1897: The First Zionist Congress takes place in Basel, Switzerland
"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, 3 September 1897)
For almost two millennia after the Roman conquest in the 1st century CE and the exile of the Jewish people, Jews have longed for and tried to return to the Land of Israel.
These endeavors began to bear fruit in the 19th century, when more and more groups of Jews succeeded in returning to their ancestral homeland, breathing new life into old local Jewish communities that had stayed through the centuries, and developing agriculture that would make barren lands flourish again.
The year 1897 marks the turning point when these aspirations and efforts became focused on creating political institutions towards the establishment of a Jewish State.
On 29-31 August 1897, visionary leader Theodor Benjamin Zeev Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress, in Basel, Switzerland. The name "Zionism" was derived from the longing for Zion, one of the ancient biblical names of Jerusalem.
The Basel congress was a decisive milestone in transforming a popular phenomenon into a political movement, with the aim of establishing a modern state based on the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their historical homeland, just like all other nations. In Basel in 1897, and at subsequent Zionist congresses, Herzl and delegates from various countries and societies created the institutions that would form the basic structure of the future State of Israel. They also strove to gain international recognition and support for a Jewish state.
The First Zionist Congress adopted the Basel Program, which stated: "Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine."("Palestine" was used at that time as a purely geographical term, with all residents, including the Jews living there, called Palestinians. The area itself was actually under Ottoman rule).
The Program goes on to delineate the means to achieve this goal:
- The promotion of the settlement of Jewish agriculturists, artisans, tradesmen and manufacturers in Palestine.
- The organization and uniting of all Jews by means of appropriate local and international institutions, in accordance with the laws of the various countries.
- The strengthening and fostering of Jewish national sentiment and national consciousness.
- Preparatory steps toward obtaining the consent of governments, where necessary, to achieve the Zionist purpose
By 1947, fifty years after the Basel congress, the Zionist Organization and the national institutions established at the various congresses had transformed and grown into the national institutions of the nascent Jewish state, paving the way for the establishment of Israel on May 15, 1948.
Now, in 2017, we not only celebrate the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, we also have the privilege to witness how Herzl's vision became a reality. As Herzl said, "If you will it, it is no dream".