The Jewish State was an important catalyst for the Zionist movement. The book served as an ideological manifesto, in which Herzl expounded on the broad “credo” of the movement, proposed the Zionist platform and established the principles of the vision. After its publication, practical activities received an important boost – The Jewish State became a real objective. The practical actions designed to establish the state accelerated, while Herzl continued to disseminate the idea and seek theoretical and practical support. To this end, he realized, it was important to unite the entire Jewish world under the Zionist cause.
This task began in August 1897, with the opening of the First Zionist Congress.
At the First Zionist Congress, Zionism was established as an official movement. During the course of the discussions, the essential principles of the movement were established, its objectives were defined and its methods clarified. After the congress, the movement set out as an orderly, structured and planned body, although its inception may be considered to have taken place several weeks earlier, with the appearance of the Jewish newspaper Die Welt (The World).
At the beginning of June, some two months before the international Jewish meeting, a new newspaper was launched that would play a central role in placing Jewish affairs on the public agenda and in promoting Zionism. Herzl attached great significance to the newspaper, aware of its enormous potential importance for the Jewish world as a whole, and for the Zionist effort in particular. As a journalist, writer and diplomat, he realized that a Jewish newspaper would serve as an ideological platform and marketing aid, and play an important role in promoting unity. In the era before radio, television and the Internet, newspapers and journals were almost the only means of mass communication, and Die Welt – which Herzl hoped would become the newspaper of “the poor, weak and young, and of all those who have found a home for their roots” – was of great symbolic importance, since it allowed the _expression of “silenced voices.” The establishment of the newspaper carried an invigorating and promising message – a clarion call or a sounding of the shofar for the downtrodden masses in general, and for the Jews in particular – a public declaration of determination and strength.
Little wonder, then, that Die Welt created fierce arguments between Herzl and the editors of the existing newspapers. The publishers of the Neue Freie Presse, the Viennese newspaper for whom Herzl had served as a senior correspondent, demanded that he abandon his intention of establishing a new newspaper and presented him with an ultimatum: if he continued in his efforts, he would be forced to relinquish his position in the Viennese newspaper. Herzl was not alarmed, however, and despite the pressures he continued to advance the idea of Die Welt and to devote extensive efforts to the project. The first issue of the newspaper appeared on June 4, 1897, and quickly gained a wide readership. For eighteen years, through 1914, Die Welt continued to appear and became one of the leading newspapers throughout Europe.
Die Welt itself, and the difficulties that accompanied its birth, illustrate the process Herzl underwent during this period. The talented journalist, who had considered himself a genuine Viennese citizen, moved ever closer to the Jewish world and its concerns. The Herzl of 1897 was not the Herzl of 1896 - in just a single year, he had come a long way, realized that the Zionist vision was his first concern, and turned himself into a Zionist leader – a status he received officially at the First Zionist Congress. Die Welt might be described as the foundation of the Zionist movement on paper. The Zionist Congress, by contrast, constituted its practical foundation and the nationalist soil on which it might grow.
Some 200 Jewish figures from around the world arrived at Basel, Switzerland in order to attend the historical congress, which lasted for three days and included speeches, lectures and discussions about Zionism and its path. The Congress aroused great excitement among the Jews of the world: It was the first time in modern history that Diaspora Jews had come together to share a common aspiration: The Zionist vision.
“In this congress we are creating for the Jewish people an instrument that it lacked heretofore, but is now… a vital necessity… Our congress should live forever, not only until redemption from the old hardships but afterwards in particular… wherever we are… Our congress will be most serious and uplifted, a blessing to the unfortunate… an honor to all Jews…” (from Herzl’s speech at the Zionist Congress)
Several years earlier, Herzl had written to his friend Arthur Schnitzler that he felt like a “used and worn-out trapeze artist,” but in the First Congress it became apparent that Herzl was a much more talented dancer than he had believed, as evidenced by the clever way in which he managed to “dance on invisible eggs” – the metaphor given by Herzl to the challenges facing him on the eve of the Congress. This referred to the egg of the Orthodox; the egg of the modernists; the egg of the Russian government, the egg of Turkey and the egg of the Christian religions; the egg of Hovevei Zion; the egg of Rothschild and the egg of the colonists financed by him; the egg of jealousy, the egg of envy and several other “eggs.” Each of these “eggs” regarded the Zionist idea differently and acted out of different motives, interests and objectives. Therefore, Herzl’s dance steps were not in waltz tempo – the common dance of those days – but rather demanded cautious and measured steps, which succeeded in reconciling, taking into account and satisfying each of the “eggs” – the factions that met at the Congress. Religious, secular, workers and intellectuals, colonists, farmers and wealthy tycoons – all gathered together, including several figures who considered themselves worthy rivals of Herzl, founder of Zionism and its unofficial leader (until that time).
But Herzl’s diplomatic skills served him well not only in his dealings with international statesmen, but also on the “home front,” and he succeeded in maneuvering the internal paths of the Jewish world – the various groups, ideologies and leaders – into one movement.
Besides its immense symbolic significance, the congress served as a highly significant component on the way to practical fulfillment: Not only did the Congress participants define the objectives and aspirations of Zionism at the Congress, they also decided to establish the bodies that would lead to its realization: The World Zionist Organization and its institutions – the major and minor forums of the Zionist General Council.
Over one hundred years have passed since then, and these bodies continue to serve as the main institutions that work to strengthen the connection between the Jews in Israel and Diaspora Jewry, and to fulfill the principles of Zionism. Over one hundred years have passed since then, and Zionist Congresses are still held every two years, where the Jews of the world convene in order to discuss the paths of Zionism and adapt them to the modern reality and the Jewish people’s present needs.
Herzl was able to participate in four additional congresses. Some were particularly stormy, like the Sixth Congress, where the difficult question arose of settling Jews in territories far from the Holy Land: A fierce dispute broke out regarding the proposal of the British government to establish a Jewish “settlement” in Uganda. The atmosphere at this Congress was particularly charged, and a serious concern arose for the future of Zionism and its continued future as a unified movement, but this was not the only congress where tensions surged. Both in the preceding congresses and in the following ones, profound discussions were held on complex questions, such as the nature and meaning of Zionism, the ways of it should be expressed and implemented, and the desired directions of progress. These debates can remind us that passionate disputes are capable of producing significant contributions, since during these congresses the main Zionist bodies were founded, which serve us to this day. For example, at the Fifth Congress the Zionist Bank was established, which initially operated as an British stock corporation named the Jewish Colonial Trust. A few years later, the company expanded and became the Anglo-Palestine Bank (APC), which is known to us all today as Bank Leumi Le-Israel. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) is also a product of the congress: In the Fifth Congress (1901), Prof. Hermann (Zvi) Schapira initiated the establishment of the fund with the aim of purchasing lands in Eretz Israel, and to this day the JNF continues to play a major role in the Zionist enterprise, and in developing rural settlement and agriculture in Israel.
“Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word – which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly – it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will recognize this” (September 3, 1897). Herzl wrote this in his diary at the end of the congress, and later on wrote that “The foundation of a state lies in the will of the people for a state… Territory is only the material basis: the state, even when it possesses territory, is always something abstract… At Basel, then, I created this abstraction which, as such, is invisible to the vast majority of people.”
"The greatest outcome of this congress is this: It has been discovered that the Jewish national idea has a unifying power, which can unite all the old foundations from a linguistic, social, religious and political standpoint, and turn them into one body… party differences… were silenced upon the first call to the nation… the brothers found one another…” (Theodor Herzl, “Outcomes of the Congress,” September 10, 1897).
Fifty years later, the shells have been removed from the “invisible eggs,” the abstract idea has materialized in reality and the Zionist Movement has become an actual state. Herzl, who was elected the official president of the Zionist Movement at the congress, would work until his final day towards the fulfillment of this idea, in all spheres: Political, economic, diplomatic and social.