How Modern Zionism was Created 125 Years Ago

‘This is something that only Russian Jews can do.’ This week marks the anniversary of the first Zionist Congress, which laid the foundation for modern Israel.

For centuries, it was the dream of the Jewish people to reach the “Promised Land,” to have a place they could call home. 125 years ago, in the Swiss city of Basel on the banks of the Rhine, that dream began to take shape.

Unsuspecting of the horrors that the 20th century had in store for them – the Holocaust, mass migration from Europe and the exodus from Arab countries – 204 Jews from 17 countries came together to formulate the first political program of the Zionist movement, paving the way for the eventual creation of the Israeli state.

Though this historic event took place in Switzerland, it would not have been successful without participants of Russian origin. It was the Russian Jews who founded the first Jewish settlements in the territories that would become the state of Israel, developed financial support programs for their compatriots and even proposed the national symbol – the star of David.

A rift in the Jewish community

For the Jewish people, the road towards a shared political program was not an easy one. Originally, the First Zionist Congress was to be held in Munich. Ironically, it was the German rabbis who opposed this: speaking out strongly against Zionist ideas, and especially against the creation of a ethno state based around the faith.

These ‘Protest-Rabbiner’ (protest rabbis), as they would later be mockingly called by the Zionist Congress, believed that the Jews comprised their community based solely on religion, and scoffed at the prospect of giving Judaism a nationalist overtone.

Curiously, the ranks of the Protest-Rabbiner included both the deeply orthodox German rabbis and the advocates of ‘Reform Judaism’.

Aside from the very concept of political Zionism, the German rabbis had a particular distaste for founder of the Zionist movement Theodor Herzl. The rabbis dismissed him as a ‘fake’ Jew, that he was only made Jewish through a formal bar mitzvah in a Budapest synagogue.

Theodor Herzl, by then a journalist of certain renown, a writer and doctor of law, took that criticism hard, fearing that his ideas would never come to fruition.

In the same year, 1897, he wrote: “I am the leader of no one but youngsters, ne’er-do-wells and loudmouths. Some are using me. Others are already jealous, willing to betray and abandon me at the slightest chance of earning a coin. <…> We shall see, however, what the future will bring”.

Herzl continued his work in the face of criticism. The First Zionist Congress was held, after all – not in Munich, but in Basel, Switzerland.

On Saturday, August 28, 1897, which, according to eyewitnesses, was one of the hottest days of that summer, around 200 delegates from Jewish communities in 17 countries gathered in the city synagogue.

Synagogue of Basel. © Sabine Simon / ullstein bild via Getty Images

Over a quarter of the new arrivals represented Zionist organizations from the Russian Empire. And it was their participation that changed the future of the Jewish people.

Jews in Russia

Better assimilated, educated and wealthier Jews from Germany and other Western countries identified themselves as Germans or French more than Jewish. They often looked down on their kin from the Russian Empire, considering them to be primitive boors. But the meeting in Basel changed their opinion of their Eastern compatriots.

“At the Basel Congress, the Russian Jews revealed the cultural power we couldn’t even imagine… Seventy of them attended the congress, and there’s no doubt they represented the opinions and hopes of five and a half million Russian Jews. So embarrassing! We thought to be their superiors, but the education of those professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen and traders is on par with the Western standards to say the least,” Herzl later wrote.

Of 204 participants, 66 were Russian citizens, of which 44 came directly from Russia. Other Russian Jews had migrated to Germany and other European states by that time. Those were the people who established the Russian Jewish Scientific Society in Berlin, dedicated to developing Zionist ideology.

The organized global Zionist movement emerged thanks to the Congress, but it gained widespread popularity only in the Russian Empire which included Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Poland and Baltic states. These territories were home to the majority of Ashkenazi Jews.

The status differences between the Western and Russian Jews led to noticeable differences in their take on the Jewish national problem and the future of Jews. The Western Jews, with Hertzl at the helm, insisted on political and diplomatic approach and interactions with the heads of states and powerful individuals. They believed they had to secure the international recognition of the right to found a Jewish state before settling Israel, reviving Hebrew and restoring Jewish culture. At the same time, these practical matters were the number one priority for Russian Zionists.

