First Zionist Congress

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The delegates at the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland (1897).

The First Zionist Congress (Hebrew: הקונגרס הציוני הראשון‎‎) was the inaugural congress of the Zionist Organization (ZO) (to become the World Zionist Organization (WZO) in 1960) held in Basel (Basle), Switzerland, from August 29 to August 31, 1897. It was convened[1] and chaired[2] by Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionism movement. The Congress formulated a Zionist platform, known as the Basel program, and founded the Zionist Organization. It also adopted the Hatikvah as its anthem (already the anthem of Hovevei Zion and later to become the national anthem of the State of Israel).


The Municipal Casino in Basel where the Congress took place.

The first Zionist Congress was convened by Theodor Herzl as a symbolic parliament for the small minority[3] of Jewry in agreement with the implementation of Zionist goals. While Jewish majority opposition to Zionism would continue until after revelation of the Holocaust in World War II,[4] some proponents point to several directions and streams of this early Jewish opposition. "Alongside the dynamic development of the Zionist movement, which generated waves of enthusiasm throughout the Jewish public, sharp criticism began to appear about Zionism, claiming that Zionism could not hope to resolve the Jewish problem and would only serve to harm the status of Jewish laborers and sabotage its own recognition as an independent class."[2][5] As a result of the vocal opposition by both the Orthodox and Reform community leadership, the Congress, which was originally planned in Munich, Germany, was transferred to Basel by Herzl.[1][2] The Congress took place in the concert hall of the Municipal Casino on August 29, 1897.


A participant card from the event.
The symbol of the First Congress.
The flag of the First Zionist Congress

Herzl acted as chairperson of the Congress which was attended by some 200 participants from seventeen countries, 69 of whom were delegates from various Zionist societies and the remainder were individual invitees.[1] Ten non-Jews were also in attendance and were expected to abstain from voting.[1] Seventeen women attended the Congress, some of them in their own capacity, others accompanying representatives.[1] While women participated in the First Zionist Congress, they did not have voting rights; they were accorded full membership rights at the Second Zionist Congress, the following year.[1]

Following a festive opening in which the representatives arrived in formal dress, tails and white tie, the Congress moved onto the agenda.[1] The principal items on the agenda were the presentation of Herzl's plans, the establishment of the Zionist Organization and the declaration of Zionism's goals-the Basel program.[1]

At the Congress, Herzl was elected President of the Zionist Organization, with Max Nordau and Moses Gaster two of the three vice-presidents. Also, an Inner Actions Committee and a Greater Actions Committee were elected to run the affairs of the movement between Congresses.

Basel Declaration[edit]

The "Basel Program."

On the second day of its deliberations (August 30), the version submitted to the Congress by a committee under the chair of Max Nordau, it was stated: "Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law." This gave clear expression to Herzl's political Zionist vision, in contrast with the settlement orientated activities of the more loosely organized Hovevei Zion.[2] To meet halfway the request of numerous delegates, 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.[1]

The program, which came to be known as the Basel program, set out the goals of the Zionist movement. It was adopted on the following terms:[1]


Editorial summarizing reactions by The Times' many correspondents, Sep 4, 1897, four days after the close of the congress.

The First Zionist Congress is credited for the following achievements:

  • The formulation of the Zionist platform, (the Basel program, above)
  • The foundation of the Zionist Organization
  • The adoption of Hatikvah as its anthem
  • The absorption of most of the previous Hovevei Zion societies
  • The suggestion for the establishment of a people's bank, and
  • The election of Herzl as President of the Zionist Organization and Max Nordau one of three Vice-Presidents.

Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary (September 3, 1897):

Subsequent years[edit]

Subsequent congresses founded various institutions for the promotion of this program, notably a people's bank known as the Jewish Colonial Trust, which was the financial instrument of political Zionism. Its establishment was suggested at the First Zionist Congress in 1897; the first definite steps toward its institution were taken at the Second Zionist Congress in Cologne, Germany in May, 1898.[7] For the Fifth Zionist Congress, the Jewish National Fund was founded for the purchase of land in the Land of Israel and later the Zionist Commission was founded with subsidiary societies for the study and improvement of the social and economic condition of the Jews within the Land of Israel.

The Zionist Commission was an informal group established by Chaim Weizmann. It carried out initial surveys of Palestine and aided the repatriation of Jews sent into exile by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. It expanded the ZO's Palestine office, which was established in 1907, into small departments for agriculture, settlement, education, land, finance, immigration, and statistics. In 1921, the commission became the Palestine Zionist Executive, which acted as the Jewish Agency, to advise the British mandate authorities on the development of the country in matters of Jewish interest.[8]

The Zionist Congress met every year between 1897 and 1901, then except for war years, every second year (1903–1913, 1921–1939). In 1942, an "Extraordinary Zionist Conference" was held and announced a fundamental departure from traditional Zionist policy[9] with its demand "that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth."[10] It became the official Zionist stand on the ultimate aim of the movement.[9] Since the Second World War, meetings have been held approximately every four years and since the creation of the State of Israel, the Congress has been held in Jerusalem.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Jewish Virtual Library: The First Zionist Congress and the Basel Program
  2. ^ a b c d e Nili Kadary, Herzl and the Zionist Movement: From Basle to Uganda - Background Text, JAFI, 2002
  3. ^ Nahum Goldmann, The Jewish Paradox, translated by Steven Cox (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978), p. 77. "When Zionism first appeared on the world scene most Jews opposed it and scoffed at it. Herzl was only supported by a small minority."
  4. ^ Edward C. Corrigan, Jewish Criticism of Zionism Archived 2010-07-06 at the Wayback Machine., Middle East Policy Council, Journal, Winter 1990-91, Number 35. "Prior to World War II the majority of Jews were non-Zionist, and a large number were openly hostile to Zionism. ...It was not until the full horror of the Holocaust was realized that the great bulk of the Jewish community came to support Zionism."
  5. ^ JAFI summarizes objections as follows:
    • 1.Part of ultra-orthodox Jewry, who viewed Zionism as heresy against the principles of the Jewish religion;
    • 2. A section of the Jewish intelligentsia, who considered Herzl to be a false Messiah, and his movement - a danger to the Emancipation for which they were striving;
    • 3. Well-established, wealthy Jews, who feared for the fate of their businesses and capital should society's attitude to the Jews in general deteriorate.
    • 4. The social-democratic movement in general, and the "Bund" - the Jewish Labor Movement - in particular. The latter claimed that Zionism could not hope to resolve the Jewish problem and would only serve to harm the status of Jewish laborers and sabotage its own recognition as an independent class.
  6. ^ This second part of the sentence, with the reference to the 50 years, can be found at Jewish Agency for Israel, Jewish Zionist Education > Compelling Content > Israel and Zionism > The First 120 Years > Chapter Two: The Seven Years of Herzl
  7. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Jewish Colonial Trust, The (Jüdische Colonialbank)
  8. ^ Caplan, Neil. Palestine Jewry and the Arab Question, 1917 - 1925. London and Totowa, NJ: F. Cass, 1978.
  9. ^ a b American Jewish Year Book Vol. 45 (1943-1944) Pro-Palestine and Zionist Activities, pp 206-214
  10. ^ Michael Oren, Power, Faith and Fantasy, Decision at Biltmore, pp 442-445

Further reading[edit]

The Jewish Encyclopedia: Basel Program