Theodor Herzl - Address to the First Zionist Congress

August 29 1897

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Theodor Herzl was the founder of Political Zionism. After publishing his utopian pamphlet, The Jewish State, in 1896, in 1897 he convened the First Zionist Congress. The idea of Jewish return to the land of Israel had been in the hearts of Jews for 2,000 years, with little practical consequences. In the 19th century it had begun to take shape in pamphlets and in small groups like Chovevei Tzion and the BILU, as well as in various charitable projects of Baron Rothschild and others. Herzl understood that the work could not proceed without a political goal and an international political framework to support it. The First Zionist Congress provided both: a world Zionist organization that would undertake both the internal work of popularizing Zionism among the Jewish people and the diplomatic maneuvering required to realize the goal of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, secured in international law.

Herzl's speech to the congress reflected the basics of Zionism as well as the basic mundane concerns of the congress. On the one hand, it brought out the theme of the proud past of the Jewish people in their own land. On the other, it dealt with the threat of anti-Semitism, the need to combat assimilation and return the Jewish people to Judaism, and the need to reconcile Zionism, essentially a secular nationalist movement, with the Jewish religious rabbinical establishment. The latter were not interested in a movement that they saw as undermining religion and their authority. Rabbinical Judaism had been shaped and adapted itself to Diaspora living. Return to the land of Israel, formally a central part of Jewish culture and religious content, was turned into an impractical abstraction by allocating it to the return of the Messiah. Those religious authorities, a minority, who did support Zionism, sought to control the new movement and ensure that the new state would be a theocracy, obedient to religious laws suited to ancient Israel that had further evolved and adapted themselves to Diaspora life. Zionists foresaw that it would be impossible to build a modern democratic state on those principles. The issue has never been fully resolved, though Herzl hailed the meeting of the two camps at the Zionist congress.  

Herzl's assertion that the renewal of anti-Semitism surprised and hurt assimilated and Westernized Jews most was based on his own personal experience. Like many who were lured by the promise of progress and liberal democracy, he had tried earnestly to assimilate, but was unable to ignore the multiple manifestations of anti-Semitism in Europe and particular in France, the bastion of democracy, where the Dreyfus Affair put an end to many illusions about the possibility of a normal life for Jews in Europe.

Herzl's declaration that all the proceedings of the congress and its resolutions must be open to the scrutiny of the world rather than secret is ironic, for anti-Semites would soon claim that the congress had secretly promulgated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic forgery that purports to be a secret Jewish plan for world dominion.  

Zionists foresaw the coming tragedy of the Jewish people in Europe. Even they did not realize the extent of the catastrophe that would engulf European Judaism in the Holocaust, nor did they understand how little time they had to accomplish the goal set out by Herzl: to establish a safe haven for the Jewish people.

Following the Basle Congress, on September 3, 1897, Herzl had written in his diary:

“In Basel I founded the Jewish State.” To which he added: “If I said this aloud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will agree.”

Herzl's plan was to get Jewish financiers to pay off the debts of the nearly bankrupt Ottoman empire, in return for a grant of land by the Sultan, and then to bring the Jews to Palestine in massive emigration. He noted that if 10,000 Jews a year were brought to the land, it would require 900 years to solve the Jewish problem, and that at the then current rates, even 10,000 a year was an unimaginable number. But the Jewish financiers would not promise money and the Sultan would promise only settlement outside Palestine, and even after the British mandate for Palestine was established, immigration did not amount to much more than about 10,000 a year for many years. Even after 20 years of Zionist development, the absorption of large numbers of Jews in the first years of the state produced tremendous hardship. Even in modern Israel, absorption of 100,000 immigrants yearly from the former Soviet Union proved to be a formidable task that did not go smoothly and required heavy financing. But Palestine of his day was very unlike modern Israel. It had almost no roads, hardly any developed water resources, no electricity plants, schools, factories or hospitals. One can only imagine the horrendous result of attempting to bring millions of Jews almost all at once to Palestine as it was 1897.  

