The First Zionist Congress
Comparison of Contemporary Reports and Modern Accounts
University of British Columbia March 14, 2008
On August 31st, 1897, the First Zionist Congress concluded in Basel, Switzerland, under the auspices of the secular Jew Theodor Herzl. Its purpose was to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Today the realization of this dream is called Israel and it is one of the most contentious places on Earth. Then, as now, there was great controversy over the motives and means of this movement. Nevertheless, Zionism was pursued under the influence of a handful of demagogues who thrived on the fears and passions of oppressed Jews. Textual evidence supports the idea that the congress polarized the Jewish community into those who supported Herzl’s vision of Zionism and everyone else. The only matter that is not in dispute is what actually took place. Contemporary and historical accounts scarcely differ. However, the tone of discourse in 1897 portrays an appeal to reason that has since been silenced by modern analysis. The significance of this event was not that it represented a hope for Jewish emancipation, but rather the official politicization of a passive religious movement almost two millennia old.
Valuable historical insight can be gained into the minds of the time by reviewing a 1897 London Times correspondence between two prominent Jews: Mr. Simon and Mr. Gaster. Mr. Simon, a respected figure in English Judaism, contended that Jews were rightly home wherever they were born and rejected Gaster’s literal interpretation of Jewish prophecy.1 Mr. Gaster, arguing fervently, erroneously painted Simon’s arguments as a denial of the suffering of the Jews and hastily concluded that whatever this Zionist movement amounted to was ‘God’s will’ and should continue.2 Naturally, Simon was correct in his assertion that the Jews should fight for their emancipation wherever they are, just as they had successfully done in London.3 Modern accounts
The London Times. September 4, 1897 Gaster, M. "The Zionist Congress." The London Times, September 1, 1897. 3 Simon, Oswald John. "The Zionist Congress." The London Times, Sept. 3, 1897.
emphasize the same argument as Simon but in a slightly different form, citing the ‘Protest Rabbis’ contention that Judaism obliges its followers to serve the nation (state) it is born unto.4
Simon’s cosmopolitan view is marginalized in modern analysis because in this case it is more constructive to emphasize political arguments rather than philosophical arguments. When Simon labeled the Zionist movement unorthodox, Gaster simply replied that Simon knew nothing of orthodoxy.5 But speaking volumes in favor of Mr. Simon’s stance, the high authority of Jewish orthodoxy in Britain, Dr. Adler, called the congress “an egregious blunder.”6 This example of polarization is downplayed in historical accounts. Instead, the focus lies on the internal contradictions of Zionism and the subsequent resolution of those problems. Case in point, this first congress deliberated on the organizational structure, purpose, and logistics of legally securing Palestine, and was declared a success afterwards.7 Modern commentary states how Herzl intentionally made the plan for the congress vague but the direction clear. This is precisely the reason that no outside objections are validated in the congress or in historical accounts about the congress; it is implicit that everyone there is already committed to a Jewish state in some form.
In contemporary times commentators did not see the issue as politicized. However, modern analysis observes that it was politicized long before anybody knew it. It was well known at the time that Theodor Herzl’s ambitions were racially and politically motivated as opposed to religiously.8 This did not stop moderate Zionists from supporting him, or even fundamentalists
Haumann, Heiko, and Peter Haber. The First Zionist Congress in 1897, pp. 144-145 Simon, Oswald John. "The Zionist Congress." The London Times, Sept. 3, 1897. 6 The London Times. September 4, 1897 7 Haumann, The First Zionist Congress in 1897, pp. 146-147 8 Sicherman , H. Theodor Herzl: An Appreciation. Foreign Policy Research Institute.
