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Zionist Congresses During British Mandate

(1923 - 1946)

Thirteenth Congress - Carlsbad, Czechoslovakia (1923)

Article Four of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine called for the creation of a Jewish Agency,

"to secure the cooperation of all Jews who are willing to assist in the establishment of the Jewish National Home."

The proposal to include non-Zionists in the Jewish Agency was a matter which aroused considerable opposition and was defeated at this time. (Weizmann however, succeeded in implementing this program some six years later).

Fourteenth Congress - Vienna, Austria (1925)

The Congress met at a time of significant Jewish immigration to Palestine, mainly from Poland. Those in sympathy with the building of the Jewish National Home by private enterprise saw in this wave of immigration the realization of their hopes, while the workers' movement saw it as a threat to their constructive socialist efforts.

The Revisionists, led by Ze'ev Jabotinsky attended their first Congress and demanded a more activist policy for the Zionist movement. They also opposed the inclusion of non-Zionists within the Jewish Agency.

Fifteenth Congress - Basle, Switzerland (1927)

The Congress met under the cloud of a growing economic crisis in Palestine which had already left many unemployed and impoverished. This was to be the year when more Jewish emigrants left the country than arrived at its shores (the first and only year that this was to occur in the pre-State period). It was natural that the Congress should spend much of its time dealing with this issue. Weizmann and Ruppin delivered speeches on how to alleviate the crisis.

Discussion also continued on the question of expanding the Jewish Agency.

Eulogies were delivered on Ahad Ha'am, the ideological leader of the cultural Zionists who had himself only attended the first Congress.

In the elections to the position of President of the WZO, Weizmann was again re-elected. Sokolow, too, was re-elected to the position of President of the Executive, while Henrietta Szold became the first woman to be elected to the Zionist Executive.

Sixteenth Congress - Zurich, Switzerland (1929)

Unlike its predecessor, the Sixteenth Congress met in an atmosphere of optimism concerning economic developments in Palestine. Immigration was up and economic recovery - unlike in the USA and Europe - was underway.

The Congress approved the enlargement of the Jewish Agency - much to the chagrin of a vocal minority dominated by the Revisionists. This decision ended a debate that had lasted seven years. Weizmann and Sokolow were elected respectively to the positions of President of the WZO and the Executive.

Seventeenth Congress - Basle, Switzerland (1931)

Only a few days after the Sixteenth Congress had closed, riots had broken out in Palestine. The Shaw Commission reported unfavorably on Zionist activity in Palestine as did Hope-Simpson, who had been sent to Palestine shortly thereafter. Their recommendations were adopted by Lord Passfield in the White Paper bearing his name. The Zionist movement was in uproar and Weizmann tendered his resignation as President of the organization. However, following negotiations with the minority government of Ramsay MacDonald, many of the negative clauses were retracted.

During the Congress, a large number of delegates protested Weizmann's policy towards the British, in particular his commitment to maximum cooperation with the Mandate authority. The Revisionists were not alone in opposing Weizmann, although they were the most demonstrative. Jabotinsky, the undisputed leader of this stream in Zionism, called on the organization to adopt a resolution stating that Zionism's end goals were the establishment of a Jewish majority and Jewish State in Palestine on both sides of the Jordan river. When the Congress rejected this plea, Jabotinsky tore up his delegate card and shouted, “This is not a Zionist congress!”

This was to be a further landmark on the road to Revisionist secession from the Zionist organization. Weizmann did not withdraw his resignation and Sokolow was elected in his stead. Given the increased Labor representation in the Executive, Weizmann's pro-British orientation was to continue.

Eighteenth Congress - Prague, Czechoslovakia (1933)

Congress met under the impact of three major developments:

  • the advent of the Nazis to power in Germany;
  • an inflationary economy in Palestine, and finally:
  • the assassination of the Labor leader and head of the Jewish Agency Political Department, Chaim Arlosoroff.

Mutual recriminations between the Labor movement - united in Palestine as Mapai in 1930 - and the Revisionists reached new heights. A committee of inquiry was established to investigate the murder.

This was the first Congress where the Labor movement outnumbered the supporters of General Zionism.

Nineteenth Congress - Lucerne, Switzerland (1935)

Once again, the Labor faction was the largest at Congress. A broad coalition was brought together, enabling the return of Weizmann to the position of Presidency. Sokolow was chosen as Honorary President of the WZO and the Jewish Agency, but died the following year.

Congress discussed various issues, many of which centered around the rescue of German Jewry and their immigration to Palestine. In this context, Henrietta Szold outlined the work of Youth Aliyah. David Ben-Gurion was elected to the Executive of the Jewish Agency and was to play an increasingly important role in its work. The Revisionists did not participate in the Congress following their decision to secede and establish their own New Zionist Organization.

