First Zionist Congress (Hebrew: ? ) 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. 208 delegates and 26 press correspondents attended the event. It was convened and chaired 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 first Zionist Congress was convened by Theodor Herzl as a symbolic parliament for the small minority 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, 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." 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. The Congress took place in the concert hall of the Stadtcasino Basel on August 29, 1897.
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. Seventeen women attended the Congress, some of them in their own capacity, others accompanying representatives. 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.
Over half the delegates were from Eastern Europe, with nearly a quarter coming from Russia.
Ten Christians were invited as guests to the First Zionist Congress: Lt. Colonel C. Bentinck from England; I. W. Bouthon-Willy of Vienna; daughter of the Protestant Bishop of Jerusalem, Mrs. Maria Kober Gobat, who contributed the gavel used to open the Congress; German Protestant missionary Pastor Dr. Johann Lepsius of Berlin; Baron Maxim von Mantueffel of St. Michele, France who maintained a training farm for young Jewish agriculturists; the Reverend John Mitchell; member of parliament and president of the Swiss National Council Professor Paul Speiser; and the author, Professor. F. Heman of Basel. Two additional guests were the most prominent members of the Christian delegation: William Hechler and Henry Dunant.
Following a festive opening in which the representatives arrived in formal dress, tails and white tie, the Congress moved to the agenda. 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.
According to the 200-page Official Protocol, the three-day conference included the following events:
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. 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.
Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine. For the attainment of this purpose, the Congress considers the following means serviceable:
1. The promotion of the settlement of Jewish agriculturists, artisans, and tradesmen in Palestine.
2. The federation of all Jews into local or general groups, according to the laws of the various countries.
3. The strengthening of the Jewish feeling and consciousness.
4. Preparatory steps for the attainment of those governmental grants which are necessary to the achievement of the Zionist purpose.-- Formula adopted by the First Zionist Congress
The First Zionist Congress is credited for the following achievements:
Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word - which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly - it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.-- Theodor Herzl (1897)
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. 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.
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 with its demand "that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth." It became the official Zionist stand on the ultimate aim of the movement. 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.
Max Bodenheimer's (top left) and Herzl's (top right) 1897 drafts of the Zionist flag, compared to the final version used at the congress