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Zionist congresses

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    Petry, Erik
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    Between 1897 and 1948 the World Zionist Organization (WZO) held 22 Zionist Congresses, eleven of them before the First World War. The WZO was founded during the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897. Although the congresses were initially planned as a platform for the discussion of Zionism and the idea of a Jewish state, they also reflected the movement’s cultural development. Discussions focused on what the Zionists would have to do to achieve their aim, namely a Jewish state in Palestine. The two main parties were the “Practical Zionists”, who aimed for immediate settlement, hoping that this would result in a national entity, and the “Political Zionists”, who demanded a political agreement with one of the great powers to legally achieve a Jewish state in Palestine before emigrating to Palestine.

    Zionism was by definition a transnational movement: Jews from all nations could be part of it. For Zionist intellectuals every Jew was by definition a member of the Jewish nation. The congresses (annually between 1897 and 1901, biennially from 1903) became not only a place to assemble but also a replacement for Eretz Israel. As long as the Jewish state did not exist, the Jewish nation materialized because of the congresses. These congresses were not only about debates but represented a self-reassurance, a cultural bonding, even if they were packed with difficult and contentious subjects.

    One of the main points of discussion was the language question: what was the language of Zionism and what should be the language of the future Jewish state? Until 1914, German was the official language of the congress, the Zionist journal Die Welt was published in German, and the main office of the WZO was first in Vienna, then in Cologne and afterwards in Berlin. But it was evident from the first congress that other languages should play their part as well: English, French, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and Ivrit, the modern form of Biblical Hebrew. Ivrit had been developed from the end of the 19th century and became increasingly prominent during the congresses. Some delegates thought Ivrit was the future, others argued that only German could represent the Zionist idea.

    The ongoing debate about “Cultural Zionism” pointed out the gulf in the Zionist movement between East- and West-European Zionists. As early as the 1880s, writers such as Ahad Ha’am had become convinced that Jews did not need a political entity but did need a cultural centre in Palestine. During the congresses young Zionists from Eastern Europe demanded a Jewish-national culture, a secular Zionism. Against this, Zionists from Western Europe argued that the state had to be established first and culture should come afterwards. A fraction inside the Western European Zionists tried to combine Jewish and Zionist culture by promoting a publishing house (Der Jüdische Verlag) and organizing exhibitions during the congresses, such as a painting exhibition in 1901 or even a performance by a Jewish gymnastics club in 1903. One of their main representatives, Martin Buber, urged the WZO to become involved in all parts of society and to establish Zionist clubs in every cultural field (art, literature, science, as well as choral societies and sports clubs). But Buber’s conviction that the Diaspora was an important ambience for Jewish culture resulted in a clash with the Eastern Europeans, which, however, never led to a formal rift.

    Another thorny issue for Zionism was, how to deal with Jewish religious traditions and sacred scriptures. Although there were “Religious Zionists”, most of the participants of the congresses were non-observant and avowedly secular; Theodor Herzl himself was unable to take active part in a synagogue service, which would involve reading from the Torah or at least reciting a blessing in Hebrew. On the other hand, the Zionists without hesitation called for Palestine, “the land of our fathers, given to us by God”. Occasionally, the participants of the congresses discussed other territories, but in the end they always voted in favour of Palestine. They talked about Eretz Israel the land of Israel but less about Judaism, the religious laws (Halakha), and traditions. The Zionists much preferred the Bible to the Talmud (which, completed between the 5th and the 7th century, set down religious customs and laws as well as their accompanying discussions). In the eyes of most Zionists, it was written for the Diaspora, i.e. for an existence outside the Jewish state, whereas the Bible was the heroic story of the Jewish people demanding and conquering their land, set in Eretz Israel and adjacent areas: stories about the homeland rather than a Diaspora text.

    Political developments during and after the First World War (the Balfour Declaration, the Mandate period) offered Zionists a unique opportunity in Palestine. The ten Zionist congresses that were held (still in Europe) between 1921 and 1939 showed a clear preference in terms of culture: there was no doubt that Ivrit would be the language of the future Jewish state; culture would mean Jewish-national culture, secular but with an important part to be played by religion. Thus, the conception of Zionism had changed from a political movement to an organization that influenced all parts of Jewish society – in Palestine and in the Diaspora.

    Word Count: 851

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  • Halbertal, Moshe; People of the Book: Canon, meaning and authority (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997).

    Haumann, Heiko (ed.); The first Zionist Congress in 1897. Causes, significance, topicality (Basel: Karger, 1997).

    Kury, Patrick; Petry, Erik; “Basel”, in Diner, Dan (ed.); Enzyklopädie jüdischer Geschichte und Kultur (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2011), 267-275.

    Shimoni, Gideon; The Zionist ideology (Hanover, NH: Brandeis UP, 1995).

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Petry, Erik, 2022. "Zionist congresses", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 29-04-2022, consulted 17-05-2022.