from joining the cause. Others like the ‘Protest Rabbis’, exclaimed this was in contradiction to Jewish scripture and was morally wrong.9 The stated reason for the movement was for the protection of the Jewish people from persecution whether it was based on race or religion.10 Conversely, modern accounts recollect that Herzl was not personally exposed to a lot of antisemitism.11 Furthermore, Herzl’s lack of knowledge about Judaism dismayed many devotees.12 Herzl’s motives are evident in hindsight by studying the stratagems he used. For starters, the architects of the movement did not only seek young recruits to give an aura of vitality, but Herzl himself “envisioned middle-class Jewish youth as the vanguard of Zionism.”13 Large efforts were undertaken to ‘Zionize’ the atmosphere in Basel; they drank Jewish wine, sang Jewish songs, and exalted Jewish symbols and heroes.14 One modern author praises the solidarity and ritualism; Herzl’s colleagues planned the event to manifest camaraderie through “total immersion in a national Jewish world.”15 The First Zionist Congress was a microcosm of the culture they hoped to transplant to the Promised Land.16
What the modern analysis fails to observe, and the contemporary views grasp, is that this congregation was nothing short of anti-Gentile and would serve to exacerbate racial tensions, among other problems.17 The London Times had substantiated Simon’s clairvoyance but it was already too late; the Zionists would proceed without the support of a majority from international Jewry. To this effect, one modern author observes the contradiction between how “Zionism
Haumann, Heiko, and Peter Haber. The First Zionist Congress in 1897, p. 147 Ibid., p. 148 11 Sicherman , H. Theodor Herzl 12 Ibid. 13 Berkowitz, Michael. Zionist Culture and West European Jewry Before the First World War, p. 11 14 Ibid., p.38 15 Ibid., p.38 16 Ibid., p.8 17 The London Times. September 4, 1897
already styled itself as a government in exile…” and displayed “extra-territorial Zionist culture [that] affirmed that Zion could exist anywhere that Jews gathered in peace.”18 The author notes that this incongruity continued to characterize the debate however also drew attention away from the fact that the legitimate hope for the emancipation of the Jewish people was being undermined by a desperate political campaign.19 Rather than let the movement grow on its own merit, it was driven by Herzl’s ego. Well known in historical records, and perhaps only speculated by Simon and his contemporaries, Herzl wrote in his diary after the congress: “In Basel I founded the Jewish State.”20 He was speaking prematurely of course, but his assertion would eventually come true.
Unfortunately revisiting the First Zionist Congress does little to end the strife in the present day Jewish ‘homeland,’ but it offers us a glimpse into how these religious movements quickly become politicized and can act as a caveat to future nationalist ambitions. Likewise, from a sensible 111 year old letter to the editor of the London Times, the ignored voice of reason echoes across time. Alas, Herzl died just after the Sixth Zionist Congress, perhaps galvanizing the Zionists to further action, for history has shown us time and time again that no voice speaks louder and with more conviction than that of the followers of a venerated dead man. Generally, historians record this event with strict objectivity, but it is perhaps those affected by it most that remember it incorrectly. So listen carefully, lest we forget that not only did the majority of Jews not want this, but that a minority wanted it more.
Berkowitz, Michael. Zionist Culture and West European Jewry Before the First World War, p. 39 Ibid., p. 39 20 Haumann, Heiko, and Peter Haber. The First Zionist Congress in 1897, p. 148
Berkowitz, Michael. Zionist Culture and West European Jewry Before the First World War.. New York: University of Cambridge, 1993. Gaster, M. "The Zionist Congress." The London Times, September 1, 1897. Proquest Historical Databases (accessed March 1, 2008). Haumann, Heiko, and Peter Haber. The First Zionist Congress in 1897: Causes, Significance, Topicality. New York: Karger, 1997. Sicherman , H. Theodor Herzl: An Appreciation. Foreign Policy Research Institute. (1997, August 28). Retrieved March 1, 2008, from http://www.fpri.org/enotes/middleeastafrica.19970828.sicherman.herzlappreciation.html Simon, Oswald John. "The Zionist Congress." The London Times, Aug. 30, 1897. Proquest Historical Databases (accessed March 1, 2008). Simon, Oswald John. "The Zionist Congress." The London Times, Sept. 3, 1897. Proquest Historical Databases (accessed March 1, 2008). The London Times. September 4, 1897. "no title [editorial]". Proquest Historical Databases (accessed March 1, 2008).