First Zionist Congress

The first Zionist Congress

“At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this aloud today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.” —Theodor Herzl, Diary Entry, September 1, 1897.

Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress as a symbolic Parliament for those who felt sympathy with the Zionist goals. The idea of organizing a Zionist Congress was not new. Indeed, the leaders of Hovevei Zion had convened an international conference back in November 1884. But in 1897 Theodor Herzl organized a congress with unprecedented panache and for the whole world to see. At that time only tens of thousand Jews were living in Palestine, and the rest of the Jewish nation (millions of people) were scattered all over Europe and the rest of the world. The main idea behind the Congress was to spread out the notion of the Zionist movement among the Jews of the world.

Herzl had planned to hold the gathering in Munich, but due to local Jewish opposition, he transferred the gathering to Basel, Switzerland. The Congress took place from August 29 – 31, 1897 in the concert hall of the Basel Municipal Casino. There is some dispute as to the exact number of participants at this First Zionist Congress; however, the approximate figure is 200 participants from seventeen countries, sixty-nine of whom were delegates from various Zionist societies, while the remaining participants were individual invitees. A few women did participate in the Zionist Congress, but their voting rights were given to them only at the second congress a year later.

In addition to all the participants mentioned above, there were also ten non­-Jews who were invited by Herzl to the Congress, although they were not given the right to vote. One of the more prominent members of the Christian delegation was William Hechler. Henry Dunant was also invited by Herzl but did not attend, however, Herzl did thank him, as well as other Christian Zionists, during his final, rousing remarks delivered on Aug. 31st. Both these men are presented at the Friends of Zion Museum. Hechler was deeply impressed with Herzl’s book “The Jewish State“, and became a big advocate for the Zionist movement. He introduced Herzl to leading political leaders and these connections gave Herzl and Zionism a great deal of legitimacy. Dunant had promoted humanitarian ideas all over Europe, which led to the establishment of the Red Cross foundation and he was the first to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. But in addition to that, Dunant had also called for the restoration of the Jewish People back to the land of Israel. Herzl referred to him as a Christian Zionist and that was the first time that term was ever used.

The Zionist Movement sought to establish a home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, where the Jews would be secure under public law. To achieve that the Congress decided on a number of goals: The promotion of settlement of Jewish agriculturists, artisans, and tradesmen in Palestine.

  1. The unification of all Jews into local or general groups, both local and international, in accordance with the laws of each country.
  2. Strengthening the Jewish feeling and consciousness.
  3. Preparatory steps for obtaining the consent of governments, which were necessary for the achievement of the Zionist purpose.

Following a festive opening in which the representatives were expected to arrive in formal dress and white tie, the Congress got down to business quickly. The main items on the agenda were the presentation of Theodor Herzl’s plans, the establishment of the World Zionist Organization and the declaration of Zionism’s goals -the Basel program.

In the version submitted to the Congress on the second day of its deliberations (August 30) by a committee under the chairmanship of Max Nordau, it was stated: “The aim of Zionism is to create a home for the Jewish people in Eretz­ Israel secured by law.” Many delegates wanted to contribute and offered ideas of their own. In order to meet, the requests of numerous delegates halfway, the most prominent of whom was Leo Motzkin who sought the inclusion of the phrase “by international law”, a compromise formula proposed by Herzl was eventually adopted.

A few decisions were voted on at the first Zionist Congress. Firstly, “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”) was adopted as the Zionist movement’s anthem. Secondly, Theodor Herzl was elected president of the organization, and Max Nordau one of three Vice-Presidents.  In addition, Jews who wanted to be part of the Zionist movement were asked to pay an annual tax of a shekel (equivalent to an English shilling). By the following year, there were 80,000-shekel holders; by 1935, there were a million. At first, the Zionist Congress met every year (1897­-1901), then every other year (1903-1913, 1921-1939). Since World War II, meetings have been held approximately every four years.

This year on August 29, it is the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, which set into motion the establishment of the Jewish state. Going back to the quote that opens the article, Herzl predicted the appreciation he would get after the first Zionist Congress, and just a bit over 50 years later he received the appreciation. The Zionist dream came true and the Jewish State was established.