First Zionist Congress Opens
Attendees of the First Zionist Congress. Photo: Public Domain

August 29, 1897

Spearheaded by Theodor Herzl, the First Zionist Congress opens in Basel, Switzerland, for three days of meetings with roughly 200 attendees.

Herzl invites allies in the Zionist cause — Jews and non-Jews alike — from all over the world to attend the congress. He targets wealthy philanthropists who could help fund his goal of establishing a Jewish homeland. Planned for Munich, Germany, the congress convenes in the small city of Basel instead to avoid any backlash.

The First Zionist Congress defines the movement’s objectives as a Jewish political entity and the means by which to achieve it. The congress unanimously adopts the Basel Program, which declares that “Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in the Land of Israel.” The Basel Program sets out four steps to achieve that goal: encourage Jewish farmers, artisans and tradesmen to settle in Palestine; unite Jews into local or general groups that can take action; strengthen feelings of Jewish peoplehood and awareness of the need for a national Jewish home; and work through appropriate governmental and international channels to gain the grants necessary to establish a legitimate homeland.

The First Zionist Congress establishes the World Zionist Organization and elects Herzl as its first president. The World Zionist Organization still stands, and the World Zionist Congress continues to gather representatives of the world’s Jews every five years or so.