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Zionist Congress: Zionist Congresses in Israel

(1951 - 2003)

Twenty-Third Congress - Jerusalem (1951)

This was the first Congress to be held in the State of Israel and it opened symbolically with a gathering at Herzl's grave in Jerusalem. This had been effected following the execution of Herzl's last will and testament, in which he requested that - if and when a Jewish State be established - his remains be transferred from Vienna.

The central question debated at the Congress was the definition of Zionist goals, given that the Basle program had been realized.

Congress passed the Jerusalem program, which defined the future tasks of Zionism as:

“consolidation of the State of Israel, the ingathering of the exiles in Eretz Yisrael and the fostering of the unity of the Jewish people.”

Questions also emerged concerning the relationship of the new State with the Zionist Organization. The Congress adopted a resolution calling on the State of Israel to recognize the WZO as the representative body of the Jewish people in all matters that involved the organized participation of Diaspora Jewry in the upbuilding of Israel. In 1952 the Knesset acted upon this resolution, when it passed the WZO and Jewish Agency for Israel (Status) Law.

Twenty-Fourth Congress - Jerusalem (1956)

The Congress met in an atmosphere of growing anxiety over the political and security situation on Israel's southern border.

  • Congress discussed a variety of other issues including aliya, settlement, fundraising and organization.
  • A proposal was placed before delegates to eliminate party divisions within the movement and instead have united delegations from each Diaspora community - but this was rejected.

The new President of the Zionist Organization and Chairperson of the Jewish Agency was Nahum Goldmann.

Twenty-Fifth Congress - Jerusalem (1960-1961)

One of the major issues at this Congress was the relationship of the Government of Israel to the Zionist Organization. Ben-Gurion had taken up this issue and leveled serious criticism at the WZO.

Other discussions included aliyah from Western countries, and Jewish education in the Diaspora. Nahum Goldmann was reelected as President of the WZO.

Twenty-Sixth Congress - Jerusalem (1964-1965)

In his opening address to the Congress, Nahum Goldmann called on the Zionist movement to take greater responsibility for the situation of Diaspora Jewish communities. He called on the organization to support Jewry in their struggle against spiritual decay and assimilation.

Certain political resolutions were passed at the Congress, including a call on governments to halt arms supplies to Middle Eastern countries - and a demand that the Soviet Union alleviate the situation of its Jewish community. Nahum Goldmann was reelected to the post of President of the WZO.

Twenty-Seventh Congress - Jerusalem (1968)

The Congress was held a year after the Six Day War and in a united Jerusalem. For the first time, youth delegations were present at the proceedings, including student groups and the Aliyah movement. This reflected developments in the Jewish world and in particular the large numbers of volunteers that arrived in Israel prior to and immediately after the War. It was also noted that the War had, for the first time, generated a significant immigration to Israel from Western countries.

Within the context of discussions over aliyah, the Congress accepted the decision of the government to establish the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption.

The Congress also amended the Jerusalem program of 1951 which had defined Zionist goals. The new text read as follows:

“The aims of Zionism are:
The unity of the Jewish people and the centrality of Israel in its life;
the ingathering of the Jewish people in its historical homeland, Eretz Yisrael, through aliyah from all lands; the strengthening of the State of Israel founded on the prophetic ideals of justice and peace;
the preservation of the identity of the Jewish people through the fostering of Jewish and Hebrew education and of Jewish spiritual and cultural values;
the protection of Jewish rights everywhere.”

The election of a new President of the WZO, following Nahum Goldmann's resignation, was deferred to the Zionist General Council which elected Ehud Avriel to the position of Chairman and Aryeh Louis Pincus to Head of the Executive.

Twenty-Eighth Congress - Jerusalem (1972)

A number of changes were implemented in the elections to the Congress, amongst them:

    • The abolition of the shekel, the payment of which had entitled subscribers to membership of the WZO and voting rights in elections to the Congress.
    • The new system permitted the operation of a variety of electoral systems in each territorial Federation, while, in Israel, the Knesset elections were used to determine the respective size of the party delegations to the Congress.
    • Other changes included the acceptance of various international Jewish bodies to the WZO such as the World Federation of Sephardi Communities (although without full voting rights).

Amongst the issues discussed at the Congress were:

aliyah from Western countries;
the opening of immigration from the Soviet Union;
and Jewish education in the Diaspora.

Attempts to have Zionist office holders commit themselves to aliyah after two terms of office (eight years) failed to win the necessary support from delegates. However, it did place the ideological question of Zionist fulfilment [hagshama] on the agenda of the movement.

Louis Pincus was reelected as Chairperson of the Zionist executive.

Twenty-Ninth Congress - Jerusalem (1978)

Six years had elapsed since the previous Congress, during which time significant developments had taken place that affected the Jewish world. Among these were:

    • the rise of international terrorism;
    • the Yom Kippur war;
    • the increased isolation of Israel, highlighted by the United Nations resolution equating Zionism with Racism;
    • the exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union and the struggle for Jewish rights in that country;
    • the election victory of the Likud in Israel's 1977 Knesset elections - thus ending Labor domination;
    • and the visit of Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in the same year.

Whilst these events had an impact on the atmosphere of the Congress, they were not a central part of its proceedings. Instead, the major topic of debate focused on the question of religious pluralism within the Zionist movement. Following heated discussion, the Congress accepted the principle of religious equality for each of the religious streams affiliated with the WZO. This meant that the recently affiliated Reform and Conservative synagogue movements were to be granted equal status.

