The beginning was associated with the 'Spy Case,' which erupted between 1894 and 1895. In it, the French Jewish officer 'Alfred Dreyfus' was accused of spying for Germany. He was imprisoned for life. This trial triggered a wide wave of anti-Semitism in France. In the midst of these sentiments, the Jewish journalist 'Theodor Herzl,' who was working as a correspondent in Paris for an Austrian daily newspaper at the time, authored a book titled ‘Der Judenstaat’ or 'The Jewish State.' The subtitle was 'An Attempt to Find a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question.' The book was initially published in German in February 1896 before being translated into several languages.
Against the backdrop of the rising racial tensions against Jews in France and other neighboring European countries, 'Theodor Herzl' believed that life in Europe had become intolerable for Jews. He concluded that non-Jewish worlds would not allow their integration into European societies. His solution was that the only way to address the 'Jewish Question' was through a 'national' approach. Since Jews constituted a 'people,' he proposed that they establish a state of their own, suggesting at that early stage two geographical locations for this state: Palestine or Argentina.
When Herzl spoke about Palestine, his ambition was not hidden; he wanted the desired Jewish state to be part of the European colonial project in the East. One of his notable statements in this context was, 'As for Europe, we will form a barrier there separating it from Asia, a location in front of me for civilization against barbarism.' There was a desire to convene the First Zionist Congress in Munich, Germany, but it faced strong opposition from the Jewish Assembly, and the rabbinate intervened to prevent it.
However, after diligent efforts, Theodor Herzl succeeded in convening the First World Zionist Congress in the city of Basel, Switzerland. It opened on August 29, 1897, with the participation of more than 200 delegates from 24 countries. Herzl, after announcing the establishment of the 'World Zionist Organization,' affirmed that Zionism aspired to establish a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, secured by international law.
In his opening speech, Herzl specified that the conference's goal was to lay the foundation for this project. He emphasized that the 'Jewish Question' could not be solved through 'slow settlement,' infirtlation without political negotiations, international guarantees, or legal recognition of the 'colonization project' by major powers.
The conference identified three interconnected paths to achieve the Zionist goal: the development of settlements in Palestine through agricultural workers, strengthening and developing Jewish national awareness and culture, and seeking international approval for the Zionist project. Following Herzl's recommendation, the First Zionist Congress avoided using the term 'Jewish state' in its resolutions, opting for the term 'homeland' to avoid further hostility towards Jews in Europe and within the Ottoman Empire. This was the same formula that appeared in the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917.
Herzl based his diagnosis of the Jewish dilemma and the formulation of Zionist thought as a solution on the ideas of Jewish thinkers who preceded him in this field, including Rabbi Kalischer, Moses Hess, Rabbi Mohliver, Pinsker and Guenzburg. They all lived between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, each following various religious and ethnic paths. Still, they converged on a deeply pessimistic view of the future conditions of Jews in European countries.
They concluded that preserving traditional Jewish identity was necessary and best achieved through immigration to 'Palestine' via collective settlement.
Then came Theodor Herzl, introducing a new and calm method in his approach, coupled with his confidence that the concept of the 'state' was the sure solution to the Jews' problems in Western societies. He believed that this dream could be realized by transforming it into an international political issue. Drawing inspiration from the Greek, Roman, Serbian, and Balkan peoples who achieved their dreams during the years witnessing the birth of the 'Jewish dream,' Herzl noted that Jews had an additional incentive, namely anti-Semitism, which characterized the events of that period.
Therefore, following his tactical pragmatic logic, Herzl called for the establishment of two significant entities: the 'Jewish Association,' to serve as the political tool with the authority to plan and issue organizational decisions and handle all the necessary political activities. This included selecting the country to which Jews would migrate, negotiating with major powers to obtain a proposed 'charter,' and then organizing the necessary mass migration while acknowledging Jewish sovereignty over the chosen land. The second entity was the 'Jewish Company,' tasked with raising the necessary funds and organizing trade and industry activities in the selected country. The company was also entrusted with liquidating the assets of migrating Jews in Europe before assisting them in buying land and providing homes, tools, and production loans for immigrants.
The Jewish Company was established as a 'limited liability company' with a capital of 200 million dollars. It was registered in London under the protection of the British authorities. The required funds were collected from prominent Jewish financiers and some small European banks influenced by Jewish figures. The company also organized a widespread public subscription among Jewish communities in the United States and among individuals who had gained considerable financial weight in the countries where they lived before the dawn of this dream. Contrary to what the Zionist movement promoted, they succeeded in accumulating vast and secure wealth.
