The first Zionist Congress was to have taken place in Munich, Germany. However, due to considerable opposition by the local community leadership, both Orthodox and Reform, it was decided to transfer the proceedings to Basle, Switzerland.
Theodore Herzl acted as chairperson of the Congress which was attended by some 200 participants. The major achievements of the Congress were its formulation of the Zionist platform, known as the Basle program and the foundation of the World Zionist Organization. The program stated,
"Zionism seeks for the Jewish people a publicly recognized legally secured homeland in Palestine."
This gave clear expression to Herzl's political Zionism in contrast with the settlement orientated activities of the more loosely organized Hibbat Zion. Herzl was elected President of the Zionist organization and an Inner Actions Committee and a Greater Actions Committee were elected to run the affairs of the movement between Congresses.
In his diary Herzl wrote,
“Were I to sum up the Basle Congress in a word - which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly - it would be this: At Basle I founded the Jewish State.”
In the face of a more active opposition to Zionism from amongst various Jewish leaders, Herzl called on the Congress to “conquer the communities.” In essence, this was a demand that the Zionist movement focus its attention not only on political activity for Palestine but also on work within the Jewish communities. At this Congress, the foundations were laid for the establishment of the Jewish Colonial Trust, a financial body aimed at the development of Palestine. It was also at this Congress that a group of Socialists first appeared demanding representation within the Zionist leadership.
Herzl opened the Third Congress with a report on his meetings with Kaiser William II in Constantinople and Jerusalem. Despite the fact that these meetings produced no practical results, the fact that they took place was of considerable symbolic value.
The Congress spent a good deal of its time discussing the political dimensions of Zionism although opposition to this orientation was voiced by those who thought that the more practical efforts of settlement should be encouraged. In a debate on the Jewish Colonial Trust, Congress decided that its funds could only be spent in Palestine or Syria.
Whilst delegates were increasingly concerned with what was called the question of culture—the Zionist attempt at a national/ethnic identity for the Jews—Herzl was preoccupied with the political matters at hand. Some historians argue that Herzl was not so much disinterested in these cultural matters as he was frightened of their potential to split the infant movement.
The Congress was held in London in order to affect public opinion in that country in sympathy with the Zionist idea. The Congress met in an atmosphere of growing concern over the situation facing Rumanian Jewry where many thousands had been forced to leave and the remainder were subject to persecution. Although this appeared to provide further evidence of the need for a “Charter,” Herzl had nothing substantial to offer that might bring succor to these Jews.
On the cultural question, the religious Zionists led by Rabbi Yitzhak Ya’akov Reines demanded that the Zionist movement restrict itself solely to political matters. The Congress also discussed the problems of the Jewish workers in Palestine and the question of a national Jewish sports movement.
Herzl reported to the Congress of his meeting with Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey and of the progress of the Jewish Colonial Trust. These achievements did not satisfy all the delegates, in particular those associated with the recently formed Democratic Faction.
The group led by Leo Motzkin, Martin Buber and Chaim Weizmann called on the Zionist movement to adopt a program of Hebrew culture and a greater degree of democracy within the organization. The more concrete achievement of the Congress was the establishment of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) which was to raise funds for land purchase in Palestine.
At the Fifth Zionist Congress, a resolution was adopted determining that the next Congress would take place every alternate year and not —as had been the practice—annually.
In his opening speech, Herzl detailed the efforts to secure a Charter on behalf of the movement, but these attempts were increasingly desperate as the situation of the Jews, particularly following the Kishinev pogrom, deteriorated. This gave rise to various temporary solutions such as the “El Arish” project, which was negotiated with the British statesmen, Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Landsdowne.
After the collapse of this scheme, the British then offered Herzl the possibility of an autonomous Jewish settlement in East Africa (commonly known as the Uganda project). Herzl called on the Congress to give serious consideration to the plan, even though he appreciated that it could not replace Palestine as the Jewish Homeland. In the lively debate that followed, Max Nordau, Herzl's major confidante, argued that “Uganda” would be a night refuge. Despite considerable opposition and a demonstrative walk-out by the Russian Zionists, the delegates agreed by 295 in favor, 178 against and 98 abstentions that a committee should be dispatched to examine the possibility of Jewish settlement in East Africa.
