World Zionist Organization (WZO): The First Zionist Congress and the Basel Program

World Zionist Organization (WZO)

The Zionist Organization was founded by Theodor Herzl at the First Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897; it was renamed the World Zionist Organization in 1960. Its goals were set forth in the Basle Program: “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine, secured under public law.” The right of membership in the ZO was given to anyone who accepted the Basle Program and purchased the Zionist shekel (dues). The first constitution was passed by the Third Congress in 1899 and amended over the years.

At the First Zionist Congress, the Zionist movement organized itself as a worldwide organization with permanent institutions. The supreme institution was, and still is, the Zionist Congress. The elected institutions that function between congresses are the Zionist General Council and the Zionist Executive; the latter carries out the movement’s policies. TheZionist Congress also elects a law court, an attorney and a comptroller. The Zionist Executive is headed by its chairman, who is also the president of the ZO.

Since its foundation, the ZO has established companies and institutions to carry out its policies; these include Keren Hayesod, the Jewish National Fund, the Jewish Colonial Trust, and the Jewish Colonial Trust’s subsidiary, the Anglo-Palestine Bank.

The Mandate for Palestine accorded Great Britain by the League of Nations called for the establishment of a Jewish Agency to represent the Jewish people vis-a-vis the Mandatory government and to cooperate with it in establishing the national home. The Zionist Organization was initially given the status of a Jewish Agency.

In 1929, an expanded agency was established as a partnership between the ZO and non-Zionist, public Jewish groups. At the founding conference in Zurich in 1929, half the delegates were representatives of the ZO, and half represented the non-Zionist organizations. Dr. Chaim Weizmann, president of the ZO, was elected president of the newly founded Jewish Agency.

The Jewish Agency was viewed as a tool for the involvement of the entire Jewish people in the building of the land. It was also hoped that inclusion of the non-Zionist organizations would boost the financial resources available to the Zionist movement, something which did not occur, partly because of the worldwide economic crisis of 1929. The principle of equal representation in the Jewish Agency leadership was also gradually breached. After several years, the Executive of the Jewish Agency became identical with that of the Zionist Organization.

In the pre-state period, the Jewish Agency was an “almost-government” which dealt with organizing immigration – including illegal immigration – and absorbing the immigrants in Palestine. It founded Youth Aliya, maintained labor, settlement and industry departments, and was a senior partner in the establishment of the yishuv’s defense force and of the stockade and watchtower settlements. David Ben-Gurion served as chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive from 1935 to 1948, while Moshe Shertok (later Sharett) headed the Political Department.

The goals of the ZO and the Jewish Agency did not change until after the establishment of the State of Israel, when their status was redefined. On November 24, 1952, the Knessetpassed the “Zionist Organization – Jewish Agency for Israel Status Law”, and later a covenant was signed between the government of Israel and the Zionist Executive, according to which the organizations’ main areas of responsibility remained those related to aliya, immigrant absorption and settlement.

In August 1970, an agreement was signed modifying the structure and functions of the Jewish Agency and the WZO. Half the members of the Assembly of the expanded Jewish Agency are representatives of the WZO; 30 percent represent the UJC (U.S.); and 20 percent represent organizations affiliated with Keren Hayesod in the rest of the world. With regard to immigration, the following division was set forth: the Jewish Agency would deal with immigration from countries of persecution and the WZO would deal with immigration from affluent countries. The Jewish Agency and the WZO signed two new covenants with the government of Israel in June 1979. The Jewish Agency retained its responsibility for initial absorption of the immigrants in Israel; support for educational activities and work with youth; immigrant absorption in rural settlements; immigrant housing; and welfare services. The WZO concentrates on work in the Diaspora and that relating to Diaspora Jewry: Jewish education, work with youth and so forth.

The First Zionist Congress and the Basel Program

The first Zionist Congress was called by Theodor Herzl as a symbolic Parliament for those in sympathy with the implementation of Zionist goals. Herzl had planned to hold the gathering in Munich, but due to local Jewish opposition he transferred the gathering to Basel, Switzerland. The Congress took place in the concert hall of the Basel Municipal Casino on August 29, 1897.

There is some dispute as to the exact number of participants at the First Zionist Congress; however, the approximate figure is 200 from seventeen countries, 69 of whom were delegates from various Zionist societies and the remainder were individual invitees. In attendance were also ten non­Jews who were expected to abstain from voting. Seventeen women attended the Congress, some of them in their own capacity and others who accompanied representatives. While women participated in the First Zionist Congress, they did not have voting rights. Full membership rights were accorded them the following year, at the Second Zionist Congress.

Following a festive opening in which the representatives were expected to arrive in formal dress, tails and white tie, the Congress got down to the business at hand. The main items on the agenda were the presentation of Herzl’s plans, the establishment of the World Zionist Organization and the declaration of Zionism’s goals-the Basel program.

In the version submitted to the Congress on the second day of its deliberations (August 30) by a committee under the chairmanship of Max Nordau, it was stated: “The aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Eretz­Israel secured by law.”

To meet halfway the request of numerous delegates, the most prominent of whom was Leo Motzkin, who sought the inclusion of the phrase “by international law,” a compromise formula proposed by Herzl was eventually adopted:

Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz­Israel secured under public law. The Congress contemplates the following means to the attainment of this end:

1. The promotion by appropriate means of the settlement in Eretz-Israel of Jewish farmers, artisans, and manufacturers.

2. The organization and uniting of the whole of Jewry by means of appropriate institutions, both local and international, in accordance with the laws of each country.

3. The strengthening and fostering of Jewish national sentiment and national consciousness.

4. Preparatory steps toward obtaining the consent of governments, where necessary, in order to reach the goals of Zionism.

At the Congress, Herzl was elected President of the Zionist Organization and Max Nordau one of three Vice-Presidents. Thereafter, the Zionist Congress met every year (1897­1901), then every second year (1903-1913, 1921-1939). Since the Second World War, meetings have been held approximately every four years.