One hundred twenty years have passed since Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist, playwright, and political activist, convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. At the 1897 gathering, Herzl presented his vision of a national homeland for the Jewish people, a vision that culminated half a century later in the founding of the State of Israel. On Monday, Queens residents, Jewish former service members, and Jewish politicians and community leaders gathered at the Theodor Herzl Memorial in Freedom Square in Kew Gardens Hills to commemorate the anniversary of that First Zionist Congress, and to celebrate Herzl’s legacy.
The event was organized by the American Zionist Movement (AZM), the American federation of individuals and Zionist groups connected with the World Zionist Organization. Other organizations represented at the event include Amit, Emunah, the New York Board of Rabbis, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the Queens Borough President’s Office, B’nai Brith International, AIPAC, and Stand With Us, among others.
Herzl’s legacy as a visionary and dreamer, persevering despite setbacks and skepticism, was touched upon by all of the speakers. Galit Peleg, the Consul for Public Diplomacy at the Consulate General of Israel in New York, praised Herzl as an “entrepreneur” and Israel as “a start-up nation” that began as a “metaphoric dream in the garage of Theodor Herzl.” Speaking on behalf of AZM, Ellen Hershkin, the National President of Hadassah (the Women’s Zionist Organization of America) described Zionism as “one of the most incredible movements of the modern era. Herzl, Hershkin said, “went against the trend of emancipation, which defined Judaism as a religion like other religions, as he focused on the concept of Jews as a people with their own homeland and language.”
AZM Executive Director Herbert Block singled out the First Zionist Congress as “an historic event that brought together Jews from around the world from different backgrounds and different philosophies to begin what became the Zionist movement, which led to the creation of the State of Israel a half century later.”
Block explained that the Freedom Square plaque was put up in 1960 by the Queens Zionist District, on the centennial of Herzl’s birth 100 years before, and is one of the only monuments to Herzl in the United States. The park itself was named in honor of Herzl, in Block’s words “a leader who fought for freedom and for what became the State of Israel.” Block added that the Zionist movement is “very much alive, and is represented by all the people who are here.” Block quoted Herzl’s famous declaration that the Basel conference marked the founding of the Jewish state, which Herzl accurately predicted would soon come to fruition.
Dr. Esther Serok, the representative of the World Zionist Organization in America, agreed with those sentiments, describing the First Zionist Congress as a “miracle,” adding that Zionism “changed the state of the Jewish people in our modern era.”
“I came here to thank you, Binyamin Zeev Herzl,” Serok said, addressing Herzl personally by his Hebrew name, “and to declare today that I am a Zionist, a devoted and true believer in Zionism.”
Serok explained that Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state in Israel was borne out of his frustration with the persecution his fellow Jews were undergoing in Europe, and the anti-Semitism he experienced himself.
“Does it sound familiar these days in Europe?” Serok asked. “And even in the United States? He [Herzl] was called a visionary, and he earned this title because just like a prophet he envisioned an establishment of the State of Israel when this idea of Jews having their own state seemed to be so inconceivable because the Jews were scattered all over the globe.”
Serok said that Herzl “against all odds believed that the Jewish people are capable of establishing a country of their own, a state internationally recognized by the family of nations. What a dream! What an unusual ability to predict the future. Wasn’t [Herzl] a prophet? What else do you call a man who said, ‘If you will it, it is no dream?’ Herzl’s dream was to create a society that could integrate Jewish and universal values, a tolerant and progressive society for the benefit of the entire world.” At the same time, Serok acknowledged that Herzl’s utopian vision has not yet been fully realized.
“That is our mission for the next 120 years,” she said. “We are standing here today, Mr. Herzl, thanking you, and trying to promise you to keep working to unite the Jewish people, to protect the valuable State of Israel, to connect our fellow Jewish brothers and sisters to Israel, and to seek peace for all of Israel.”
Other speakers at the event included Queens Jewish Community Council President Michael Nussbaum, who noted that the fight for Israel’s security is still ongoing. New York Board of Rabbis Executive Vice President Rabbi Joseph Potasnik praised the efforts of Council Members Barry Grodenchik, Rory Lancman, and others leading to the reinstatement of a Queens Jewish Museum event on the 1947 UN partition. Rabbi Solomon F. Rybak, Co-President of the Religious Zionists of America, said the legacy of Herzl is reflected in Jewish education, which is essential for the Jewish people’s survival in the future.
The themes of survival, hope, and renewal voiced by the speakers were encapsulated in the singing of HaTikvah, the national anthem of the State of Israel, and the sounding of the shofar, symbolizing the Jewish people’s hope of final redemption from exile that was also the dream of Theodor Herzl.
By Menachem Rephun