Among other matters discussed at the Congress was a report by Franz Oppenheimer on the possibility of cooperative settlement on the land, a program that was to have influence on the creation of various settlements in Palestine a few years later. This was to be Herzl's last Congress: he died a year later.
The Congress opened with a eulogy on Herzl by Nordau. Immediately thereafter, debate resumed on the question of settlement outside Palestine. The Congress heard the report of the Commission that had been sent to East Africa which had concluded that “Uganda” was unsuitable for mass Jewish settlement and proceeded to vote against a national home anywhere except Palestine and its immediate vicinity. The Territorialists, led by Israel Zangwill left the Congress in protest and established the Jewish Territorial Association.
The Congress also discussed practical work in Palestine e.g. giving support to agricultural settlements and industrial activity. Although Nordau seemed the natural choice to succeed Herzl as President of the Zionist Organization, he refused and instead David Wolfsohn assumed this position. The Executive of the WZO moved its offices from Vienna to Cologne.
The decision to hold the Congress in the Hague was based on the knowledge that the Second International Peace Conference was to be held in that city.
At the Congress the major debate concerned the conflicting approaches of the practical and political Zionists.
The political Zionists demanded that a charter be secured before practical work began in Palestine, while the practical Zionists argued that without substantial settlement there was little hope of gaining legal sanction from one or more of the Great Powers.
In the event, the movement supported a number of practical efforts and established a Palestine branch of the WZO to be headed by Arthur Ruppin.
In the meantime, the Congress once again divided over the question of how to implement the Zionist program. The practical lobby accused Wolffsohn of focusing on political activity and his executive—of judging projects by their commercial value. This rival leadership included Menahem Ussishkin, Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow who gained support from the representatives of the workers' movement in Palestine.
This Congress has often been described as the Peace Congress because it finally laid to rest the debate between the practical and political Zionists with Synthetic Zionism becoming the operational mode of the movement.
Considerable attention was given to the question of practical work in Palestine as well as Hebrew culture. Shlomo Kaplansky raised the question of Zionist relations with the Arabs and, for the first time, a session of the Congress was held in Hebrew.
David Wolfsohn was succeeded as President by Otto Warburg, a German Jew and distinguished scientist who was identified with the practical Zionist camp. The WZO moved its headquarters from Cologne to Berlin.
The Congress spent much of its time discussing settlement activities in Palestine and the work of the organization's office in Jaffa. Nordau, who had objected to this deviation from Herzl's approach was conspicuous by his absence.
Weizmann and Ussishkin won the support of Congress for the establishment of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. However, twelve years were to pass before the facility opened.
This was, of course, the first Congress to be held after the First World War, during which time the Zionist movement had won British support for its endeavors to create a Jewish national home in Palestine (the Balfour Declaration). The Congress passed resolutions welcoming the decision of the principal Allied Powers to grant the mandate for Palestine to Britain and encouraged the ratification of the Mandate by the League of Nations.
With the end of the war, the defeat of Germany and the success of the London branch of the movement, it was clear that the leadership there would be rewarded. Weizmann became President of the WZO and Sokolow President of the executive.
The Congress discussed the activities and organization of Keren HaYesod, which had been established a year earlier at the London Conference and whose purpose it was to raise funds for the upbuilding of Palestine from among the Jewish communities of the Diaspora.
A further issue discussed at the Congress was the question of Zionism's relations with the Arabs. This matter had become serious as a result of Arab riots in Jerusalem (1920) and in Jaffa (1921). The Congress passed a resolution declaring that Zionism seeks,
“to live in relations of harmony and mutual respect with the Arab people,”
and called on the Executive to achieve a,
“sincere understanding with the Arab people.”
The Congress reflected the growing trend of party and territorial divisions within the Zionist movement. The Executive now met in London and Jerusalem.
Sources: The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel, (c) 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, Director: Dr. Motti Friedman, Webmaster: Esther Carciente