The Congress adopted the following resolution:

The 19th Zionist Congress raises its voice against the systematic disenfranchisement of the Jews in Germany, whose ever increasing vehemence undermines the moral and material existence of the German Jews. This results in a defamation of the entire Jewish people and their intellectual and ethical cultural achievements.... The Zionist Congress, which has always regarded the preservation of Jewish honor as one of its legitimate and most important tasks, resolutely rejects, on behalf of the Jewish people, the defamation of Jews because of their race as contradicting the elementary principles of morality and justice. The protest against this disenfranchisement is not only a matter for the Jewish people, but a task to defend the principle of equal rights for all peoples. The 19th Zionist Congress declares that the Jewish people, which in the course of several thousand years of history have preserved their honor and their character under endless sacrifices, will never, in any situation, surrender their honor. It will defend the claim to equal rights for Jewish citizens in all countries, as well as its right to exist as a people among the peoples of the world, with the same determination with which it is willing to build its national home in Palestine - as a solution to its existential question . The Jewish question, which today more than ever is an acute world question, and requires the cooperation and sympathy of the non-Jewish world for its solution. The 19th Zionist Congress appeals to the peoples to lend their assistance to the Jewish people in the struggle to preserve their honor and secure their existence.

The German Jewish delegation objected, saying that the Zionist Congress should only be dealing with Zionism and not other issues:

The delegation of Zionists from Germany came to this Congress in the conviction that the aggravation of the Jewish question has revealed more emphatically than ever before that Zionist work must be stepped up. For thousands of Jews, especially for the Jewish youth, and for large parts of the Jewish middle class, emigration to Palestine is the only solution to their existence and future problem today. We worked primarily at this Congress to help pave the way for large-scale Jewish immigration to Palestine through a renewed surge in Zionist work. ...We have always seen it as the central, specific task of Zionism to concentrate all our efforts on the constructive solution of the Jewish question through the building of the Jewish national home. We must reject the resolution that has just been read out because, in our opinion, it departs from this clear Zionist line. We will vote against the resolution.

Twentieth Congress - Zurich, Switzerland (1937)

Following the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in Palestine during the Spring of 1936, the British Government dispatched a Royal Commission to investigate a possible solution to the Arab-Zionist conflict. The central recommendation of the Peel Commission (known after its chairperson) was the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Congress was called upon to determine the position of the Zionist movement towards this scheme.

The crisis that emerged within the movement was comparable to that which had rocked the organization during the days of the so-called Uganda controversy. Zionist factions were divided not only between but also among themselves. For example:

  • within Mapai (Labor) Ben-Gurion supported the proposal whilst Berl Katznelson and Yitzhak Tabenkin opposed it.
  • The opposition led by Menachem Ussishkin (the Revisionists had seceded from the WZO), argued that the proposed Jewish State was too small to absorb the potential Jewish immigration, could not be defended from Arab attack and excluded Zion (Jerusalem).
  • Against them, Weizmann andBen-Gurion argued that a Jewish State afforded free immigration and sovereignty. In these uncertain times they doubted that the British would improve upon their offer. With European Jewry in crisis an immediate solution was necessary. If the Jewish State were to be attacked, Ben-Gurion argued, the Zionist movement would be within its rights to claim an adjustment to its borders.

In the event, the Congress decided to reject the specific borders recommended by the Peel Commission but empowered its executive to negotiate a more favorable plan for a Jewish State in Palestine.

Twenty-First Congress - Geneva, Switzerland (1939)

Congress met only days before the outbreak of the Second World War. Since the last Congress, Britain had staged a withdrawal from the Partition plan that had been initially proposed by the Peel Commission: the Woodhead Commission had called the scheme impractical: the St. James conference in London did not bridge the gulf between the parties; and Britain's war interests led the Prime Minister to the conclusion that

“if we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs.”

In May 1939, the White Paper had been published severely curtailing immigration and giving a pledge to create an independent Palestine state.

Congress condemned British policy in the strongest possible terms and a number of delegates praised the activities of organizations involved in illegal immigration. Given the climate of impending war, the outgoing executive was requested to remain in office. Weizmann concluded Congress proceedings with the statement,

“I have no prayer but this: that we will all meet again alive.”

Twenty-Second Congress - Basle, Switzerland (1946)

The Congress met after the conclusion of the Second World War and the Holocaust, in which most of European Jewry had been massacred.

  • The major human resource for the Zionist movement had been destroyed.
  • The Jewish community in Palestine had volunteered in large numbers for the British war effort but had been able to do little to bring sustenance to their brethren behind enemy lines.
  • The British had only consented to the establishment of the Jewish Brigade in October 1944 and therefore this unit could play only a limited role.
  • The Yishuv had also tried unsuccessfully to pressurize the British authorities into repealing the White Paper.

Initially, the policy of violent confrontation had been rejected by the vast majority of the Yishuv but, by the summer of 1945, the various armed groups were coordinating their efforts against the Mandate. This led to increased tension with the British who, in July 1946, incarcerated the leaders of the Yishuv at Latrun.

Congress met following the publication of the Morrison-Grady report which had recommended the cantonization of Palestine into four districts and called for a Jewish-Arab conference to be held in London.

Weizmann, still President of the WZO, called on the delegates to approve the political platform of the Zionist movement as passed at conferences at the Biltmore hotel in New York during May 1942 and in London, 1945. The central passage of this program was the call that

“Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the democratic world.”

Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of the program but rejected Weizmann's call for participation in the London conference. Weizmann resigned his position as President of the WZO, which then remained vacant until 1956.

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.
“German Jews at 1935 Zionist Congress voted against condemning German antisemitism,” Elder of Zion, (January 5, 2022).