First Zionist Congress, Hebrew Language Newspaper Reporting
Theodor Herzl, JNF Poster, with special permission from the Central Zionist Archives, 2013.

Translations of Selected Hebrew language newspaper reporting, 

First World Zionist Congress, Basel, Switzerland, August 29-31, 1897

Translated from Hebrew, Roni Eshel, Atlanta, Ga. 2013

To secure a glimpse of what was seen in the hall of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, news stories from three journalists outlines a turning point in Jewish/Zionist history.  Read along with Herzl’s Jewish State and Max Nordau’s address at the Congress, a sense of reason, resilience and aspiration are conveyed about what lies ahead. Some two decades earlier, a few Zionists reestablished their presence in Eretz Yisrael, vaguely outlining Nucleus for a Jewish State. Fifty years after the congress opened, the United Nations suggested that the future of Palestine be best configured in an Arab and Jewish state there. 


“Reporters’ quarters, from the Zionist Conference,” by R. Brainin, in HaMelitz, September 3, 1897, Vol. 37, Issue 190.

 “After the Quake,” Uncredited, in Hamagid L’Israel, Krakow, Poland, September 9, 1897, Issue 36.

 “The Zionist Congress in Basel — The Program,” by R. A. Broides, in Hamagid L’Israel, Krakow, Poland, September 9, 1897, Issue 36.

R. Brainin, “Reporters’ quarters, from the Zionist Conference,” HaMelitz, September 3, 1897, St. Petersburg, Russia, 37th year, Issue No. 190.

Basel, August 29, 1897

The Zionist Congress opened at nine in the morning at the large hall of the casino building. More than 200 Zionists from many countries gathered to participate. Dr. Karl Lippe from Iasi (Romania) was elected, being the eldest of the delegates, to deliver the opening remarks to the Congress. Dr. Herzl was elected Head of the Congress and his deputies were: first Dr. Max Nordau, second Dr. Avraham Zaltz from Tarnow and third, Shmuel Finilis from Romania. M. Ussishkin was selected to the post of Hebrew Secretary; the position of the Russian Secretary was assigned to Y. Tiomkin; and the English Secretary was Jacob de Haas. Four were chosen to serve as their deputies: Dr. Shnirer, David Wolffsohn, Dr. Mintz and Earnpreise. Translators were appointed for each of the languages.

The main hall was exalted in tranquility. All were dressed in festive attire and the loftiest of all moments had arrived. The Congress opened and all logistics were impressive. Dr. Lippe opened the conference. He briefly reviewed the history of the idea of national revival. His words were woven with Biblical and Talmudic quotations. Afterward, Herzl climbed to the stage, tall, very handsome — a reflection of the pure Hebrew character in his likeness and his oriental charm. 

His black eyes glittered like rivers of flame that rendered in his face a soft and stately expression. He spoke softly in a pleasant tone without making an attempt to leave an unduly impression. “I inquire of your wellbeing dear brothers,” he said. “The moments are very precious. In the next three days — the duration of the Congress — we shall deal with many issues, therefore we should make the most of every moment. Let us lay the cornerstone of the construction of the House of Israel. During the next three days we shall listen and look into the situation of the Jews in various countries. If it were not so sorrowful we would have not gathered here. Our connection has been cut for a long time, now we shall reestablish it.” Dr. Herzl continued to describe anti-Semitism in vivid colors and in general outlines — this hatred that assumed the fashion of nowadays. “Zionism” — says Herzl — “is the return to Israel. Even before the return to Israel, Zionism demonstrated to the whole world this wonderful miracle where the extreme liberals in Israel will go hand-in-hand with the devout orthodox in the national undertaking without compromising their principles, because only through national transformation can we unite and become loyal brethren…The assumption of the Zionist leadership is that the discussions would be internationally known. The Zionists would no longer carry out their goals in secret; rather their affairs will now be conducted openly in front of all nations. Not in winding roads, not in darkness and not indirectly shall we get closer to our goal, but straight forward on the main thoroughfare we shall proceed and we shall transform the Jewish problem into the Zionist issue.” 