Hasidic men and boy sitting at table. © Culture Club / Getty Images

In spite the differences, the Russian delegation wasn’t too active at the Congress. They didn’t want to stand out to avoid the suspicion of the Saint Petersburg authorities and didn’t want to provide any grounds to accuse conference participants of plotting against their country.

“At Basel I founded the Jewish State”

The results of that congress seemed incredible for the time. Within a year, the Zionist movement adopted the Basel Program, which would guide Jewish communities for half a century to come.

The central idea of the program was the “creation of a national home in the land of Israel,” – that is, in Palestine, which at the time had been under Ottoman rule for nearly 400 years.

To achieve this goal, as the authors of the document envisioned it, Jewish communities were to systematically repopulate Palestine with agricultural laborers and people with technical professions. Other Jews were charged with organizing the movement and steadily strengthening it through the formation of local branches in different countries. Their goal was to promote the national consciousness of Jews everywhere and to explain to European governments the importance of establishing a state.

Long before the Basel Program was formulated, Jews from Russia were turning these ideas into reality as thousands fled the Russian Empire from the wave of pogroms, and took to developing the dry and marshy lands of Palestine into their new home. By 1897, thousands of settlers had relocated there from Kharkov, Kiev and Odessa.

They were aided by two organizations founded in response to the pogroms: the Hovevei Zion, whose name translates literally as [Those who are] Lovers of Zion; and the Bilu, with its name being an acronym of a verse from the Book of Isaiah (2:5): Beit Ya’akov Lekhu Venelkha (“Oh, House of Jacob, come ye and let us go.”)

These settlers were hard-working to the point of fanaticism. Being mostly students with no experience in hard agricultural labor they were nonetheless adamant in their decision to make it possible to live off this land. As many as 15 years prior to the First Zionist Congress, a handful of them formed a Bilu settlement in Gedera that actually started off the first wave of the First Aliyah, the ultimate homecoming movement of the Jewish people.

Star of David on top of a gravestone. © Getty Images / Philippe Lissac

In addition to converting the idea of repatriation inspired by the first wave of settlers from Russia into a program, the First Zionist Congress in Basel had more far-reaching consequences. The major achievement was not the establishment of the political principles of Zionism but rather the practical implementation of its ideology. Specific steps were proposed to accelerate the creation of a Jewish state.

For example, professor Hermann Shapira (also a Russian Jew) proposed to establish a foundation to purchase land in Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel), which resulted in creation of a Jewish National Fund only three years later, although the author of the idea did not live long enough to see it. Most of the major land purchases of the Zionist Organization in Palestine were made by Russian Jewish activists. One of them was Yehoshua Hankin, who dedicated his life to negotiating a huge number of large- scale land purchase deals for the future State of Israel.

The Congress also brought up an idea of founding a university there, giving birth to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The First Zionist Congress also adopted the emblem for the Jewish State, known as the Star of David, and gave a name to the currency, the shekel. Both ideas were authored by yet another Russian Jew, David Wolfson, a close of ally of Theodor Herzl.

The work of the First Zionist Congress was basically that of a “Jewish parliament in exile,” and Herzl was half-jokingly dubbed “Jewish President” after the Basel program was signed.

Theodor Herzl at the balcony of the hotel in Basel where he stayed during the zionistic congress overlooking the Rhine River, Switzerland, Photograph, 1897. © Imagno / Getty Images

Herzl wrote a few days later:

“If I were to sum up the Basel Congress in a single phrase — which I would not dare to make public — I would say: in Basel I created 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.”

51 years later, the State of Israel emerged on the political map of the world. Although truth be told, this would have hardly been possible without the foundation laid by the wave of Jewish settlers from Russia.

A premonition – and the aftermath of the tragedy

‘‘The Jewish question’ was real in Europe, for the European nations and for the Jews themselves. After the Congress, the German embassy in Basel sent a report to Berlin about the ‘Jewish events’ there. An Israel scholar of law and politics Amnon Rubinstein quoted a side note on the document made by the German Kaiser, “I am more than happy with the migration of Jews to Palestine. The sooner the better, I am not going to stop them.”

