120 Years After the 1st. Zionist Congress: a Reconsideration

Photo Credit: GPO
Lesezeit: 11 Minuten

On August 29, 1897,  about 200 people met in Basel, Switzerland, invited by a Viennese journalist, Theodor Herzl, to what later came to be known as the 1st Zionisten-Congress. Looking back today, the results of that event are a thought- arising example of the differences between human perceptions of a given time compared to what in the end results from their endeavors – in our case, the creation of the Zionist movement as seen from the perspective of 120 years later.

By Evyatar Friesel

Zionism Then

What brought Herzl and the other participants to meet for a congress was to find an answer to what they saw as the unbearable burden of European antisemitism. Herzl was a well-known Viennese journalist, a senior collaborator in an important journal of liberal tendencies, Neue Freie Presse. In the early nineties, while serving as correspondent of his journal in Paris, Herzl witnessed the severe outbreak of Jew-hatred in France brought about by the Dreyfus Affair. Herzl was deeply shocked by the experience, the more so that France was considered the most advanced and liberal country in Europe. So far, he had suggested that the solution for antisemitism was the complete assimilation of the Jews in their general surroundings. Now Herzl underwent a fateful change of mind. In February 1896,  he published a booklet, Der Judenstaat. Versuch einer modernen Lösung der Judenfrage. He became now convinced that the solution of the seemingly ineradicable problem of Jew-hatred would come about through a political separation between the sides, this through the creation of a Jewish state.  Regarding to where that state should be created Herzl was, at that point, undecided. Argentine was mentioned, as was  Palestine.

He became now convinced that the solution of the seemingly ineradicable problem of Jew-hatred would come about through a political separation between the sides, this through the creation of a Jewish state.

In fact, ideas close to Herzl’s were heard also among other Jewish European intellectuals in the last decades of the 19th Century. Among others,  Moses Hess (1812- 1875), one of the ideological fathers of European socialism, published in 1862 a book, Rom und Jerusalem, die letzte Nationalitätsfrage, where he too proposed a Jewish state.  Leon (Jehuda Leib) Pinsker (1821-1891),  a Russian physician, published in 1882 a pamphlet, Autoemancipation, where he pleaded for the migration of the Jews to a country of their own, as  an answer to European antisemitism. Nathan Birnbaum (1864–1937), a Viennese journalist who collaborated with Herzl on the organization of the Zionist congress, had written on Jewish statehood since the early 1890’s, and is seen as the formulator of the term  ‘Zionism.’

Herzl’s decision to call a congress came after he did not advance in his steps to further the ideas expressed in his booklet. His original intention was to get support for his plans from the heads of European countries and from the Turkish Sultan, the ruler over Palestine. Herzl was cordially received here and there, but there were no practical results. He contacted well-known Jewish European notables, such as Baron de Hirsch, who had got  rich by building  railways in the Ottoman Empire, and Baron Edmond de Rothschild, of the Paris branch of the Rothschild family. Hirsch and Rothschild were engaged in Jewish settlement projects in Palestine and in South America. Work in agriculture colonization was seen as a way to bring about the professional ‘normalization’ of the Jews, a major theme related to the ‘Jewish problem,’ as it was called in modern times by Jews as by non-Jews. Herzl, however, aspired to something much more radical, albeit attuned to European political thought: to gather the Jews in a state of their own. Without abandoning the search for political contacts among the European rulers, Herzl decided to strengthen his case and his standing through the foundation of a public body of international significance.

The Zionisten-Congress of 1897 approved a political platform, the Baseler Program, whose central demand declared: „Der Zionismus erstrebt die Schaffung einer öffentlich-rechtlich gesicherten Heimstätte in Palästina für diejenigen Juden, die sich nicht anderswo assimilieren können oder wollen.“ Equally important was the establishment of an organizational structure, the World Zionist Organization, which soon expanded. A leading Executive was formed, Zionist federations and fractions were established in dozens of countries,  Zionist Congresses were realized in the following years.  Historically considered, there was a deep insight in the entry in Herzl’s diary, written shortly after the end of the first congress: “In Basel habe ich den Judenstaat gegründet.” Indeed, Israel recognized his achievements. In 1949, a year after its creation, the government of the young state brought Herzl’s mortal rests to Israel and they were reburied on the top of a breath-taking mountain in the west of Jerusalem, renamed Herzl Mount.

