a worthwhile goal, but I would send a smaller delegation instead. This kind of event needs to be done modestly,” Tzahor told Zman.