The First Zionist Congress was held in the Swiss city of Basel from August 29 to 31, 1897. During this congress, the 'World Zionist Organization' was founded, and Theodor Herzl was chosen as its president. In this first edition of the Zionist congresses, Herzl presented a project that became known as the 'Basel Project.' Herzl succeeded in bringing together various Zionist currents within a single organizational framework. Through the establishment of the 'Zionist Congresses,' which would continue annually thereafter, he aimed to transform the 'Jewish Question' into a global issue. He emphasized the importance of moving forward with the organization of the process of building the Jewish national homeland in the future.
An executive committee consisting of 15 members was elected to achieve the congress's fundamental goal of laying the 'foundation stone' for the future dwelling place of the Jewish people. Herzl declared in the conference that Zionism is a return to Judaism before the return to the land of the Jews."
Starting from the Second Zionist Congress held in 1898, the Zionist Congress maintained its regular annual sessions. In its second and third editions, the focus was on introducing the 'Zionist idea' among Jews in various countries worldwide. The creation of the 'Settlement Fund' was announced, serving as the financial apparatus for the World Zionist Organization. Donation campaigns targeted wealthy Jews in the West, encouraging them to support the fund. A percentage of profits from their companies and major institutions was also allocated annually to ensure sustained funding, given the organization's expanding expenses, which would become apparent later.
The Fourth Zionist Congress marked the beginning of engagement with major capitals when it convened in London (August 13-16, 1900). It addressed the pressing issue of unemployment among Jewish workers in Palestine, prompting many to leave their settlements and either relocate within Palestine or emigrate altogether. For the first time, the issue of establishing the 'Jewish National Fund' was raised at this conference by the Russian Zionist Zvi Hermann Schapira, aiming to finance land purchases in Palestine.
The Fifth Congress, held in Switzerland in 1901, unanimously approved the establishment of the Jewish National Fund. Starting from this date, congresses were organized every two years. The Sixth Congress took place in Basel in August 1903, introducing for the first time the proposal for the establishment of a Jewish state in 'Uganda' by the British government.
Herzl enthusiastically supported this option as a temporary solution, convincing 295 delegates to agree, while 178 opposed. Heated debates centered around the viability of the Zionist project if implemented in a location other than Palestine. To prevent rifts that could jeopardize the progress made since 1897, Herzl skillfully managed the conflict by promising to form a fact-finding committee. This committee would travel to Uganda, study the region, and return with recommendations for presentation at the next Zionist Congress.
Theodor Herzl passed away before the Seventh Congress in 1905, but the organization was determined to continue its sessions. The congress reconvened in Basel, and David Wolffsohn, a Russian Zionist and close associate of Herzl, was elected as the president of the World Zionist Organization.
In this conference, the idea of "Uganda" was officially abandoned, and the focus returned to the decision of the "Basel Program," which designated Palestine as the sole "national homeland." During the Eighth Congress held in The Hague, Netherlands, in 1907, Chaim Weizmann, a prominent Zionist figure, and the most famous after Herzl, strongly advocated for the integration of "political Zionism" with settlement in Palestine. The congress extensively discussed the problems faced by Jewish workers in Palestine. This led to the introduction of the concept of establishing the "Land of Israel Office" for the first time, which was promptly opened in Jaffa, presided over by Arthur Ruppin.
The Land of Israel Office quickly attracted Jewish financiers to fund agricultural fields for citrus and other fruits. Contributions were also made to establish agricultural settlements in places like Boria, Magdala in the north of Lake Tiberias, and in Rehovot and Lod. The Land of Israel Office played a major role in the establishment of the "Ahuzat Bayit" neighborhood, which later became the central nucleus of the first Hebrew city, Tel Aviv. Subsequently, it became extensively involved in shouldering the responsibilities of managing the settlement activity throughout Palestine.
After the Land of Israel Office's activities stabilized, it became known during this early period for the establishment of the "Kibbutz," embodying the idea of creating agricultural cooperatives. These communities were built on the principle of communal ownership of production tools, with no individual ownership. The proceeds of production were equally shared among the members of the small agricultural community. The office organized new Jewish immigrants in emerging settlements, providing training in working in the fields and farms, offering shelter, food, and preparing them for integration into the anticipated Israeli society.
The Land of Israel Office's activities in this early period were associated with the "Kibbutz," which represented the idea of establishing agricultural cooperatives. These communities were based on communal ownership of production tools, with no individual ownership. The office organized new Jewish immigrants in emerging settlements, providing training in working in the fields and farms, offering shelter, food, and preparing them for integration into the anticipated Israeli society. Early Jewish immigration statistics between 1882 and 1903 recorded a total of 20 to 30 thousand Jews, constituting the majority of the first wave of immigration, mostly from the Russian Empire, due to the violence and attacks they experienced there. Shortly after, the second wave of immigration occurred between 1904 and 1914, totaling about 40 thousand Russians. They were reassured that the care and rehabilitation efforts were well-managed by the Land of Israel Office.