Zionism Today: Where it succeeded, where it did not

Nevertheless, today, 120 years after the 1st. Zionisten-Congress, one is brought to recognize that there are major objectives of the original Zionist project that were not realized. True, in many aspects the State of Israel is a unique success story:  modern, democratic, with a vibrant life, internationally recognized, with a self-sustaining economy and able to defend itself.  The very fact that Jews from countries all over the world, culturally and socially deeply diverse, met and melted into a new and relatively well-functioning society is a feat that has no parallel.

However, the establishment of  the Jewish state has created new problems, internal and external, that so far are without a solution, among them the relations between Israel and the Palestinians and the Moslems of the Middle East. A most perplexing question is the gap between the central aim of the 1897 Zionisten-Congress – to find a solution for the problem of modern antisemitism through the political normalization of the Jews  -and the reality as it presents itself 120 years later. It is sadly obvious that Jewish statehood has not resolved the issue that moved Herzl and Political Zionism. Judeophobia continues to exist also in our days. We are forced to recognize today how deep  the roots of Jew-hatred are in Western history and culture: neither the destruction of European Jewry in mid-twentieth century nor the establishment of Israel has brought about the hoped-for change in negative attitudes regarding Jews. Worse, presently it is the Jewish state, the most obvious expression of actual Jewish collective vitality, that has become the major focus of Jew-hatred. Seventy years after the Shoah we hear again the intention to destroy millions of Jews, this time concentrated in Israel, and a significant segment of European society accepts such threats as a normal fact of life. Anti-Jewish  expressions and tactics may have changed over the centuries, but its destructive aim remains the same. As the French proverb goes: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

However, the establishment of  the Jewish state has created new problems, internal and external, that so far are without a solution, among them the relations between Israel and the Palestinians and the Moslems of the Middle East.

Thus being the case, present-day Jews should reconsider the premises of that leading ideology in Jewish life during the past century, Zionism, starting with a  reconsideration not only of the intentions expressed at the 1st Zionist Congress, but also with regard to underlying trends in Jewish society at the time. Herzl and his associates were riding the crest of a wave with deep roots. Besides the Judeophobic threat, which they rightly recognized, there were other historical factors, trends inside Jewish society, knowingly or unknowingly inspiring the 120 congress participants and impelled them.  Zionism was a complex phenomenon, with the inner power to produce one of the most remarkable creations of modern times – the state of Israel – this in spite of the terrible calamity that befell European Jewry in mid-twentieth century.

The gradual reception of Zionism

To remember, at their time the participants of the  Zionisten-Congress of 1897 represented only a small minority of Jewish society. Only gradually Zionism  developed into a leading ideology and major goal of modern Jewry. In the earlier years most Jews remained indifferent or were vehemently opposed to Zionism. In fact, the original intention had been to realize the  Zionisten-Congress in Germany, in Munich.  The opposition of the local Jewish community brought about that the congress had to be moved to Basel. The two leading religious movements  in early twentieth century Jewry, Orthodoxy and Reform, were against the Zionist program, albeit for very different, opposing  reasons. Young Zionism had a strong adversary in the powerful Jewish socialist movement,  then active in East European Jewry and soon transplanted also to the countries of Jewish emigration. Assimilationist Jews, who gradually became a major presence in Western Jewries, sought social and cultural integration in their respective countries and rejected the idea of  the Jews defined as a specific nationality and their concentration in a state of their own. Basically a European phenomenon, the Zionist movement had little impact on the old and established Jewries in Moslem countries. And yet, Zionism gradually made inroads in each one of these sectors: There were assimilated Jews who became Zionists (like Herzl himself),  there were Orthodox and Reform Jews  who came to support the movement, soon a strong and highly original Zionist-Socialist branch evolved, and also among the Jews in Moslem lands Zionism found adepts. Along the twentieth century support for Zionism increased in each one of the mentioned strata of Jewry.  Clearly, there was something in the Zionist message that appealed to each one of the different trends in World Jewry. More, there was a unifying force in Zionism, capable to bring together Jews who in terms of religion or ideology had little in common or were even mutually hostile.

