August 29th will mark the 120th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress in Basel. So what information can BBC audiences find online concerning that historic event and its background? The answer to that question is very little.
Still available online is an undated page in a backgrounder called “A History of Conflict” that appears to have been published over a decade ago. Titled “First Zionist Congress“, that backgrounder (a version of which also appears in Turkish) provides the following information:
“The First Zionist Congress met in Basle [sic], Switzerland, to discuss the ideas set out in Theodor Herzl’s 1896 book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). Herzl, a Jewish journalist and writer living in Vienna, wanted Jews to have their own state – primarily as a response to European anti-Semitism.
The Congress issued the Basle [sic] Programme to establish a “home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured by public law” and set up the World Zionist Organisation to work for that end.
A few Zionist immigrants had already started arriving in the area before 1897. By 1903 there were some 25,000 of them, mostly from Eastern Europe. They lived alongside about half a million Arab residents in what was then part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. A second wave of about 40,000 immigrants arrived in the region between 1904 and 1914.”
“Basel, Switzerland was the venue for the first Zionist Congress in 1897. It was called to campaign for a land which Jews could call their own, and where they could be safe from persecution.”
The unidentified presenter of that programme rightly tells listeners that:
“What spurred Herzl on was antisemitism. The Jewish State was to be a refuge from it.”
Bernard Wasserstein is then heard saying:
“He tried to find the most realistic solution and the most realistic solution as he saw it was not integration in states which did not want to have Jews as integrated elements. It was not the dissolution of Jews in an international socialist revolutionary movement. No; he saw the separating out of the Jews in a state of their own through which they could become part of the modern world.”
Presenter: “They weren’t part of the modern world where antisemitism was worst; in eastern Europe.”
The next contributor is Noah Lucas.
“The Jews had been impoverished and viciously persecuted. The persecution of the Jews was pretty endemic in eastern Europe. Of course in today’s terms, following the Holocaust, the extent of persecution and its severity was really almost trivial. I mean you’re talking about scores – sometimes at most hundreds – of Jews perhaps being killed in the entire continent. But nevertheless; persecution and impoverishment and cruel official antisemitism very often in the case of Russia.”
Presenter: “In western Europe, by contrast, the spread of liberal ideas had enabled Jews to advance in society as never before. But this inspired antisemitism in those who saw them as rivals or just too pushy.”
Later on (10:46) the presenter tells listeners:
“And it didn’t seem to occur to Herzl that the Arabs living in Palestine could possibly object to his plans.”
Lucas: “He saw the Jews as people who would bring beauty and light to the country. They would build and there would be an economy in which everybody there would thrive and everybody would be brothers and there was no sense of an impending conflict with the indigenous population of the country. This was a very typical attitude of course. The Palestinians living there were some half a million perhaps in number. They had no national consciousness at that time. They didn’t themselves exert a claim to statehood in Palestine as it was. Palestine was a political vacuum in that sense.”
Other than those two items, members of the BBC’s audience would have difficulty finding any available information concerning the birth of political Zionism and its context. Given the way in which Zionism and the birth of Israel are often presented in contemporary BBC coverage, accurate and impartial information on that topic is clearly lacking.