It is painfully clear that Herzl's vision of Zionism was imperfect in its conception as well as in his plan for implementation. At that time at least, he conceived of Zionism primarily in terms of negative forces - a people being forcibly ejected as it were from Europe because of anti-Semitism, rather than a people seeking voluntarily to renew its ancient national life. He told the congress that not all Jews would leave Europe, and that if and as anti-Semitism subsided in some countries, emigration would stop and the Jews of those countries would assimilate. He did not see assimilation as an evil.  It did not really occur to him that the Zionist sentiment in Eastern Europe was as much a positive ideology as a reaction to anti-Semitism, and he was surprised and hurt when a later Jewish congress rejected his plan for a temporary Jewish state in Uganda. Those who objected understood that only a national home in the ancestral land of Israel could be a rallying point for Jews. 

Herzl died in 1904 when the Zionist movement appeared to be foundering. His appeals to rich Jews, to anti-Semites to the Kaiser and the Ottoman Sultan had been rebuffed. Zionist colonies in Palestine were foundering. Jews expressed no more than theoretical interest in Zionism. A year later, a failed revolution in Russia generated the wave of Jewish immigration known as the Second Aliya. World War I brought the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the Balfour Declaration. The British government promised to back a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, in fulfillment of the program of the first Zionist congress. What had seemed totally impossible a generation before was now becoming reality. The national home was eventually established, but not before much blood was spilt. On November 29, 1947 just over 50 years after Herzl's diary entry, the United Nations voted to partition the Palestine Mandate into a Jewish State and an Arab state according to General Assembly Resolution 181, and in May of 1948, the Jewish state was born.

Ami Isseroff 


The introduction above is copyright 2008 by Ami Isseroff. The translation below is copyright 2008 by Ami Isseroff and Except for brief citations, no part of this work may be reproduced without permission. Please feel free to link to link to this page, but do not copy it to your Web site, and do not use it in a printed work without obtaining written permission.  

Honored delegates to the congress! As one of those who initiated the congress, it has fallen upon me to welcome you. I would like to do this with few words, as each of us will best serve the cause if he will behave thriftily with the precious minutes of the congress. In three days time we must attend to many important matters. We want to lay the foundation stone for the home, that is destined to be a safe haven for the Jewish people. This undertaking is so great, that we must speak of it only in the simplest words. As best as it is possible to judge now, these three days will be given over to a general review of the current status of the Jewish question. The huge body of material is divided into numerous sections by our lecturers.

We shall hear news of the situation of the Jews in different countries. All of you know, if only vaguely, that this situation, except for a few exceptional cases, is not a cause for joy. It is doubtful if we would be assembled here if the situation was otherwise. The uniformity of our destiny was interrupted by a long hiatus, though the scattered parts of the Jewish nation were condemned to share similar suffering in different places. Only in our times do we have the possibility, thanks to the modern miracle of transportation, to exchange information and create contact between the separated [communities]. And in this period, which is generally so uplifting, we see and sense ourselves everywhere surrounded by the ancient enmity. Anti-Semitism is the modern name, known to you so well, of this movement. The first impression it gave to modern Judaism was surprise, which quickly turned to pain and rage. Our opponents do not perhaps realize at all how deeply they especially hurt the souls of those of us of the vanguard. The modern and enlightened Judaism, which left the ghetto, which was weaned of the mercantile dealing, was stabbed in the core of its heart. We can say that today in complete assurance, without raising the suspicion that we are trying to influence the tear ducts of our opponents. We know our soul reckoning.

Information about us in the world has always been defective due to distortion and obscuration. The feeling of [Jewish] belonging and cooperation, with which were were accused so often and so stormily, was in the process of complete disintegration when we were assaulted by anti-Semitism, which awakened and amplified it once again. It can be said that we have returned home. Zionism is the return to Judaism even before the return to the land of the Jews. We prodigal sons who are returning home find in our home several matters requiring urgent correction, especially as some of our brothers are condemned to the lowest depths of poverty. But in the ancient home we are welcomes heartily, because it is known and understood that we have no impudent thoughts of undermining sacred foundations. This will become clear when the Zionist program is put before us.

Zionism has already managed to accomplish a wondrous thing, previously thought to be impossible: the firm bond between the most modern elements of of Judaism with the most conservative. Since this has occurred without the need for either side to make undignified concessions or to make mental sacrifices, it is additional proof, if such proof was needed, that the Jews are a nation. This union could only be possible against a national background.