Zionism proved to be remarkable flexible, open to collaboration with all the trends in modern Jewry, religious, secular, even with Jews who did not accept a national definition of Jewry. Inside the movement itself diverse ideological directions evolved. Parallel to the Political Zionism proposed by Herzl there was an influential cultural position, whose outstanding representative was Ahad Haam. Later a practical direction evolved, which in fact stood in tactical opposition to the political one. All three soon combined in a new approach, Synthetic Zionism, whose well-known representative was Chaim Weizmann and that gradually was adopted by the whole movement. When in May 1948 David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel, his’ was a political act based on practical achievement and supported by a cultural vision.

The broader meaning of the Zionist idea

A possible explanation for the steady advance of the Zionist idea, which becomes clear in hindsight, is that Zionism embodied a major trend in Jewish history: an amalgamation of ideas deeply rooted in Jewish collective consciousness with concepts and ways-of-life absorbed from the non-Jewish surroundings – in this case, modern Europe – a process that developed all along the twentieth century.  Shivat Tzion, the ages-old dream of the Return to the Land of Israel, had a hold, conscious or unconsciously, on a majority of modern Jewry. Jews were also inspired from political ideas of modern Europe, such as nationalism and statehood. Not by accident were most of the thinkers and  leaders of Zionism, the idea and the  movement, from Theodor Herzl onwards, influenced by or culturally integrated in their non-Jewish surroundings. Such an integration might come in diverse degrees, from advanced assimilation to some measure of exposure to Western political and cultural ideas. Zionism, which again divided in diverse directions and levels,  was the result from the exposure to non-Jewish influences combined with  varying patterns of Jewish consciousness – a process with parallels all along Jewish history, which now repeated itself in the conditions of modern Europe. The example of Herzl is telling. Sociologically seen, he was a Jew very much assimilated in European culture, with weakened Jewish roots. Although Palestine was mentioned as the place of the “öffentlich-rechtlich gesicherten Heimstätte“ of the 1897 Basel Program, Herzl was open-minded as to where the proposed Jewish state might be established. His moment of truth came in 1903, at the 6th Zionist Congress. He stood up there before the delegates and proudly announced that Great-Britain was ready to support a Jewish settlement in Uganda (as a  night-asylum for persecuted Jews, qualified the proposal his colleague Max Nordau, sensing trouble) – but to Herzl’s surprise, the plan was rejected by most of the East-European delegates: Zionism should lead to Zion, not to Africa, he was told. Herzl understood the message and accepted it.  In a sense, it was only now that Herzl became a Zionist in the full sense of the term.

From a broader perspective, the political re-concentration of the Jews in the Land of Israel expressed that ever-repeated pattern in Jewish history, the maintenance of Jewish specificity combined with the adaptation to demands and conditions, at a given time, of the surrounding world.

Thus seen, the intention to establish a Jewish state in Palestine meant much more than to solve the problem of antisemitism, albeit this was certainly a major issue in the Zionist program.  From a broader perspective, the political re-concentration of the Jews in the Land of Israel expressed that ever-repeated pattern in Jewish history, the maintenance of Jewish specificity combined with the adaptation to demands and conditions, at a given time, of the surrounding world. In our days, even if Jewish statehood did not solve the problem of Jew-hatred, the point is not if Jewish life in Israel is more secure, the point is that it is better adapted to the demands and the possibilities of our age. Israel is an expression of the modernization of Jewry, but inevitably the Jewish state is also bound to the characteristics and the problems of the present world. Herzl and his associates who brought about the First Zionisten-Congress in 1897 were expressing, knowingly or unknowingly, a major trend in the history of the Jewish people.