JERUSALEM, Israel – As Israel approaches the 70th anniversary of statehood, a key event in Switzerland more than 100 years ago became instrumental in the birth of the Jewish state.
In 1897, Jewish leaders from around the world gathered in Basel, Switzerland, to discuss the idea of a Jewish state.
Israeli historian Michael Widlanski says Jewish pioneers were already here trying to farm the barren land.
"They were trying to combine the practical with the ideal. The ideal was to establish a Jewish state, but there were already practical steps on the ground," Widlanski told CBN News. Theodor Herzl said we need a state and he predicted that in 50 years from 1897 – there would be a Jewish state. And sure enough there was."
Herzl died in 1904 and didn't live to see his dream fulfilled. But in 1949, the father of modern Zionism was reburied here in the Jerusalem cemetery that was named for him. His grave lies alongside Israel's greatest statesmen and military leaders.
Herzl, a Viennese journalist, initially believed the Jewish people should assimilate into the Christian world to be accepted.
That perception changed after he witnessed rampant anti-Semitism in France. Herzl then wrote about the idea of a Jewish state.
On August 29, 1987, he opened the First Zionist Congress, declaring they were laying the foundation stone of the house that would shelter the Jewish people.
"The Congress wanted to set up an idea of a program. They called it the Basel Program. It was a very starry-eyed program, but with its feet on the ground," Widlanski explained.
According to Widlanski, the initial goal was the organization of Jewish groups worldwide.
"They wanted to get them together on the same page – organize financing, organize transport, continuing organization for bringing people from many, many countries, different languages, into this faraway country that was mostly desert, and again they succeeded," he said.
Widlanski said the name "Zion" pointed to the importance God Himself put on this place.
"It comes from the Hebrew term Tzion, which literally means the place that God made His mark. He signified it," he said. "God says, 'and I will take you to the place that I will designate, that I will have marked, which I will have chosen, that is Zion.' That is God's place on earth where He chooses to be recognized. Of course He's everywhere but He wants you to know that He's got His feet as it were on the ground, in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount."
And in just 50 years, despite Russian persecution, two world wars and the Holocaust, Israel was reborn.