As we celebrate the centennial of the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland (August 1897), it's apt to reflect on the ideals espoused by Zionism's founding father, Theodor Herzl.
Looking at his writings and speeches from a century ago, his vision and prophecy stand out, especially when compared with modern-day Israel. That is not to say that Israel is a perfect country by any means, nor that it fits exactly the Herzl model of a perfect society. Indeed, his vision was utopian and he described a flawless society (which Israel is not). And yet it is amazing to see how many of his ideas actually permeated into modern-day Israel and how far-reaching his vision was.
When Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress, he wanted to spread the ideas he had elaborated throughout the Jewish (and even non-Jewish) communities in Europe and North America. His vision, influenced by the rise of nationalism and self-determination among European peoples, was revolutionary, yet grounded in logic and common sense. He saw the peoples of Europe form modern states around a shared heritage, history, religion, language, and culture, and naturally asked-where do the Jews fit in? If Jews were to remain a small, often persecuted minority in every country, they would forever remain downtrodden and will never reach the self-determination that is the given right of every people.
And so, before a convention of 200 Jewish delegates from 27 countries, he set out to describe the ideal society which the Jewish people would create in its ancient homeland. This was the first political meeting of representatives from so many Jewish communities and it signaled the recognition of the Zionist idea as the national movement of our people. The Congress and Herzl's writings, especially his books The Jewish State and Altneuland , translated his lofty ideas into an actual working plan for a modern state, and included a flag, a national anthem, and a blueprint for the organization of national institutions.
Herzl was more than a visionary. He was a prophet in his own time. In calling on the Jews to start laying the building blocks of a Jewish State in Palestine, he told them that staying in Europe was not an option. He threatened that Europe would soon become a cemetery for our people. Sadly, his prophecy came true a mere 40 years later, in the Holocaust. He understood the danger. The lives of thousands who did move to Palestine were spared.
Herzl also called for the future state of Israel to uphold the highest levels of moral and spiritual ideals. While Israel is not flawless, it is well known for its high moral standards in peace as well as in wartime, and the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces are often cited as the most moral among the world's armies. Infractions to the rules of engagement are punishable by law.
When he called for a class-less society where there would be equal opportunity for all, Herzl didn't realize that he would be describing Israel today. While there are certainly rich and poor people in Israel, it is a society that has none of the class structure still prevalent in many European countries and certainly among our neighbors in the Middle East. These ideals were far-reaching in 1897 and made Herzl the target of much scorn.
In another coup of prophecy, Herzl said that the future Jewish State would uphold scientific research as a tool to improve not only our own society but humanity as a whole. Today's research and development in high tech, medicine, communications, and other fields put Israel at the forefront of innovation benefitting mankind.
Herzl also spoke of the need to create in Israel a judicial system that would protect the minorities and guarantee the rights of all. The court system in Israel, with its Muslim, Christian, and Jewish judges, is a symbol of independence and protection of the rights of citizens with no difference of race, religion, or sex. He spoke of a state that would be ecologically friendly, a concept that was decades ahead of any other political thinker anywhere in the world. Herzl even described an electric train connecting Israel's cities in a way that would be both comfortable and friendly to the environment!
While in most countries the work day was of 10 to 12 hours in 1897, and while Socialists were demanding an 8-hour day, Herzl spoke of a 7-hour work day in the future homeland of the Jewish people, with ample time for sports and leisure, protected by strong labor unions.
Finally, Herzl spoke of a society in which social justice would rule, a society where people would stand by each other in time of need. In Israel, there are over 35,000 non-profit organizations providing social solidarity. Israelis are known for their ability to argue fiercely, but also to defend each other as staunchly in times of need.
In 1897, Theodor Herzl prophesied that the Jewish Homeland would be established if not within a year or two, then "certainly within fifty years." In that case, he was wrong: it took 51 years for his dream to come true. Close enough.