In the long run, anti-Semitism and Judeophobia in Europe, and primarily in Germany, spiraled into what is now regarded as the most tragic page in the history of the Jewish people – the Holocaust.

The signs of Jewish persecution by the emerging Nazi regimes were seen as early as in 1933, but the issue was not globally recognized until the 21st World Zionist Congress that took place in 1939. At the same time, Berl Katznelson, a Jew of Belorussian origin, urged his kin to illegally migrate to Israel in greater numbers. According to him, it was the only way to avoid genocide.

“All I pray for is to meet you all again,” the president of the Congress, Chaim Weizmann, said as he addressed the participants.

Worn and exhausted from their experiences at the hands of the Nazis is this group of Jews liberated from German camps by Red Army troops. © Getty Images / Bettmann

At the eventual 22nd Congress, having survived the tragedy of the Holocaust, those Zionists who attended were firmly determined to create their own state and unwilling to compromise with the British government that held Palestinian land under its mandate at the time.

And Russia, this time represented by the Soviet government, once again played a key part in achieving the goals set by the Jewish people.

The Soviet Union as Israel’s best friend

The UN General Assembly did not welcome the concept of founding an Israeli state at first. However, the Soviet delegation led by Andrei Gromyko, the USSR’s first Permanent Representative to the United Nations, actively lobbied, for several days, the idea of establishing two separate states on Palestinian territory – an Arab and a Jewish state.

Before final voting took place on November 29, 1947, Gromyko addressed the UN with an impressive speech.

“Studies of the Palestinian issue have shown that the Jews and Arabs in Palestine don’t want or cannot live together. And this welcomes a logical conclusion that if these two peoples, inhabiting Palestine and both having a history deeply rooted in that country, cannot live side by side within one state, we have no choice but to establish two states, instead of one – an Arab state and a Jewish one. And the Soviet delegation strongly believes that there is no other viable option available…”

After this address, the number of countries which abstained from voting dropped to 10, with only 13 UN member states voting against the partition project in Palestine, and 33 states – in favor of it.

When the establishment of the Jewish state was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, the United States recognized it on the following day, but only de-facto, which did not imply full diplomatic relations. The Soviet Union recognized de-jure the newly created state two days later. The USSR thus became the first country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The United States did not follow suit until 1949.

But Soviet support for the new country did not stop at that. After the Arab states’ armed forces invaded Israeli territory, the USSR supplied it with weapons which were shipped to the Middle East through socialist Czechoslovak Republic and Romania. Apart from weaponry, the countries of Eastern Europe also supplied Israel with servicemen. They were mostly Jews who had participated in the war against Germany. Soviet military officers were also secretly sent to Israel.

Around 710,000 Arabs left the country and about 400,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries from 1948 to 1951 during Israel’s War for Independence. Over the first ten years of Israel’s existence, its population grew from 800,000 to 2 million. Most immigrants were refugees settling in tent camps. The first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, agreed to a reparation agreement with Germany, for which he was severely criticized by Jews worldwide, who were outraged by the very idea of cooperation with Germany after the Holocaust.

The supporters of Zionism knew that once the State of Israel was created, the “Basel Program” focusing on the idea of acquiring statehood became obsolete. They worked out a new platform, the “Jerusalem Program” that shifted the goals of the Zionist Movement to strengthening the newly-established state by way of encouraging Jewish immigration and promoting the unity of the Jewish people.

Jews from the USSR and former Russian Empire continued to play an important role in the continued development of Zionism even after that – but now mostly as citizens of Israel.

However, it is very unlikely that the state itself could’ve been founded without the contribution of their predecessors. Herzl himself wrote this about Russian Jews, “When we saw them, we understood what it was that gave our forefathers the strength to persevere even in the hardest times. I remembered how people used to say to me, ‘This is something that only Russian Jews can do.’ If I heard this again, I would say – and that’s enough!”

Valentin Loginov is a Russian journalist focused on the political process, sociology and international relations

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