City on the Rhine as centre of the Zionist movement
The Stadtcasino Basel was the key location on the road to a Jewish state. The World Zionist Congress met ten times in the city at the elbow of the Rhine. 2022 marks the 125th anniversary of the founding Congress.
Gabriel Heim is a book and film author and exhibition organiser. He is principally concerned with research into topics of modern and contemporary history and lives in Basel.
The establishment of the Jewish state unfolded out of 22 Zionist congresses that met between 1897 and 1946. No city was more closely associated with Theodor Herzl’s vision of a Jewish utopia and the Zionist movement he founded. At the end of August 1897 almost 200 attendees, including 14 (non-voting) women, convened in Basel for the first Congress.
Theodor Herzl actually had Munich in mind as a meeting place, but the Allgemeine Deutsche Rabbinerverband, the German Rabbinical Association, refused to support that choice and he had to abandon it. When he was looking for a friendly city that was easily accessible by rail, his friend and collaborator, Zurich lawyer David Farbstein, suggested Basel. Because of its sizeable Russian colony, Zurich had a significant Russian secret police presence. Basel would therefore be more suitable, even though the city was not free from anti-Semitism. Herzl, who in 1896 had published his manifesto Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) presenting his vision for a “modern solution to the Jewish question”, was impressed. With the Casino, an upscale concert hall and cultural venue, Basel offered a prestigious meeting venue, and the proposed accommodation, the Grand Hotel Trois Rois, was an address that would meet with the approval of cossetted Congress attendees.This choice would also prove to be a piece of luck for Basel itself – apart from visitors to the trade fair, the city had very little in the way of tourism. Basel offered neither a view of the Alps nor thermal springs. So it’s understandable that the city’s governing council was delighted to welcome the Congress and that its president, Paul Speiser, insisted on paying a courtesy visit to the attendees. For the people of Basel, however, the scene in the streets around the Casino on Barfüsserplatz throughout the three days of the congress (29 – 31 August) was probably of greater interest than what was being discussed inside.Dignified elderly gentlemen wearing top hats and tails in broad daylight, devout Jews with long white beards, dignitaries garbed in Middle Eastern attire and, at later congresses, wild-eyed men from the Caucasus with sabres and fur hats. The confusion of languages and the bustling carriage traffic added to the spectacle. The stenographic record gives a flavour of what went on behind the closed doors of the Casino. A leaf through the pages tells of Jews of every stripe and background: well-to-do bankers, charismatic leaders of the Eastern Jewish proletariat, impassioned emissaries of the Orthodox faith, the conciliatory and the unyielding, the conceited and the faint of heart, the powerfully eloquent and the endlessly wary. But at the end of each session, everyone rose together to sing the Hatikva (The Hope) and wave their hats in the air.Nestling in the bend of the Rhine, the city’s last appearance on the geopolitical stage had been the Council of Basel (1431 – 1449). That was to change after the first Zionist Congress, Theodor Herzl had no doubt about that. Immediately after the Congress had ended, Herzl noted in his diary on 3 September 1897: “Were I to summarise the Basel Congress in one word – a summation which I shall take good care not to express publicly – it is this: in Basel I founded the Jewish state.”
His portrait on the balcony of the Hotel Trois Rois became an icon of the Zionist movement. Herzl had quickly realised that Basel was now emblematic of his path to creating a Jewish state. The second Congress was held the following year at the same location. This time there were 350 delegates, a circumstance much welcomed by the local hotel industry. And in 1899 the third Congress also met in Basel. Herzl’s vision took shape, and he was now able to confidently utter the sentence “I founded the Jewish state in Basel” in public. The Zionist congresses would prove also to be beneficial for the city in many respects. Basel had grown in stature.Even though Herzl laid the foundations in Basel, it would still be another half a century, filled with dramatic world events, before his vision became reality. Over this period the Congress met six more times at the hallowed Stadtcasino where, in fiery and sometimes even tumultuous debates, the Jewish state gradually began to take shape. The final Basel Congress met in 1946 in the halls of the Mustermesse Basel. No city has had as great an impact as Basel on the history of Zionism. Of the 22 Congresses held until the state of Israel was finally founded, 10 were held at the place of origin.
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