Political Zionism was emancipated West European Jewry's response
to the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism and to the failure of the
enlightenment to alter the status of the Jew. Its objective was
the establishment of a Jewish homeland in any available territory--not
necessarily in Palestine--through cooperation with the Great Powers.
Political Zionists viewed the "Jewish problem" through the eyes
of enlightenment rationalism and believed that European powers
would support a Jewish national existence outside Europe because
it would rid them of the Jewish problem. These Zionists believed
that Jews would come en masse to the new entity, which would be
a secular nation modeled after the post-emancipation European
The first Jew to articulate a political Zionist platform was
not a West European but a Russian physician residing in Odessa.
A year after the 1881 pogroms, Leo Pinsker, reflecting the disappointment
of other Jewish maskalim, wrote in a pamphlet entitled
Auto-Emancipation that anti-Semitism was a modern phenomenon,
beyond the reach of any future triumphs of "humanity and enlightenment."
Therefore Jews must organize themselves to find their own national
home wherever possible, not necessarily in their ancestral home
in the Holy Land. Pinsker's work attracted the attention of Hibbat
Tziyyon (Lovers of Zion), an organization devoted to Hebrew education
and national revival. Ignoring Pinsker's indifference toward the
Holy Land, members of Hibbat Tziyyon took up his call for a territorial
solution to the Jewish problem. Pinsker, who became leader of
the movement, obtained funds from the wealthy Jewish philanthropist,
Baron Edmond de Rothschild- -who was not a Zionist--to support
Jewish agricultural settlement in Palestine at Rishon LeZiyyon,
south of Tel Aviv, and Zikhron Yaaqov, south of Haifa. Although
the numbers were meager--only 10,000 settlers by 1891--especially
when compared to the large number of Jews who emigrated to the
United States, the First Aliyah (1882-1903), or immigration, was
important because it established a Jewish bridgehead in Palestine
espousing political objectives.
The impetus to the founding of a Zionist organization with specific
goals was provided by Theodor Herzl. Born in Budapest on May 2,
1860, Herzl grew up in an environment of assimilation. He was
educated in Vienna as a lawyer but instead became a journalist
and playwright. By the early 1890s, he had achieved some recognition
in Vienna and other major European cities. Until that time, he
had only been identified peripherally with Jewish culture and
politics. He was unfamiliar with earlier Zionist writings, and
he noted in his diary that he would not have written his book
had he known the contents of Pinsker's Auto-Emancipation.
While working as Paris correspondent for a Viennese newspaper,
Herzl became aware of the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in French
society. He saw that emancipation rather than dissipating antiSemitism
had exacerbated popular animosity toward the Jews. The tearing
down of the ghetto walls placed Jews in competition with non-Jews.
Moreover, the newly liberated Jew was blamed by much of non-Jewish
French society for the socioeconomic upheaval caused by both emancipation
and accelerated industrialization.
The turning point in Herzl's thinking on the Jewish question
occurred during the 1894 Paris trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish
officer in the French army, on charges of treason (the sale of
military secrets to Germany). Dreyfus was convicted, and although
he was eventually cleared, his career was ruined. The trial and
later exoneration sharply divided French society and unleashed
widespread anti-Semitic demonstrations and riots throughout France.
To Herzl's shock and dismay, many members of the French intellectual,
social, and political elites--precisely those elements of society
into which the upwardly mobile emancipated Jews wished to be assimilated--were
the most vitriolic in their antiSemitic stance.
The Dreyfus affair proved for Herzl, as the 1881 pogroms had
for Pinsker, that Jews would always be an alien element in the
societies in which they resided as long as they remained stateless.
He believed that even if Jewish separateness in religion and social
custom were to disappear, the Jews would continue to be treated
Herzl put forth his solution to the Jewish problem in Der
Judenstaat (The Jewish State) published in 1896.
He called for the establishment of a Jewish state in any available
territory to which the majority of European Jewry would immigrate.
The new state would be modeled after the postemancipation European
state. Thus, it would be secular in nature, granting no special
place to the Hebrew language, Judaism, or to the ancient Jewish
homeland in Palestine.
Another important element contained in Herzl's concept of a Jewish
state was the enlightenment faith that all men--including anti-Semites--are
basically rational and will work for goals that they perceive
to be in their best interest. He was convinced, therefore, that
the enlightened nations of Europe would support the Zionist cause
to rid their domains of the problem-creating Jews. Consequently,
Herzl actively sought international recognition and the cooperation
of the Great Powers in creating a Jewish state.
Herzl's ideas were not original, his belief that the Great Powers
would cooperate in the Zionist enterprise was naive, and his indifference
to the final location of the Jewish state was far removed from
the desires of the bulk of the Jewish people residing in the Pale
of Settlement. What he accomplished, however, was to cultivate
the first seeds of the Zionist movement and to bestow upon the
movement a mantle of legitimacy. His stature as a respected Western
journalist and his meetings with the pope, princes of Europe,
the German kaiser, and other world figures, although not successful,
propelled the movement into the international arena. Herzl sparked
the hopes and aspirations of the mass of East European Jewry living
under Russian oppression. It was the oppressed Jewish masses of
the Pale, however--with whom Herzl, the assimilated bourgeois
of the West, had so little in common--who absorbed his message
In 1897 Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland.
The first congress adopted the goal: "To create for the Jewish
people a home in Palestine secured by Public Law." The World Zionist
Organization (WZO--see Glossary) was founded to work toward this
goal, and arrangements were made for future congresses. The WZO
established a general council, a central executive, and a congress,
which was held every year or two. It developed member societies
worldwide, continued to encourage settlement in Palestine, registered
a bank in London, and established the Jewish National Fund (Keren
Kayemet) to buy land in Palestine. The First Zionist Congress
was vital to the future development of Zionism, not only because
it established an institutional framework for Zionism but also
because it came to symbolize for many Jews a new national identity,
the first such identity since the destruction of the Second Temple
in A.D. 70.
Data as of December 1988