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The delegates at the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland (1897).

The First Zionist Congress (Hebrew: הקונגרס הציוני הראשון‎) is the name given to the congress held in Basel (Basle), Switzerland, from August 29 to August 31, 1897. It was the first congress of the Zionist Organization (ZO) (to become the World Zionist Organization (WZO) in 1960). It was called for[1]and chaired[2] by Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. The major achievements of the Congress were its formulation of the Zionist platform, known as the Basle program, the foundation of the World Zionist Organization, and the adoption of Hatikvah as its anthem (already the anthem of Hovevei Zion and later to become the national anthem of the State of Israel).



The concert hall in Basel where the Congress took place.

The first Zionist Congress was set up by Theodor Herzl as a symbolic Parliament for those in agreement with the implementation of Zionist goals. The Congress was due to take place in Munich, Germany; however, because of local opposition by both Orthodox and Reform community leadership, Herzl decided to transfer the gathering to Basel.[1][2] The Congress took place in the concert hall of the Basel Municipal Casino on August 29, 1897.


A participant card from the event.

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.[1] Ten non-Jews were also in attendance and were expected to abstain from voting.[1] Seventeen women attended the Congress, some of them in their own capacity, others accompanying representatives.[1] While women participated in the First Zionist Congress, they did not have voting rights.[1] Full membership rights were given them the following year, at the Second Zionist Congress.[1]

Following a festive opening in which the representatives arrived in formal dress, tails and white tie, the Congress moved onto the agenda.[1] The most 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.[1]

At the Congress, Herzl was elected President of the Zionist Organization, with Max Nordau and Moses Gaster two of three Vice-Presidents. Also, an Inner Actions Committee and a Greater Actions Committee were elected to run the affairs of the movement between Congresses.

Basel Program

The "Basel Program."

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 Zionism in contrast with the settlement orientated activities of the more loosely organized Hovevei Zion.[2] 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.[1]

The political program, which came to be known as the Basel Program, laid out Zionism's goals. It was adopted on the following terms:[1]

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.


The symbol of the First Congress.

The First Zionist Congress is credited for the following achievements:

  • The formulation of the Zionist platform, (the Basel Program, above)
  • The foundation of the Zionist Organization
  • The adoption of Hatikvah as its anthem
  • The absorption of most of the previous Hovevei Zion societies
  • The suggestion for the establishment of a people's bank, and
  • The election of Herzl as President of the Zionist Organization and Max Nordau one of three Vice-Presidents.

Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary (September 1, 1897):

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.[2] 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.[3]

Subsequent years

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.[4] 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 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[5] with its demand "that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth."[6] It became the official Zionist stand on the ultimate aim of the movement.[7] 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.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Jewish Virtual Library: The First Zionist Congress and the Basel Program
  2. ^ a b c d JAFI: Zionist Congresses: First Congress - Basle (Basel), 1897
  3. ^ This second part of the sentence, with the reference to the 50 years, can be found at Jewish Agency for Israel, Jewish Zionist Education > Compelling Content > Israel and Zionism > The First 120 Years > Chapter Two: The Seven Years of Herzl
  4. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Jewish Colonial Trust, The (Jüdische Colonialbank)
  5. ^ American Jewish Year Book Vol. 45 (1943-1944) Pro-Palestine and Zionist Activities, pp 206-214
  6. ^ Michael Oren, Power, Faith and Fantasy, Decision at Biltmore, pp 442-445
  7. ^ American Jewish Year Book Vol. 45 (1943-1944) Pro-Palestine and Zionist Activities, pp 206-214

See also



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