“The congress shall not sacrifice the education and culture that we have earned but rather deepen and widen it,” Herzl said. “The people can be saved only by their own accord and will seek proper venues to pursue the restoration of the national recognition in Israel. If the people do not have the strength to redeem themselves, there will be no salvation to replace their own initiative. They have to pursue the initiative in order to obtain a permit from Turkey to enter multitudes of Jews into Eretz Israel. This can be done only by speaking openly and clearly; there is no other option. We shall speak clearly with the Sultan’s government since the Sultan has always demonstrated his love to the people of Israel. We shall ask Turkey to exert justice, not mercy or tolerance. We will demand justice and not patronage because we, the Jews, have an agenda — other nations claim that we are too calculative, but by having our own plan we have to realize that if we are to hold on to old colonization methods and have 10,000 Jews entering Eretz Israel every year, then we’ll have to wait 900 years until all of our people can settle there. The Sultan realized from experience that the Jews are loyal subjects; and those who enter the country will be able to bring remedy to the ruined government treasures and contribute to the affluence and the country as a whole. Furthermore, if the Jews depart from the countries where they currently reside, it will benefit Christians in those countries. Zionism pursues peace but peace makers and seekers must fight all hindrances more than anybody else. We are like a bone that got stuck in the throats of the European countries… and only Zionism can save him [the Sultan].” 

“At this moment, my dear brothers, the whole world is watching us, including thousands of Jews in many countries. The Congress should be a place of tranquility; a place of peace; a place of brotherhood and loyal friendship. In this Congress we have created an essential organ for Israel. Our enterprise is so big, so dignified and enormous that it can’t be a deed of the few. It cannot be dependent on the views of several. It cannot be regarded as incidental or a miracle. Our enterprise has to rise above personality and the opinions of the few. The congress should not be antagonistic to the wish of our people, but act as a server for our people’s dignity”. 

During Herzl’s speech and at the end of his delivery, the audience expressed their approval by clapping loudly and shouting words of encouragement. On the balcony there were guests from the Jewish community in Basel — more than 100 women and men. 

When Max Nordau stepped on the pulpit following the conclusion of Herzl’s speech a great wonderment and awe filled the room. There were bursts of applause, calling of hurrahs, and waiving of handkerchiefs from all over. Nordau made a great impression with his white hair, his white beard, and his eyes, burning with the strength of youth and fire. His appearance was both old and young just like the members of the audience he addressed. His words were clear, pleasant, and penetrated the chambers of the audience’s hearts. He described the predicaments of the Jews in various countries. His concept and message were complete and sincere.

 Each of his deliveries was like a sharp arrow; every expression was minimalist but contained much substance. His colors were bright and his drawings were sharp. Elevated sharpness and clarity characterized his speech. He began by describing the situation of the Jews in Eastern Galicia, Romania and presented details about their poverty and the oppressing edicts that they were subjected to. Then he referred to countries that granted rights to the Jews — in writings only. Nordau said: “The rights that were given to Jews in Europe were not derived from the heart but from the head; they are rooted in logic and not emotions. The French gave the whole world the materialistic measures but they also created the moral base that they have used as a primary measure.” 

The wonderment from Nordau’s words had risen to immeasurable heights. Such open language, sharp and precise, had never been heard before in Jewish conferences. He analyzed the Jewish soul in sharp scalpel and revealed all the “accepted lies.” “Zionism wishes to give us,” said Nordau “something that is self-explanatory and understood by inhabitants of both sides of the planet: A secure standing in the society and a life without lies. The Jews of Western Europe are throwing themselves into the destroyers’ cult; assuming that if all is ruined and annihilated then hatred towards Israel will become an issue not worthy of addressing.” Nordau demonstrated how the moral standards of Jews in the ghetto are higher than those of the European Jews. “The distant millionaires are the lowest among our people. These millionaires do not know the names of the Rambam, Spinoza, Yehuda Halevy and Ibn Gevirol. If we were under normal circumstances then these extremely rich people would have been considered the worst among us, and we would not have bestowed upon them signs of dignity and recognition. Their generous contributions to the destitute Jews only strengthen the beggary among the people of Israel and allow the wealthy to desert their religion.” 

