FEW IDEAS have started so far-fetched and come to reality so swiftly as Zionism, Jewish unity in a modern state re-creating the biblical homeland.
The pogroms of the Russian empire in 1881 rekindled Jewish identity and inspired settlements in Palestine, where some Jews had always lived. Theodore Herzl, a Viennese writer sent as a journalist to Paris where he saw political anti-Semitism up close, converted to Zionism and became its prophet with his book, "The Jewish State," in 1896. He organized the first World Zionist Congress.
The 196 delegates, five from Palestine, met for three days from Aug. 29, 1897, in Basel, Switzerland, giving birth to the international political movement. From the start, they acted like a legislature and created institutions to support the settlements.
Many Jews, practicing their religion freely within the cultures of Germany, France, Britain and the United States, distrusted the movement. Yet in a half-century, Israel existed. Herzl lived only until 1904. Others took up his cause. In the United States, the movement was associated with Rabbi Stephen Wise, and benefited from remarkable leaders ranging from Henrietta Szold of Baltimore to Justice Louis Brandeis.
The first Zionists wanted to convince the sultan of Turkey to allow a Jewish homeland within his domain. They gave little thought to who lived there but expected to share it. What they could not have predicted included World War I; Britain and Turkey as enemies; modern Arab nationalism; break-up of the Russian empire; the Communist Revolution; the Great Depression; Nazi take-over of Germany fueled by hatred of Jews; the spread of anti-Semitic fascism; World War II; the Holocaust; the wider appeal of Zionism; Allied victory; the United Nations; the Cold War.
Out of that crucible came Israel on May 14, 1948. In the second half of its history, Zionism has supported what the first half created. Initial Arab hostility to Jewish settlers lives on in terrorism. The first disputes between Zionists and other Jews survives in tensions between Israel and the Diaspora.
Zionism's great work will be done when Israel lives in peace with all its neighbors. Until then, it needs protection and the promotion of that peace. Today, Switzerland is quarreling with world Jewry and Israel's ambassador accuses Swiss politicians of fomenting anti-Semitism, while municipal Basel and supporters of Israel throughout the world are mutually commemorating the centennial anniversary of the birth of world Zionism there.
Pub Date: 8/31/97