Two Hebrew words come to mind when a native Israeli like me gazes around at the charming Swiss town of Basel, where Theodor Herzl established the Jewish state.
Those words are: “Ma hakesher?” What’s the connection? What links these seemingly so unrelated things? Why did Herzl have to come to Basel, of all places, so that we, the Jewish people, could return to Zion? What do these elegant cafés and churches have to do with the souks and synagogues of the Middle East? The cool River Rhine with the blazing Mediterranean coast?
And if you think the contrast is stark today, when Israel is booming and blooming, just imagine how things seemed 125 years ago, when it was a sleepy desert corner of the Ottoman empire. But the contrast is the point. Herzl worked a miracle in this town. And miracles are all about contrast—because they defy and transform reality.
Herzl himself was a study in contrasts: A secular Jew doubling as a bearded prophet. A playwright taking center stage in an epic drama without a script. A statesman for a state not yet created. A troubled soul with rock-solid commitment to the cause. A visionary pragmatist. That kaleidoscope of traits helped Herzl win over world leaders—as well as the Jewish philanthropists and chief rabbis who resisted his Zionist designs.
And it is a kaleidoscope of traits that makes the modern State of Israel a miracle, each and every day: Its optimism against the odds; its fight for peace; its profoundly diverse people, united by profound destiny; its pride in being so self-critical, its traditions and innovations.
Vision and drive
I happen to live in Herzliya, the town that owes its name to the man many of the world’s Jews gathered in Basel last week to honor. But I feel that I owe my own life—my very existence—to him as well. In the 1930s, my parents made their separate paths to pre-state Israel from Poland. They were only teenagers, and they came alone.
They did so because, in the spirit of Herzl, they sensed the gathering doom of European Jewry. They did so despite the fact that some Polish rabbis were urging Jews to stay.
My parents survived while their relatives in Poland perished. They raised my brothers and me like they helped to build their new country, Israel: with joy and pride, and free of fear. When I was 16, Israel captured Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann—and held a televised trial. It was a turning point for me, an eye-opener: I suddenly understood what Herzl had experienced when he witnessed the Dreyfus affair. For the first time, I learned of the darker side of Jewish destiny: the eternal menace of murderous anti-Semitism.
And, following Herzl’s example, I would combine those two forces—positive and negative, affirmative and defensive—in my life. I served as an Israel Defense Forces officer, conducting secret military research. I went on to a career in healing, as a doctor and addiction expert.
When I met Sheldon, the man who would become my husband of 30 years and the love of my life, what drew me was his Herzl-like vision and drive—his ability to both dream and do.
Cared about what counted
As a couple, Sheldon and I were also a study in contrasts: me a sabra, he an American through and through. We harnessed our differences for a common cause: Israel and Jewish continuity. We championed projects that others might have dismissed as folly. Like getting the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Or bringing every young Jew on a visit to Israel. From Yad Vashem to Birthright, we fused past to present to future.
We made it work because we cared about what counted and dismissed what did not. Because we cherished and worried for each and every Jew—even if not all of them agreed with us. Because, in our modest emulation of the great Herzl, we were willing to go it alone for the sake of our unique and deserving nation.
Now that the event marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress is over, let us keep up those contrasts. Let us remember that our differences make us adaptable and strong and interesting. Because that is the Jewishness that Herzl knew and loved—the collective condition that he rightly intuited would bring about our redemption.
Dr. Miriam Adelson, M.D., is a specialist in chemical dependency and drug addiction. She is the publisher of “Israel Hayom.”
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.