“Let them go in peace in their own chosen ways. They may be filled with sorrow that the blood of Israel is running through their veins. If so, this is the worst blood of Israel,” Nordau said. At the conclusion of Nordau’s speech, the audience roared with endless applause and exclamations of bravo. Such enthusiasm I have never witnessed before. Such enthusiasm can come only from the heart of a person who was imprisoned in jail for many years and has now gained his freedom and seen the light. Only from such heart can such exhilaration be exalted. 

Other speakers described the Jewish predicament in other countries. Dr. Zaltz described the situation of the Jews in Galicia; de Haas in England and Behar in France.

…The Congress then sent a telegram to the Sultan in which members expressed their gratitude for his kindness towards the Jews…

 Professor Mandelstam from Kiev and I. Zangwill from London arrived today at the Congress. 

I am writing these words while the meeting is in session and the impact of the speakers on the attendees is very strong. 

I will have more details in the evening. 

Ya’akov Shmuel Fouchs, After the Quake,” Hamagid L’Israel, Krakow, Poland, September 9, 1897, Issue 36.

Upon the return of the delegates from the Zionist Congress in Basel we were elated. That conference was like a pleasant dream or a heavenly spectacle. When we heard a few months back about a Jewish Congress we did not dare think that such a grand idea would materialize. When the day finally arrived and the Congress convened, we were like dreamers awakening from a shattering quake — our souls were bustling…The Congress as a whole had been grand not just in its many resolutions; not only in its powerful councils; not even in the knowledge and wisdom that it disseminated among the people of Israel, but primarily in its magnitude, being in itself the cornerstone for the construction of a homeland in Israel. It was of great significance for our people to know that it has a purpose; that there is wish for life, that it had been awakened to be consulted about its future; that it has capable leaders who take care of it, who are not complaining about crisis and who are focusing their thoughts on the future of Jewish nationality, and that there is a leader who acts for the whole of Israel. It is the accepted conclusion that this Congress was the source of peace to a new controversy that arose among us — between the founders of the Kingdom of Israel and those who are active in the settlement of Eretz Israel. 

Indeed we do not know what was discussed behind the drawn curtains; we do not deal with the unknown; but in the open Congress a true peace was prevalent among all delegates and all others that have gathered. Dr. Herzl relinquished the lofty idea of establishing a kingdom of Israel in favor of promoting a practical Zionist state. These matters will greatly impact those who will write the annals of the Jews. They most likely will regard the Basel Congress as the revival of Israel and the first three days of the month of Elul (1897) as the days of the rebirth of Israel…A new epoch will commence in the history of the Jewish people. Dr. Herzl was privileged to serve as the leading figure that strongly held and steered the wheel of our history and created a new face for us and pushed us forward…

This was the overall judgment of the Congress. Its procedures and details will require many visitations, and because of its immense value we shall not call for specific judgments, except for one distortion that, in our opinion, needs to be corrected. The Congress decided hastily that the principle committee of all Zionists should not be engaged in negotiations with other committees that already exist and should take no action in expanding the moshavot in Eretz Israel until it obtains a publicly disclosed license from the Sultan’s government. This means that all those committees should cease their workings and have their hands tied for an undetermined period of time. We oppose such decision with all our strength because the majority of the public cannot comply with it. If the people see that the heads of those private companies stop their work they will become discouraged and their hands will weaken, more than their current lack of diligence…We were aware of the fact that there must have been some basis for the Congress’s decision on that issue. We also know that we would not benefit from disturbing the work of the committees of various Jewish organizations because our people may return to their “sleep” and it will take a great new effort to reawaken them. 

Therefore we should raise our voice and call upon all the committees of the Zionist companies — local and general: Don’t let your hands weaken! Carry on with your work as you have done so far, collect money for the establishment of new moshavot; expand the borders of the Zionists among you, establish new companies in places where the Zionist message has not been delivered yet; strengthen the spirit of the people with pamphlets and brochures and do everything that was done at the beginning. You should not find it satisfactory to rely solely on the enterprises of the new committee that was elected by the Congress as it is still in its impetus stages [as a fetus in his mother’s womb]. No one knows how well it will function and we should not place in its hands the whole future of the people. 

