Over a thousand Jewish leaders from all around the world, led by President Isaac Herzog, will arrive for a festive event hosted by the World Zionist Organization in Basel, Switzerland this week to mark 125 years since the first World Zionist Congress convened in the city's casino under the leadership of Theodor Herzl.
The Congress aroused the national sentiments of Jews the world over, propelling the Zionist movement toward what it had become over the years: the most successful national movement in the modern era.
Most other national movements established in the past two centuries were based on non-democratic foundations, often born of civil wars and bloodshed.
But this wasn't the case for us: the Congress in Basel consolidated a form of Zionism that was crucial to paving the path for a democratic State of Israel, including the establishment of elected bodies and proportional representation, which later served as the foundations of the emerging state — an amazing feat considering most representatives at the inaugural event hailed from non-democratic states.
The spirit of Basel — a great awakening of Jews taking the fate of the Jewish people into their own hands — was movingly expressed at the time by the British writer Israel Zangwill: “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion. By the rivers of Basel, we resolved to weep no more”.
Herzl was imbued with prophetic spirit: penning in his diary the immortal words: “In Basel, I founded the Jewish state.” He refrained from uttering these words in public, fearing he'd be mocked, but continued writing, “perhaps in five years, and certainly, in 50 years, everyone will know it.” Exactly 50 years elapsed until 1948.
The anniversary of the first Zionist Congress must not serve only as a reminder of the past, but also as an opportunity to deal with the challenges lying ahead.
The pre-state Zionist thinkers expected its establishment to resolve the questions the Jewish identity entailed. They attributed these questions at the time to the fact that the Jews were scattered all over the world and expected a common home — sovereign territory, ingathering of exiles, national institutions, the revival of Hebrew — to answer for all these. Oh, how wrong they were.
On the contrary, once the Jewish people achieved statehood, a battle for the character of the state and the public space within it ensued.
Jews of all shades and hues — secular, religious and Haredi — were now required to reach political agreements and legal decisions on the conduct of the state and within it.
Sovereignty, which was thus far unfamiliar to the Jews, as well as their rule over a sizeable Arab minority, sparked new ideological and moral conflicts that never the Jews were not required to decide on back in the Diaspora.
I don’t think there is any point in trying to smooth the differences. Efforts to fashion a common Israeli identity, as noble as they may seem, are pointless.
We must recognize these disagreements — between Jews in Israel, between Jews in the Diaspora, and between Israeli and Diaspora Jews — as a fact of life. The true challenge lies in creating a shared life while realizing the Zionist dream despite our differences.
These ideological differences also have positive potential — playing on a phrase from Ecclesiastes, a kind of "riches kept for the owners thereof to their benefit". Our differences are a driving force that keeps us vital and dynamic.
In the humanities and social studies "letting a hundred flowers bloom" is much preferable to a melting pot.
And yet, if we are to enjoy the advantages of plurality and its disadvantages, we must work diligently at shaping agreements on how to manage our disagreements. This is the greatest challenge Israeli society is facing.
The realization of Herzlian Zionism created a flourishing state. But the identity question in its current form looms over us like a curse.
Israel is like the mighty Gulliver who was tied down by tiny threads that impede his movements.
Those fastening the threads are the agents of Israeli discord who attack the fabric of our shared life by de-legitimizing those they perceive as "the other" — individuals, groups or even state institutions.
Thus, they undermine our united spirit that had made the first Zionist Congress in Basel into the seed from which the State of Israel sprang
We need a new Herzl and a new Zionist Congress, not to establish a state or define its identity, but to breathe a new spirit of solidarity and Jewish brotherhood into an era of strife.
Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute.