Backgrounder Zionist Congress Works for Future by Reflecting on Its Storied Past

Theodor Herzl launched his vision of a Jewish state at the First Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. More than a century later, Israel exists — and so does the congress Herzl launched. Under the banner “The Dream Still Matters,” more than 2,000 representatives from across the globe will gather in Jerusalem from June 19-22 for the 35th Zionist Congress to keep the ideological torch alive.

“It’s almost like a conscience to the country, the Zionism that will provide the fervor and commitment to allow Israel to grow and allow it to relate to a dream and not just day-to-day existence,” said Marty Davis, director general of the department for Zionist activities of the World Zionist Organization, which holds the congress.

Dubbed “the Parliament of the Jewish people,” the congress brings together Zionist activists from around the world to vote on topics ranging from civil marriage in Israel to the reduction of social and economic gaps between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

The congress debates the policies of the World Zionist Organization, which controls half of the $350 million budget of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The Jewish Agency is involved in immigration and absorption and runs religious, political and educational programs throughout the world.

The WZO has a $13 million budget, drawn from money raised by Keren Hayesod — its fund-raising arm — and the Jewish Agency, and allocated by the Israeli government.

Zionist federations held elections in their home countries to select delegates to the congress. About 120,000 Jews outside Israel voted in the elections, which chose 750 people who can vote at the congress. Others will act as delegates and observers.

Delegates will be choosing people for key positions, among them the head of the Jewish National Fund and the treasurer of the Jewish Agency. Zeev Bielski, chairman of the WZO and Jewish Agency, is expected to be re-elected to his post.

“The problem with elections abroad is that if 120,000 people voted, that means about 11 million did not vote — that is, the vast majority of world Jewry did not participate,” said David Breakstone, head of the WZO’s department for Zionist activities. Breakstone also is the official representative of Conservative Judaism’s Zionist arm on the WZO executive.

In the past, organizations aligned with the traditional Zionist political parties such as Labor and Likud were the main forces at the Congress. In recent years, Diaspora Jews have aligned themselves instead with the various religious streams.

The main theme of this year’s conference is revitalizing the Zionist movement.

If in the past the focus was “strengthening and fortifying a Jewish state, than the emphasis now is on creating of Israel an exemplary society. The feeling is not that we are creating a new definition of Zionism, but going back to the original,” Breakstone said.

A master showman, Herzl conceived the initial Zionist congress as a grand, almost regal affair. He even sent his friend Max Nordau back to his hotel to put on a tie when Nordau arrived without one.

Delegates at the initial congress voted for the Basel Program, which called for the establishment of a “home for the Jewish people in Palestine, secured by public law.” They also established the institutions that made up the organization, including the Zionist Executive and the Zionist General Council, which meet between the quadrennial congresses.

The initial congress established institutions to carry out its policies that still exist today, including Keren Hayesod and the Jewish National Fund, which focuses on land issues.

When Britain took control of Palestine in 1917 an organization was needed to represent the Jewish people. The Zionist Organization, as Herzl had dubbed it, first assumed that responsibility, but in 1929 a larger body, the Jewish Agency, was established to handle the task.

The Jewish Agency was built as a partnership between the Zionist Organization and other Jewish groups. In the years before the founding of the state, the agency was a quasi-government that helped build the country’s infrastructure, create settlements and facilitate immigration.

When the State of Israel was founded, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion considered doing away with the apparatus of the Zionist movement.

“At first Ben-Gurion said the Zionist movement was scaffolding that could now be taken apart. Whoever was a Zionist should just move to Israel, he said,” recounted Amos Yuvel, chief editor of the WZO’s publishing house, which publishes books on Zionism.

But Ben-Gurion soon realized he would need Diaspora Jewry’s support to make Israel a viable state. Furthermore, with the state consumed with issues of security and economy, it was thought that organizations like the WZO and Jewish Agency could focus on immigration, settlement and Jewish education in the Diaspora.

The role of the WZO shifted with the country’s development. In the 1950s and 1960s the focus was on agricultural settlement; in the late 1970s it was on development towns.

By this time, a division of responsibility had been made between the WZO and the Jewish Agency, with the WZO focusing more on Diaspora issues and the Jewish Agency on immigrant absorption and educational programming for Israeli youth.

By the mid-1990s, Davis said, a growing rift was noted between Diaspora and Israeli Jews. Partnership programs were launched to bring a new generation of Jews to Israel, where they could see programs on the ground that they help support.

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