We should make one more comment. The main purpose of the Congress and the Committee that it established is to improve the material situation of our people, and for that reason, all eyes of the People of Israel are directed here and we should all hope that they will bring salvation to our people.

 But how little was done for the betterment of our spiritual state of affairs. Indeed, the Congress found time to address that issue in its last hour when there was one presentation about our literature and language and it even created a special committee of Hebrew authors to deal with those matters. But anyone who might suggest that much hope should derive from such a committee is mistaken. After all, the creators of the Congress rejected with both hands the attempt to mix the spiritual aspects with the Zionist activities. Throughout the procedures of the Congress nothing was mentioned about our religion. Therefore, could we expect a committee that is dependent on the Congress to uplift the dignity of our language and literature and place it at the heart of our national principles? We who know more about the Jewish religion than the initiators of the Congress; we who are knowledgeable of the Hebrew language; we who know its literature, which is as dear to us as life itself, how can we then comply with the limited effort of the Congress to contribute to our nation’s spiritual needs?

The days of the Congress have gone by now. Passed are the days that will not be forgotten from our memories…We are past the quake and (we wonder) in what way have we quenched our thirst of our longing souls to see our literature flourish and our language revivedIt is with an aching heart that we have to answer: with nothing. Therefore, we should do the following to ease ourselves: Let us, the Hebrew authors call for general conference with the participation of our brethren Hebrew authors and sages to consult specifically and solely about our spiritual needs. In such a conference we shall discuss the ways that are necessary for the revival of Israel’s spirituality, the rejuvenation of the Hebrew language and the spreading Jewish wisdom; and we shall establish schools based on the concepts of uplifting the spirituality of Israel. The resolution of such conference will supersede all the resolutions of the Zionist Congress on such matters. We shall also call upon the rabbis to attend our conference to advise us on how to strengthen our ties with our religion. And there is no more fitting an hour than now. The hearts are open, the souls are awakened, and our history and tradition will be our guide to the idea that the revival of the people of Israel has been always closely interwoven with the revival of the Torah and Hebrew literature. If we are to consider the Zionist Congress a re-birth of our nation, we should not prevent ourselves from acting on the rejuvenation and the revival of the Torah, the language and the literature and reinstitute their prominence once again. 

Professor [Zvi Hermann] Schapira was correct to comment in his address to the rabbis, that if they will not participate in the revival of our nation then they will be responsible for the sin of our people for going astray. And the rabbis’ work will not bear fruit and it will be a sign that our great sages did not comprehend the demands that derived from these crucial times. If our rabbis wish to partake in the revival of our people then they should realize that a vast area was left for them to act upon: To call for a conference to discuss the desecration of religion and the forgotten Torah and find creative ways to reinstate the crown to its previous prominence. 

 R. A. Broides, “The Zionist Congress in Basel — The Program,” Hamagid L’Israel, edited by Ya’akov Shmuel Fouchs, Krakow, September 9, 1897, Issue 36.

“We are standing here for the first time in the midst of Europe — inside official Europe — and the eyes of the European nations are directed at us.” These words were said by Dr. Herzl in a preliminary meeting that was held on Friday (before the official opening of the Congress on Sunday, August 29, 1897) and that’s why all participants were to make a special effort that the Congress resolutions — especially those related to the Program of the Zionists — will be agreed upon by all delegates and accepted unanimously. 

But the Congress organizers knew that some delegates who had rejected the Program had arrived. They were apprehensive of the allies from Berlin and of the Russian delegates. The latter have initiated few conferences and were in consultations solely among themselves. Though the committees that were active in Odessa and in Jaffa did not participate in the Congress in Basel or send their delegates, there were nevertheless other delegates who served as their proxies. They have already begun to stir up some matters and a couple of them came to Herzl and badmouthed the Russians, saying that they intended to oppose him and reject his views. 

But Mr. [Yehoshua] Buchmil undermined their intentions. During the Russian delegation that convened on the Sabbath, he called upon them not to speak in the name of those who had not sent them as representatives. It was then agreed in that meeting to choose four people who would go hand-in-hand with the Official Committee. The fear of the delegates from Berlin was also unfounded. We saw that Dr. Herzl and his close associates were very moderate, so much so that during the discussion on the Program the Russian-radicals raised the missing words, “The rights/laws of nations” and they proved to be more “Herzlians” than Herzl himself. 