Arye Dulzin was elected Chairman of the Zionist Executive.

Thirtieth Congress - Jerusalem (1982)

The major issues that engaged Congress were concerned with Zionist organization and structure and a reassessment of its ideology. In particular, the question of the WZO's relationship with the Jewish Agency occupied the time of the Congress.

The “non-Zionists ” (fund-raisers), who composed 50% of the Jewish Agency, had - following the “Caeseria Process ” - signed the “Jerusalem Program,” thereby announcing their acceptance of the Zionist platform. In practice, this meant that the Jewish Agency was to become involved in areas that had previously been the domain of the WZO - namely aliyah and Jewish education in the Diaspora. This trend was to intensify following the so-called “Herzliya process,” which began after the Congress and recommended significant changes in the organization, democratization and ideological orientation of the WZO-Jewish Agency.

A number of the sessions of the Congress were stormy, in particular the discussion devoted to the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank/Judea & Samaria and Gaza regions. The WZO Settlement Division had been associated with this work and certain delegates wished to put an end to this activity. In the end, a resolution was passed stating that Congress "agreed to disagree" on this question. However, it was decided that a joint committee of the Government and the WZO should discuss the exact locations of new settlements.

Arye Dulzin was reelected Chairperson of the executive.

Thirty-First Congress - Jerusalem (1987)

The Congress once again discussed the relationship between Israel and the Jewish communities towards the Zionist organization. It had been hoped that the gathering would conclude the Herzliya process which expressed the growing influence of the Jewish agency fund-raisers in restructuring, democratizing and reassessing the organization's ideological goals. However, no major decisions were effected in this field.

Proposals were made for the election of a President to the WZO, a position which had been left vacant since the resignation of Nahum Goldmann in 1968. The attempt of the "Magishimim," (those who promised to immigrate to Israel within a specified time) to be accorded special status in the movement was discussed but not adopted. This was understood as a rejection of the principle that Zionists should make a personal commitment to aliya within a limited period.

Simcha Dinitz, former Israeli ambassador to the USA and Labor Knesset member, was elected Chairperson of the Executive.

Thirty-Second Zionist Congress - Jerusalem (1992)

The Congress met in the wake of initial changes in the departments of the WZO, with the inauguration of a new structure, which were upstaged by large-scale aliya from the USSR/Russian and Ethiopia.

This was also a period of reduced contribution levels from the UJA [JIA] due to recession in the USA and the West. Both aliyot placed enormous strains on resources and facilities, and necessitated change in Jewish Agency budget allocations; much of the Congress was devoted to field trips to view projects. As a result, the divisive ideological debates took second place to a unity of purpose and confirmation of new priorities.

Simcha Dinitz was re-elected Chairman of the Executive.

The "Interregnum"

Legal proceedings against Simcha Dinitz placed the Jewish Agency under a cloud, with serious delays in implementation of democratization and structural changes.

Interim elections were held for a new Chairman, resulting in the election of MK Avraham Burg, who - seeking a new definition of the Agency's role, and faced with an insufficient budget - inaugurated a radical plan of rationalization both within the Agency and WZO, as well as vis-a-vis the Israeli Government. With the initiation of the Oslo process, the hope is born that the Agency will also be able to peddle back on many of its social and education projects, as the state budget becomes less focused on defense.

Trying to find a contemporary definition of Zionism in the cynical post -ism era of the global village vies for top priority with the need to bridge the growing gap between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, especially of the young generation.

Thirty-Third Zionist Congress - Jerusalem (1997)

Amidst a feeling of achievement, the approach of the Centenary of the First Zionist Congress - and the Jubilee of the State of Israel - is marked by the escalation of processes of diversification and conflict within Israeli society. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin - the unacceptable and violent face of developments - creates political uncertainty; the ruling Labor Party loses the General Election to the Likud and the Oslo Process becomes ever more unstable.

While Diaspora Jewish organizations within the Zionist movement now exercise 50% of the vote in the Jewish Agency and similarly the WZO [through the now operative Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education], Israel finds itself less central to the overall Diaspora agenda. The Zionist leadership and intellectuals across the different streams attempt to analyze or define the nature and role of Zionism at the change of the millennium.

The principle of religious pluralism figures high on the agenda of the religious streams; however, it took a concerted effort and much adroit negotiation by Chairman, Avraham Burg, to arrive at a form of acceptance on this complex issue. At this Congress a resolution was passed requiring at least 25% of Zionist Congress delegates to be between 18-30.

Thirty-Fourth Zionist Congress - Jerusalem (2003)

This Congress was infused with fresh and young leadership, as 25% of the delegation was under the age of 30. At this Congress, the youth sent a message to the Zionist establishment that they too are relevant to the Zionist enterprise -- and, in fact, are often on the front lines on campuses, youth movements, and aliya. The first Congress after the failure of the peace process, this Congress entitled "Solidarity and Mutual Responsibility: The Jewish People and the State of Israel" brought together Zionist groups from across the Zionist spectrum to discuss the issue of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state and to look towards a new vision of Zionism.

The Zionist Congress concluded with a series of resolutions reaffirming the centrality of Israel, the importance of immigration, promotion of Jewish Zionist education, increased funding for youth movements, coordinating the fight against anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism and settling the Negev and the Galilee.

Sources: Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education. 34th Zionist Congress written by Avi Hein, a delegate at the Congress.