Swiss Zionism centennial tainted by current troubles

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BASEL — The Swiss are throwing a 100th birthday bash for Zionism, but the party atmosphere appears likely to be muted by anguish over the host's wartime history and poor promotion. Unusually heavy security surrounding the event is also likely to mar the festivities by underscoring the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the country.

The weeklong celebration will culminate Aug. 31 on the date and in the hall where Theodor Herzl concluded the first Zionist Congress 100 years ago, laying the foundation for the birth of the Jewish state.

Paltry participation — at least from North America — and tepid interest among Israeli officials are foiling Swiss efforts to use the centennial as an international showcase of goodwill toward Jews.

The Swiss are still reeling from the international outcry over revelations that they profited from their wartime dealings with the Nazis and failed to return bank accounts and other Jewish assets to their rightful owners after the war.

Against this backdrop, the country had hoped that a few thousand Jewish leaders from around the world would attend the centennial.

In fact, a few more than 1,000 are expected, with North American participation especially light.

In addition to their ambivalence about the Swiss and to the organizational disarray, Zionist activists seem more primed for the official 33rd World Zionist Congress in December in Jerusalem. There, delegates from around the world will live out Herzl's legacy by thrashing out Zionist policies and priorities on topics ranging from religious pluralism to the peace process.

A mission of American Zionist leaders to the Basel event, spearheaded by the American Zionist Movement and led by Ruth Popkin, a longtime Hadassah and Jewish National Fund leader, numbers only 35.

The rest of the North American contingent totals roughly 100, mostly Holocaust survivors.

This group was organized by Phil Blazer, a West Coast media entrepreneur named by Basel celebration organizers to chair the centennial effort for the continent.

Dennis Rhein, the head of the Basel tourist board, who appointed Blazer, said he is satisfied with the bookings. He said 500 people are coming from Israel and 400 from elsewhere in the world.

Blazer said that while he had originally hoped to bring 500 people from North America, he is also content.

"As the Swiss banks thing came out, I realized if 100 people came it would be a miracle," he said.

For their part, U.S. sources say the $3,000 price tag of Blazer's travel package kept more people from going to Basel.

The Swiss are spending approximately $2 million, with private sponsors, including banks and the Jewish community, kicking in an estimated $500,000, according to Rhein.

Some of these costs cover extraordinary security measures. More than 1,000 Swiss police and soldiers are slated to be deployed to protect delegates, augmented by Israeli security personnel.

In New York, Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, which spearheaded the fight for Swiss restitution of Jewish assets lost during the war, said it is incumbent upon the Swiss to do more than be "congenial hosts" by supplying sightseeing and security.

"This is an opportunity for the Swiss to come to grips with the reality that history has imposed upon them in the past two years," said Steinberg, whose group will be represented at the centennial.

For their part, the Israelis have not been making it easy for the Swiss to revel in their own display of goodwill.

Swiss disappointment in the Israelis began in January when Israeli President Ezer Weizman canceled his participation in the event, which the Swiss believed had been confirmed.

Weizman's official cancellation came soon after former Swiss President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz said in an interview that Jewish calls for restitution amounted to "blackmail."

Knesset Speaker Dan Tichon will replace Weizman, along with a delegation of five Knesset members.

Discord over the event prompted the Israeli ambassador to Switzerland, Gabriel Padon, to write a harsh letter to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem criticizing his government's lack of interest and cooperation in the festivities.

Shoshana Cardin, the chair of the United Israel Appeal and cochair of AZM's mission to Basel, said there was an inexplicable "breakdown" in planning and outreach.

She also said the program for the AZM delegation, which begins Aug. 29 after the academic symposium ends, is long on sightseeing and short on substance.

Despite her disappointment, Cardin said she felt compelled to return to the site where it all began.

"I want to see what it means," she said. "Is there going to be a second century of Zionism?"