Hot topics simmer at worldwide Zionist centennial

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BASEL — They came to celebrate 100 years of Zionism, but found themselves confronting present-day controversies.

The ceremonies here marking the centennial of the First Zionist Congress focused, as all expected, on what was achieved 100 years ago.

But leading figures at the commemorations, which drew 1,500 attendees from around the world, also delved into such hot topics as Switzerland's role during World War II, the anti-Semitism that persists in Switzerland to this day and Israel's commitment to the peace process with the Palestinians.

To be sure, the achievements of Zionism were celebrated at a formal dinner Sunday night — on the date and in the hall where Theodor Herzl concluded the first congress — when the five days of festivities drew to a close. Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization, which co-sponsored the event with the Basel government, applauded Herzl's vision.

He also called for a reform in religious attitudes enabling Jews "to live among Jews as equals despite the differences between each other."

Dan Tichon, the Knesset speaker, likewise applauded the first congress, which transformed scattered 19th-century calls for a Jewish homeland into an international movement — the WZO — whose efforts were crowned 50 years later with the creation of the state of Israel. But Tichon also discussed Israel's continued struggle against its traditional Arab enemies, in the process shifting the focus to the peace process.

"The Arab nations have made every effort to destroy the Zionist cause from the start," he said. "Only after five wars from which Israel emerged victorious, and after countless disasters brought by the Palestinians on themselves, dialogue commenced. Yet with all the possibilities for peace, we must at every moment be ready to repel our enemies."

The peace process also became a theme of his Swiss counterpart, Judith Stamm. "We see the success of Zionism, but we also see the dark side of this success," she said at Sunday's closing ceremony, referring to Israeli policies toward Palestinians, which she and other Swiss politicians sometimes question.

"We firmly support the state of Israel's right to existence. However, that does not mean we must agree with every political measure taken by the state."

If she appeared somewhat defensive, it was the result of Israeli-Swiss tensions that simmered in the background even as the festivities were being organized.

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

Against this backdrop, the country had hoped to use the centennial as an international showcase of good will toward Jews — and had hoped to draw a few thousand Jewish leaders to the event. But some Jews' ambivalence about Switzerland's wartime history led to a smaller turnout. Israeli President Ezer Weizman canceled his plans to attend the conference, leaving Tichon as the highest-ranking Israeli politician.

Weizman's aides originally cited conflicts in his schedule, but this week Burg admitted that Weizman canceled in part because of less than savory news regarding Switzerland's wartime behavior.

Weizman also believed the celebrations of the first congress should only be held in Israel, Burg added.

A separate set of festivities will take place in Jerusalem in December, when the 33rd World Zionist Congress is held.

But for all the hopes of Swiss officials, the Basel event did not result in an Israeli-Swiss rapprochement.

In an interview this week on Swiss Television, Tichon admitted that Israeli-Swiss relations were strained. "I do not know if Israel or Switzerland is responsible for this strain," he said, "but we must improve our relations."

Along with Switzerland's wartime actions, the current attitudes of some Swiss toward Jews have created additional tension. The often heated public debate regarding Switzerland's responsibility for its wartime role has led in recent months to an anti-Semitic backlash, with some incidents involving the leaders of Switzerland's Jewish community.

Last week, the Israeli ambassador to Switzerland, Gabriel Padon, said that he had called on the Swiss government to do more to counter Swiss anti-Semitism.

Indeed, Swiss Interior Minister Ruth Dreifuss, herself Jewish, told guests at a Saturday night dinner in Tichon's honor that Swiss anti-Semitism still exists.