Attempts to convene the Congress with representation from all the groups that had been working for settling the Land of Israel were conducted even before Herzl’s initiative. The conference of the “Hovevi Zion” organizations, which was held in Katowice, then in Germany, in 1884 was meant to be a congress. Zionist representatives from Russia, Romania, Germany, England and France took part in the conference. Dr. Nathan Birnbaum tried to convene a conference in Vienna of all the Jewish student organizations in Europe. Another attempt to unite all the Zionist activists took place in Paris in 1894 when there was a gathering of representatives of organizations from different countries. However, this attempt did not succeed as the Baron Rothschild opposed all public action.
The first Zionist Congress, which was held in Basel Switzerland was attended by 197 representatives from 17 countries. This conference was entirely planned and organized by Herzl. He stated the purpose of the Congress was to lay the cornerstone for the future homeland, which would be a refuge for the Jewish people.
Because of Herzl’s personality, he was able to create a festive and impressive event. Even the most cynical representatives left Basel as enthusiastic followers. Max Nordau’s speech also made a great impression when he ably described the social, economic and political situation of the Jews of the Diaspora.
In Basel, I established…
The Basel Plan, which was adopted at the end of the congress, defined the role of Zionism as the hope “to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” The plan also allowed for setting up administrative institutions that would precede the settlement of Jews in the Land of Israel and would strengthen the national sentiments among Jews all over the world.
At the end of the Congress, Herzl wrote in his diary his historic vision:
“Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word – which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly – it would be this: 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.”
Herzl saw the Congress as the Parliament of the nascent Jewish state. He managed to organize it in such a way that he was able to unite the representatives from all over the world to share the desire for a national rebirth.
The Jewish National Fund and other initiatives
The founding of the Jewish National Fund at the fifth Congress (1901) provided the World Zionist Organization with an important tool for the redeeming areas of land in the Land of Israel and preparing them for settlement. The ideas was first suggested by Professor Zvi Herman Shapira in the first Congress, however, it took Herzl’s pressuring for the idea to be accepted. The Jewish National Fund purchased a lot of land, making the land the property of the Jewish people. (More than 90% of the land in Israel belongs to the State.) -“You shall grant a redemption for the land.” The World Zionist Organization could channel settlement to the areas that it wanted to.
Another tool, which was wholly Herzl’s idea was to publish a Zionist weekly, Die Welt, which contributed greatly to the spreading of the Zionist idea all the years that it was published (1897-1914). In order to administer the World Zionist Organization in the periods between the Congresses the Zionist General Council was established. “The Nuclear General Council” (known today as the Zionist Executive) was responsible for directing the practical work.