...It is impossible that we should consider clandestine organizations or secret interventions in hidden ways, but only free and open discussion, which is subject to the constant and complete monitoring by world public opinion. One of the first upcoming successes of our movement, which can already be seen in general outline today, is that we shall turn the Jewish question into the question of Zion.

... Our movement will not be based on wise foundations, until it aims to obtain guarantees in general [i.e. international] law. The settlement activity that took place until now attained what could be obtained based on its character. It proved in practice that Jews are capable of agricultural work, a fact which many doubted. It determined the fact as permanent evidence, in legal terms. But the solution of the Jewish question is not, and cannot be in its present form, even though it did not find, let us admit to ourselves, significant support among the people. Why? Because Jews know how to reckon, and there are those who claim they know how to do it only too well. If assume then that there are nine million Jews, and that the settlement endeavor will manage to settle 10,000 of them in the land of Israel every year -- then the solution to the Jewish question would require nine hundred years. This matter appears to be impractical.

And you know, that the number of ten thousand settlers a year in the present circumstances is absolutely imaginary in present circumstances. If there was settlement in those numbers, the Turkish government would immediately renew the prohibition on immigration - and this would be directed at us. For whoever believes that the Jews could as it were return as thieves in the night to the land of our forefathers, is deluding himself or deluding others. In no place does the appearance of new Jews awaken alarm signals so quickly as it does in the historic homeland of the nation. Precisely because it is the historic homeland. Nor are we interested in arriving there before the time is ripe. The entrance of Jews means an increase of manpower of inestimable magnitude for this poor country today, and even for the entire Ottoman empire. Indeed, his majesty the Sultan knows from experience, that the Jewish subjects brought him great benefit, just as he is a good ruler to them. The conditions exist, therefore, which with proper and successful care, could lead to the goal. The financial aid, which the Jews can offer to Turkey is not negligible, and can be used to eliminate some internal evils which this country suffers. If a section of the problem of the near east question is solved along with the Jewish question, that is certainly beneficial to all cultured nations. The settlement of Jews will also certainly cause in improvement in the situation of Christians in the near east.

But not only for these reasons is Zionism entitled to hope for the support of the nations. You know that in several countries, the controversy over the Jewish issue has become a major problem for the government. If it supports the Jews, it is opposed by the incited masses. If it is against the Jews, the position frequently has severe economic consequences, given the influence of Jews on world trade. There are examples of this from Russia. And finally, if the government is neutral, the Jews see themselves as abandoned and resort to revolutionary activity. Zionism, self-help of the Jews, thus provides a way out of these various difficulties. Zionist is simply the factor that makes for peace. Indeed,  its luck is also  like the luck of other peace makers: it will have to fight harder than others. But if amongst the more or less just criticisms of our movement we shall be accused of lack of patriotism, this suspicious claim is prima-facie false. Nobody is considering a complete and total exodus of the Jews from anywhere. Those who wish to stay and are capable of staying and assimilating will stay where they are and assimilate. If, after the agreement is made with the authorized political powers, the exit of the Jews will begin with all due order, it will continue in each country only to the extent that that country wishes to be rid of the Jews. What will cause the exodus to stop? Quite simply by the gradual waning, and eventual disappearance of anti-Semitism. This is our understanding and this how we anticipate the solution to the Jewish question.

All of this has been said by my colleagues and myself quite often. We shall never tire or slack off at repeating and repeating these words, until we are understood. On this cordial occasion, when Jews from so many lands are assembled together, to hear the clarion call, the ancient call of the people, we must again cordially repeat this our belief... [Zionism] is a legal and civilized movement full of love of the masses, with the ancient and coveted goal of our people. What the Jews among us said or wrote hitherto, could be passed over and ignored -- but this will no longer be done to the product of this congress. Therefore, we hope that the congress, which shall be sovereign over its deliberations, will govern its proceedings as a wise sovereign.

Our congress shall be serious and mighty, a blessing to the miserable, an injury to no many, an honor to all Jews, and worthy of the past, whose glory is indeed distant, but shall never be dimmed. 

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