Podcast: Daniel Polisar on the First Zionist Congress, 125 Years Later

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Earlier this week, in the Swiss city of Basel, the World Zionist Organization convened to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, which was the brainchild of one of Zionism’s founding fathers, Theodor Herzl.

At the time, the condition of European Jewry was precarious and degraded. The solution, in Herzl’s eyes, was not to be found in the animating Jewish impulse of the age: assimilation. He thought no amount of assimilation would rid the Jews of anti-Semitism, and that instead only a political solution would work. That political solution, of course, was to establish political sovereignty in the Land of Israel. As he put it in his opening remarks, “We wish to lay the cornerstone of the house in which the Jewish nation will one day find shelter.”

Our guest on this podcast is the Israeli scholar Daniel Polisar. To him, the early flowerings of that idea in the First Zionist Congress were so significant that the meeting was, to quote the title of an essay he wrote on the subject in 2017 in Mosaic, “the most politically significant meeting of any group of Jews in the last 1,800 years.” Today we revisit that essay, and look back at the First Zionist Congress, how it came to be, and what it aimed to achieve.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

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