Jewish Journal

From generation to generation

by Arthur Cohn

Posted on May. 8, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Marcus Cohn

The first chief rabbi of the Jewish community of the Swiss city of Basel was my grandfather, Arthur Cohn, after whom I was named and whom I know only through hearsay and stories told by my father.

For 40 years, my grandfather held the office of chief rabbi of Basel, a city to which he had come at the age of 23. Although unwavering in his religious principles, which he sought to inculcate and foster in the community, he was exceedingly tolerant toward those of other beliefs.

Religion, he proclaimed on the 25th anniversary of his rabbi inauguration, is the free, unrestrained manifestation of the human heart, and only as such has it any inherent value. There should be no constraint and no duress in religious matters.

In all the sermons and writings he bequeathed to us, there is not a single disparaging or harsh word against those whose religious beliefs deviated from his own.

That attitude helps answer a perplexing question about the movement that would lead to the founding of the modern state of Israel: Why, of all places, did it start in Basel?

The First Zionist Congress took place in Basel in 1897. At this time, there was only a small Jewish community in Basel, the majority of whose members originated from Alsace. The congress literally burst into the lives to this quiet Jewish community.

The first session of the congress took place on Sunday morning, Aug. 29. My grandfather was particularly impressed by the fact that, on the previous Thursday afternoon, many congressional delegates had been firmly convinced that a decision would be made late on Thursday as to whether the congress would take place at all. A tradition has it that the Messiah would not appear on a Friday or the Sabbath. He could, however, appear by Thursday evening -- and if so there would be no need for the congress. Should he not arrive by that time, then it was certain he would also not appear on Friday or Saturday. Thus, the congress could take place on Sunday.

This anecdote was typical of the prevailing attitude at the time, when many people felt there was a conflict between the Zionist Movement founded by the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, and the popular view that Messianic belief did not envisage the premature transference of the Holy Land into the political ownership of the Jewish people.

For these and other reasons, large sections of European Jewry were strongly opposed to the establishment of the Zionist Congress. This attitude led organizers to abandon their first choice of Munich as the congress's center. Political Zionism -- something the vast majority of Jews proclaim today -- was a deeply divisive issue then, with many religious Jews fiercely opposed. The organizers scouted around for another city. My grandfather's attitude, deeply traditional yet open- minded, tipped the balance in favor of Basel.

Herzl wrote to my grandfather: "We shall never forget your truly sincere and honest behaviour and your willingness to hold the Zionist Congress in Basel. Without any undue concessions, you have found a common ground for reconciliation -- that is perhaps one of the most splendid achievements of these days, which will go down in the history of the Jews."

The discussions between my grandfather and the various rabbis who had come to Basel revolved mainly around the question of how it would be possible to win over religious circles in the West for the Zionist cause. During one such conversation, my grandfather said: "If you knew the Zionists in Switzerland and their particular religious views, you would find it hard to endorse the Zionist cause." With a smile, his Eastern European Jewish colleague replied: "You should first see my Zionists."

Because of his support of the Zionist cause my grandfather encountered misunderstanding and anger from most of his rabbinical colleagues. He endeavored to point out to them the advantages that the Zionists efforts would bring to Judaism, namely the revival of the Hebrew language and the consequent restoration of Jewish interests. Rabbi Breuer told my grandfather: "You will see, dear Rabbi Cohn, in a few more months, no more mention will be made of Zionism." Years later Rabbi Breuer's mother, on hearing of the convening of a later congress, allegedly said: "Does that still exist? My son wrote against it, didn't he?"

My father Marcus Cohn was a renowned lawyer in Basel. In 1949, he was called to the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem, where under Justice Minister Pinhas Rosen he played an important part in the drafting of new laws for the young state, based on Jewish as well as Swiss jurisprudence. For my father, the Zionist congresses represented his first encounters with Jewish scholars, and they left a deep, lasting impression on him.

One small personal recollection remained etched in his memory. My father was just 7 years old and was allowed to accompany home at night one of the Easter European Jewish rabbis who was staying in the most modest hotel in Basel. Bashfully, my father strode side-by-side with the rabbi who turned to him and asked what he was presently learning pertaining to Judaism. Myfather told him the Talmudic Tractate Beitza, which deals with the holidays.

Yet when the rabbi asked him what specifically he was studying, my father felt ashamed because he was unable to answer. Then to my father's surprise the rabbi began to quote Beitza by heart, until he came to the actual point my father had reached in his learning. Deeply astounded and awestruck at such intense Jewish knowledge, my father then proceeded home, overwhelmed by the experience.

One thing will always hold true for our generation as well as for generations to come: In the Swiss city of Basel, only the inner quality is important, not the shiny image reflected on the outside. In this respect, my father and grandfather are said to have set a glowing example. They looked for and found the Jewish light everywhere that the struggle to Judaism was being fought, and they belong to us as living and exemplary links between the generations.

In his final letter to my grandfather, Theodore Herzl expressed this notion far better than I:

Your Reverence,

I thank you for your friendly letter. The lofty sincerity of your attitude at the Basel Congress will remain unforgettable to all of us. Without unworthy concessions, we have found the way to one another, that is perhaps one of the most beautiful achievements of those days which belong to Jewish history.

Gladly would I write to you at length but the burden of work that rests on me grows daily. Give me pleasure frequently through your kind reports and forgive me once and for all if I do not answer immediately.

In sincere admiration,

Yours respectfully,
Th. Herzl

Arthur Cohn is an international film producer whose films include "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," "Central Station" and "One Day in September."

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