This discussion indicated the mood that existed among the delegates. The Committee suggested that “the Zionist Movement should achieve for the Jewish People ‘a legally guaranteed, secured under public law, homeland state in Eretz Israel.’” And the delegates protested loudly and demanded to know why they could not explicitly say: “A Jewish State?” And why they could not say “Absolutely legal?” The Chairman of the Committee, Dr. [Max] Nordau, and Herzl, tried in vain to prove that the first version was applicable. They explained that in the countries of our exiles, such as England and France, the term that was generally used was “legally designated states.” But, he argued this is not why in the name of Zionism we have gathered here…In response, the spokesperson for the Russian delegate, Dr. [Leo] Motzkin argued: “The big idea of Herzl is what brought us here and now they try to soften and to sweeten it…This idea [of establishing a Jewish State] was set from the inception of the Movement and now we are reducing its meanings…The Congress has openly publicized our intention and we should to tell the whole world in clear language and define it in its right name…we have hidden it for some years and nothing came out of it…The Sultan Government forbade entrance to the country etc. etc… such words we have heard from Herzl’s opponents — but did they really object to him?”

The Committee member, Dr. [Alexander] Mintz who followed the previous speaker said that we all hold true in our hearts to that ideal. But connotations of words and the way the speakers express themselves is different.

 And finally, the speaker added that Dr. Herzl had suggested adding the word “legally” [a publicly assured home in Palestine] and explained that “clearly legal” is similar to “absolutely legal” but it is somewhat more moderate. And then Clause A of the Program was finally agreed upon unanimously as it was initially intended. 

The discussion was one thing, but we have learned two things from it: We have learned that Dr. Herzl expressed his respect to the delegates from Berlin and was moderate in his words. And we also learned that on principled issues he had a firm stand. 

Dr. Mintz explained the following on behalf of Herzl: We should stop using the term “the right/legality of nations” … but in clause D it says after all that we should attempt to obtain the permissions and the guarantees of Governments that our land would be secured on the basis of “the legality/law of nations” [as in international law]. Those who were critical became satisfied with the addition of the term “publicly legal” and expressed their view that this moderation in terminology was necessary since finally we have become a factor “within Europe” and we still need to be patient in order to obtain the permission of the Governments [to establish a Jewish homeland in Eretz Israel].

And among the Governments or even maybe the one that was heading them was the Sultan’s Government. And the Congress has given its attention to it. From the very beginning, before members were elected to lead the Congress, the honorary-elder Chairman, Dr. K. Lippe, suggested with the approval of official officers to send congratulatory telegram to Sultan saying the following: “The Zionist Congress sends its blessing to him in the name of all the Jewish People for the patronage and the safety granted by his Highness to protect our brethren who live in his country in general and particularly in the colonies in Palestine.” The proposal to send this telegram was greeted with applause and was executed by the chairman. 

As for the right of the people from a political perspective, it was not proper to raise that issue in this telegram. 

But if we divert our attention from that personal discussion and observe the Congress as a whole, we will be assured that that the Program of the Congress is the Congress itself. The gathering of Zionists from all over the world, the desire to unite all our forces, the insatiable drive to rebuild our ruins by ourselves, all these constitute a special and magnificent agenda. 

In the private meeting that was held by the Russian delegates after the conclusion of the Congress, Dr. Yaakov Bernstein-Cohen answered the general question that was raised during the daily procedures: What should be our response to those who sent us here as their representatives? What shall we take with us from Basel to Russia? … “Do not take these questions too lightly,” he said. “The mere fact that Jews have gathered from their dispersed Diasporas into a single city to discuss their situation and seek advice and attempt to better themselves by their own accord and not by the charitable whims of others or the generosity of their neighbors, this in itself is a blessing. And suffice to have had the first Congress and to bring this blessing to our brethren in Russia.”

The Program of the Congress and its procedures that were delivered without the bickering and negotiations typical of diplomats and politicians should be accepted by every thinking and honest person who loves his people and is concerned with the future and the redemption of both Israel and freeing of one’s soul.