The following is the full text of the speech delivered by Israeli President Isaac Herzog at a gala event in Basel, Switzerland, on Aug. 29 celebrating the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress. The address was delivered in the Stadtcasino Basel concert hall, the same venue that hosted the First Zionist Congress.
In the Mishnah, Tractate Berakhot, we read: “One who sees a place where miracles occurred on Israel’s behalf recites: ‘Blessed is He Who performed miracles for our forefathers in this place.”
And today, 125 years after that formative moment when a handful of pioneering, inspirational Zionist leaders changed human and Jewish history forever here in Basel, the cradle of political Zionism, in the hall where Theodor Herzl opened the First Zionist Congress, I stand before you as the President of the State of Israel, having come from Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the nation-state of the Jewish People, the State of Israel, the fulfilment of the dreams and prayers of so many generations, a miraculous model for the whole world, and I recite this blessing: “Blessed is He Who performed miracles for our forefathers in this place.’’ “This is the day which the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).
I am so glad and moved, truly moved, to be here today with you, sisters and brothers in our Zionist family, and to mark the 125th anniversary of the formative moment in history that shaped our entire being and made us who we are: the First Zionist Congress.
I wish to address three pillars of Zionism here today: the dilemma—what is Zionism?; the privilege—to be Zionists and to be engaged in Zionism; and the duty—to reclaim Zionism, and to do so with pride and most importantly with responsibility: pride in our mighty achievements, which have brought us thus far, and responsibility for our Jewish identity as individuals and as a people, connected to our homeland, to the sovereignty and prosperity of the State of Israel, and to tikkun olam—healing our world. In conclusion, I shall seek to highlight the way (the only one, to my mind) in which we can address these three pillars: together. Only together.
I begin with the first pillar, namely the Zionist dilemma. Since the dawn of modernity, the pendulum of Jewish history has swung between a demand for normality and the pursuit of individuality. The demand for normality meant a demand to exist in the family of nations, according to its particular norms. The pursuit of individuality, meanwhile, meant searching for a unique Jewish identity, for a historical continuum, for continuity.
On this axis between normality and individuality, we find a considerable number of key points, points with which the Jewish People have been grappling for generations, and some might say ever since our earliest days as a people, into the present. But the pinnacle appears to have come 125 years ago, at the First Zionist Congress, here in Basel, when Theodor Herzl positioned, on this normality-individuality axis, Zionism itself. Herzl was Zionism’s greatest instigator. He translated Jewish identity into an effective political doctrine, and he opened up the possibility for Jews to experience their identity as an independent political community, as a state. He was entirely extraordinary, utterly distinctive and outstanding, even in the company of other heralds of Zionism.
Herzl’s vision was so radical that it shook up the Jewish People, in unpredictable ways, and forced it to reconsider its path. What made his proposal earth-shattering was its departure from the conventional, rigid framework. It defiantly ignored the need to pick a side in the dichotomous struggle between normality and individuality; instead, it sought to create a new space for the Jewish People, a space that was at once political, diplomatic, territorial and cultural. A space in which the Jewish People could continue arguing, debating and making decisions about their great dilemmas between normality and individuality, but without the fears that had haunted this polemic until then: the fear of anti-Semitism and persecution on the one hand, and the fear of assimilation to the point of the erasure of identity, culture and spirituality on the other. In other words, Herzl transcended the debate about individuality and created the infrastructure for something more existential—independence!
As I have said, Herzl’s proposal to the Jewish People was a profound shake-up. It reflected not evolution but revolution, in the fullest sense of the word. Indeed, Zionism was nourished by the undercurrents of the multi-generational Jewish continuum, and even by the eternal expressions of the Jewish bookshelf. But it was also so different, so distinctive and ground-breaking, so modern in its establishment of a democratic and thoroughly Jewish polity. This was a bona fide revolution.
And when we study Herzl, when we follow his movements and pore over his speeches, delivered right here in this hall, we understand just how revolutionary his ideology was.
In his book “The Jewish State,” Herzl wrote, and I quote: “The idea which I have developed in this pamphlet is a very old one: the restoration of the Jewish State.” Later on, he declared: “For we are a modern nation, and wish to be the most modern in the world.” Thus, like his book “Altneuland,” he too included both old and new.
Here, I reach the second pillar of Zionism: the privilege of being Zionists and of engaging in Zionism, because I wholeheartedly believe that Herzl bequeathed the responsibility and the obligation for deep debate, and most importantly the duty to put the Zionist vision into action on a daily basis, this privilege—to the Jewish People, in all its stripes. That is, my brothers and sisters—to us, at all four corners of the earth, from all sections of the Jewish People, in every generation.
In the operative paragraph of his opening speech, here, in his hall, 125 years ago, Herzl noted the immense spectrum of identities and ideologies in the audience, as well as the diverse mosaic reflected by the founders of Zionism, and he said this: “We have returned home. Zionism is the return to Judaism even before the return to the land of the Jews.” He added: “Zionism has already managed to accomplish a wondrous thing, previously thought to be impossible: the firm bond between the most modern elements of Judaism with the most conservative. This union could only be possible against a national background.” Thus said the visionary of our state.
Ladies and gentlemen, whereas in the past, Jewish communities and groups, whatever their beliefs, positions and value systems, were separate and distinct from each other, along came Zionism, reshuffled the deck, and entrusted responsibility for their fate to them, to the Jewish People, to us. The contours of the many Jewish communities around the world, and indeed the boundaries between these communities, have changed, and the questions most critical to our existence were posed to the whole Jewish People to resolve, for us to resolve, so that we may debate them together, in a spirit of mutual responsibility, and most importantly, of full and institutionalized partnership.
The importance of the founding generation, headed by Herzl, therefore lies not only in the ideological infrastructure that he bequeathed to us but also in the institutional infrastructure that he laid down for us: the national institutions established long before the establishment of the State of Israel, and chiefly the World Zionist Organization and then Keren Hayesod and later the Jewish Agency. Herzl created a critical and firm basis for proactive Zionist and Jewish action around the world, and indeed for collective dialogue, including all shades of our dazzling Jewish mosaic, both in Israel and in the Diaspora—a dialogue that we must also persevere in maintaining today, especially today, as the walls between us seem to be rising ever-higher.
Herzl and his partners in the Zionist movement, those stateless statesmen, pitched statecraft for a stateless nation. They created, ex nihilo, a brand-new ideological reality and brand-new institutional reality, alongside which they also put in place the most essential conditions for success: responsibility, partnership, and that compound of old and new.
And now, brothers and sisters, I wish to focus on the final pillar: our duty to claim positive and proactive ownership over Zionism, especially now. To reclaim Zionism.