Former FZY Mazkir Jack Isaacs pens his thoughts on a recent visit to Basel, site of the First Zionist Congress and considers the relevance of the Israeli National Anthem; Hatikvah - the Hope.
Photo of FZY Hadrachaniks singing "Hatikvah"
This article doesn’t seek to retell the horrors of what has happened in Israel over the last 3 weeks, but rather to look back to a key moment in Jewish and Zionist history and how “The Hope” has never been more pertinent.
At the time of writing, I’m sitting in Basel Airport (fun fact, the airport is in France rather than Switzerland), having just visited the Swiss capital city of Bern for a European away day, seeing the Champions of Europe Manchester City beat Swiss Champions BSC Young Boys 3-1. It’s no exaggeration to say the purpose of this trip - the match - has served as a distraction from what has been going on recently, providing a brief diversion for all of a couple of hours. Upon the logistics of the trip being finalised, I knew there was one place that I just wanted to see if I could whilst being out here. If Basel doesn’t ring any bells to anyone in the Jewish and Zionist context yet, it will do now…
Photograph of Stadtcasino Basel, October 2023. This is the site where the First Zionist Congress was held, in a concert hall in the same place.
Let me take you back to August 1897, 126 years and 2 months ago, when the First Zionist Congress was held in the concert hall at the Stadtcasino in Basel. The founder of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, convened and chaired the Congress for 208 delegates, as well as 26 members of the press. The idea of a Jewish homeland after 2000 years of exile was a pipe dream before the great Zionist thinkers of the time met to thrash out what that should look like as the summer was coming to an end in 1897.
Theodore Herzl at the First Zionist Congress, Basel 1897.
The goals of the Zionist movement were set out on the following terms at the “Basel Program”:
Zionism seeks to establish a home in Palestine for the Jewish people, secured under public law.
To achieve this goal, the Congress envisages the following means:
1. The expedient promotion of the settlement of Jewish agriculturists, artisans, and businessmen in Palestine.
2. The organization and bringing together of all Jews through local and general events, according to the laws of the various countries.
3. The strengthening of Jewish feeling and national consciousness.
4. Preparatory steps for obtaining the governmental approval which is necessary to the achievement of the Zionist purpose.
Additionally to these goals, Theodore Herzl was elected President of the Zionist Organisation and Hatikvah was adopted as the movement’s anthem.
Hatikvah is one of my Desert Island Discs. I believe it’s one of the most powerful songs that exists. At the vigil held outside Downing Street on Whitehall on 9th October, 2 days after the darkest day in the 75 year history of the State of Israel, thousands gathered and the ceremony ended in the most powerful Hatikvah I’ve ever been a part of. This was repeated at the “Bring Them Home” peace rally on 22nd October in Trafalgar Square.
Hatikvah being sung at Whitehall Vigil on 9th October 2023.
Bring Them Home rally on 22nd October.
Hatikvah can be translated as “The Hope”, a word that is analogous to the plight of the Jewish people all across history. Below is the English translation of Hatikvah:
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope - the two-thousand-year-old hope - will not be lost: To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
The Jewish spirit, “Nefesh Yehudi”, is the cornerstone of our community. It’s a spirit that never fades, in the most difficult times, it remains. “Eyes turned toward the East” symbolises the way we face in communal prayer, towards Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Holy Land. “Our hope… will not be lost”, that belief in us all is a constant, it has been for over 2000 years and it will remain constant. “To be a free people in our land”, today we are in our land, Herzl and countless generations of the Zionist movement have worked for our state, culminating in the Declaration of Independence being announced by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, in May 1948. In some sense, I suppose that our “free[dom]” there has been achieved albeit with constant threats from neighbouring countries for the last 75 years. “The land of Zion and Jerusalem”, the biblical importance of the land, the reason that the slither between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is the Jewish homeland - our ancestral home.
We have sung this song with pride all our lives, we have sung this song louder and prouder than ever since October 7th. Where there is Hope, there is a light that we can always look to. Our country is hurting, our people are hurting but we have shown that our community, in the UK and all over the world, has been a אור לגויים (Or le’goyim), “Light Unto the Nations”. Never had the community been so cohesive in my lifetime, orthodox or reform, religious or secular, it’s not mattered what denomination of Judaism, everyone had helped with charity appeals, the packaging of vital goods needed for those affected in Israel and other wonderful initiatives in Israel’s ultimate time of need.
It’s no doubt a tough time for us all, the mental toll the ongoing situation is taking on each one of us is large but Hatikvah will keep us going.
Sending strength, love and prayers to our family and friends in Israel. We’re thinking of you!
To my friends Jonny, Adi and Sraya and everyone else called up for reserve duty in the IDF, I say this prayer:
“He Who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Force, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our God from the border of the Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea unto the approach of the Aravah, on the land, in the air, and on the sea.
May Hashem cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them. May the Holy One, Blessed is He, preserve and rescue our fighting men from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may He send blessing and success in their every endeavor.
May He lead our enemies under their sway and may He grant them salvation and crown them with victory. And may there be fulfilled for them the verse: For it is Hashem, your God, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you.
Now let us respond: Amen.”
Finally, here are the words to Hatikvah in full, in the Hebrew and transliteration:
כֹּל עוֹד בַּלֵּבָב פְּנִימָה
נֶפֶשׁ יְהוּדִי הוֹמִיָּה,
וּלְפַאֲתֵי מִזְרָח, קָדִימָה,
עַיִן לְצִיּוֹן צוֹפִיָּה,
עוֹד לֹא אָבְדָה תִּקְוָתֵנוּ,
הַתִּקְוָה בַּת שְׁנוֹת אַלְפַּיִם,
לִהְיוֹת עַם חָפְשִׁי בְּאַרְצֵנוּ,
אֶרֶץ צִיּוֹן וִירוּשָׁלַיִם.
Kol od balevav penimah,
Nefesh yehudi homiyah,
Ulefa-atei mizrach, kadimah,
Ayin letziyon tsofiyah.
Od lo avdah tikvateinu
Hatikva bat shnot alpayim,
Lihyot am chofshi be-artzeinu,
Eretz tzion, virushalayim
Keep these words in mind, now and always.
Am Yisrael Chai.