The Anniversary of the First Zionist Congress

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | August 29, 2017

August 29, 2017
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(Editor’s note: Originally published in August 2017, for the 120th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress.)

The Viennese playwright, journalist and boulevardier Theodor Herzl was a typical fin-de-siècle man of letters but for one exception. Having spent the first 35 years of his life ever-more pleasantly, mostly in Paris, reporting this and reviewing that, he then spent the last nine years of it, founding, without land, an army, a population – or permission – a national state. This he did in reaction, specifically and generally, to two things. The first, specifically, was the Dreyfus Affair, in which an innocent French Jewish officer was convicted of treason in late 1894. The second was the ineradicable anti-Semitism of enlightened France, of unenlightened Russia (where, in 1881, the assassination of Emperor Alexander II launched years of fierce pogroms, and, consequently, the start of the mass exodus of Jews from Russia looking for safe haven), of benighted Austria, (in particular Herzl’s residence of Vienna), and of Germany. When, at 8:45 a.m. on Saturday, January 5, 1895, these two historical forces coalesced for ten minutes in the main courtyard of the Paris Ecole Militaire, Herzl was witness. As Captain Dreyfus, in full dress uniform, was degraded – stripped of his insignia, badges, buttons and stripes, his sword broken in two, paraded in rags – the crowd of 20,000 began to bay for Jewish blood, screaming “Death to the Jews.” Herzl, an assimilated non-practicing Jew himself, suddenly grasped a single momentous fact. There was no place for Jews in Europe; in order to live in peace and dignity, they would have to return to Zion. This letter tells the story of the beginning of that beginning.

“The whole thing is one of those balancing feats which look just as natural after they are accomplished as they seemed improbable before they were undertaken.” – Theodor Herzl, Diary, Vienna, August 24, 1897.

“Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word… it would be this: At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.” – Theodor Herzl, Diary, Vienna, September 3, 1897.

The founder of the Jewish State spoke neither Hebrew nor Yiddish, had no Jewish education, and was so thoroughly secular as to appear, in late 19th century Paris and Vienna, the very image of a dashing boulevardier. Had not the Dreyfus Affair exposed Europe’s dark underside of vicious anti-Semitism,  Theodor Herzl would not have nourished, in bitter reaction, his vision of a publicly and legally secured home for the Jewish people. Nor, had he not proclaimed this same vision in his 1896 pamphlet entitled “The Jewish State,” would this unlikeliest of leaders ever have become, to a great many Jews, a modern Moses. Indeed, even as he lays the foundation here, in this letter from May 4th, 1896, of the work which would result in the First Zionist Congress – and, astonishingly, almost 50 years to the day after the Congress, the founding of the State of Israel – Herzl, writing to a potential supporter only three months after publishing his visionary pamphlet, makes a promise which, like that of Moses, would prove prophetic:

We will perhaps, but probably not live to see it, but the Jews will receive Palestine! Of this I am convinced to the depth of my soul.

Herzl’s friend and fellow critic Stefan Zweig said that this time in Herzl’s life, “while the idea [of Israel] was still a dream of vague outline, was decidedly the happiest in Herzl’s short life.” Even the incredible disunity of the Jewish people  – between the secular, the socialists, the ultra-Orthodox – seemed easily solvable then. Believing that “the faith of our fathers” would prove the common link between the traditionalist and impoverished Jews of Eastern Europe and the assimilated and cosmopolitan Jews of Western and Central Europe, Herzl was adamant, as he argues in the letter,  that the Rabbis had a crucial role to play in the creation of the Jewish homeland.

Theodor Herzl at the Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897-1898. Wikimedia Commons, Governmental Office of Press, Israel.
First Zionist Congress in Basil, 1897-1898

But by the end of July 1896, Herzl was unable to make either the leading English Jewish philanthropists, or the French Baron Edmond de Rothschild, see what he saw as their role in founding a Jewish state. So, typically, he looked further – to a different, and far vaster body. At the Congress, he started to envision, finally, a modern “Ingathering of the Exiles,” which would unite all the various forces for one great and tremendous effort…

On August 29, 1897, in Basel, Herzl’s idea manifested in the form of the First Zionist Congress, and, after 2000 years in the Diaspora, it proclaimed: the Jewish people were going home.

THEODOR HERZL. 1860 – 1904. Founder of political Zionism.

Autograph Letter Signed, in German, 3 pages, octavo, on the letterhead of the Editorial Department of Neue Freie Presse, May 4, 1896 Kolowratring, Fichtegasse Nr. 11., Vienna. To “Most Honored Sir!”


Signed postcard depicting Theodore Herzl revisiting Basel in 1901, looking out from room 117 of the Hotel Les Trois Rois, where he had stayed four years before during the First Zionist Congress (August 29 – August 31, 1897). 1 page, black and white, small oblong octavo, signed: Herzl, Basilea, 28 VIII [1]903. Rare.