by Fra Hughes
The First Zionist Congress was held in Basel Switzerland in 1897 – the brainchild of Theodore Herzl, who said “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, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.”
The Congress which was originally to be held in Germany was transferred to Switzerland due to twin opposition from both Jewish and non-Jewish groups opposed to Zionism. It brought together over 200 delegates, including 17 women and 10 non-Jews to participate and develop the Basel Programme which would set the basis, aspirations and desires for a Jewish ‘homeland’ in Palestine.
It is important to note that many view Zionism as a nationalistic political ideology, as opposed to a religious movement. Many Orthodox and secular Jews are anti-Zionist, and many Zionists are not religious or even Jewish. Orthodox Jews believe Israel can only be brought into existence with the coming of the Messiah, yet Zionists believe and indeed have created Israel through political and military action. Zionism is a political ideology, Judaism is a religious theology – they are not necessarily comparable. We have Christian Zionists who believe in Israel, and practising Jews who do not.
One of the many definitions of Zionism describes it as a nationalist political movement of Jews and Jewish culture that supports the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel (roughly corresponding to Palestine, Canaan or the Holy Land). So Herzl brought several strands of Zionism from many disparate groups together under one roof with one aim: to unify Zionism for the exploitation of Palestine. His belief that antisemitism could not be combated and that only a Jewish homeland could protect the Jewish people bolstered the phrase “A land without people for a people without land”, which was to become the mantra for Zionists in the years to follow.
Many forget that Palestine had an indigenous population which included Jews who lived in relative peace and harmony with their Arab Muslim and Christian Palestinian neighbours.This was all set to change. The Basel Programme concluded that an organisation should be established to pursue the Zionist vision of Israel being established in Palestine, using both political and financial acumen. It set about building political allies internationally, encouraging Jewish immigration to Palestine. Palestine at this time was under the control and occupation of the Turkish Ottoman Empire . The Jewish National Fund was establish by the Zionist World Organisation in 1901 to buy land in Palestine to be used for the colonisation of Palestine by stealth – its objective to buy land from absentee Turkish landlords and establish co-operatives farms, building a Zionist presence on the ground. Those employed in these projects were Zionists and Jews – very few, if any Palestinians were employed. Many were simply put off the land by its new owners.
Palestine was beginning to experience a slow but unstoppable change in its demographic make up. A ticking time bomb was to lie in wait for the years ahead.