It is impossible to separate the First Zionist Congress from the towering figure of Theodor Herzl. Without his forceful and determined personality, it is doubtful that the Congress would have taken place. But in the providence of God, Herzl was the instrument to unite the Jewish people behind the Zionist idea: “to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine”.1 For in the purpose of Yahweh, the time to favour Zion had come (Psa 102:13), that “a partial and primary restoration of Jews”2 to the Land of Israel might be achieved before the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Theodor Herzl was born on 2 May, 1860, in Budapest, Hungary. 3 His family belonged to the wealthy business class and, while conscious of their Jewishness, was highly assimilated. Herzl’s father was nominally Jewish, but more interested in business enterprise. His mother came from a well to do family and had received a German education. From her, Herzl received a love for German literature and culture. Notwithstanding this secular upbringing, Herzl celebrated his bar mitzvah on 3 May, 1873.

He was growing up under increasing anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria-Hungary, but Herzl believed that the only answer to the Jewish problem was complete assimilation: the disappearance of Jews in the ocean of humanity.4 For Jews could live well in Austria-Hungary and were accepted by the wider community to a limited degree.

Rising Anti-Semitism

In 1881, Eugen Duhring published The Jewish Problem as a Problem of Race, Morals and Culture which attempted to establish a “scientific” basis for anti-Semitism. Duhring advocated the removal of all privileges granted to Jews following the French Revolution. He argued that the Jews were useless and should be isolated from contaminating others in society.5 Although Herzl was shocked by such ideas, he still held to the belief that the Jewish problem would be solved by the assimilation of the Jews in their host countries.

It has been suggested that this was the beginning of Herzl’s obsession with the Jewish problem, if only subconsciously.6 In 1883 Herzl resigned from his university fraternity because of its support for anti-Semitism. The following year, he graduated with a doctorate in law, but as law was not really his interest, he began a career as a writer in 1885.

At this stage of his life, Herzl’s main object was to achieve recognition as a writer of a light, entertaining newspaper column, known as a feuilleton. In 1889 he married the daughter of a wealthy businessman and settled in Vienna. By 1892 Herzl had achieved fame through his writings and was employed as Paris correspondent for the Wiener Neue Freie Presse, the most distinguished newspaper in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Herzl was to report on everything of interest in Paris: politics, society, finance and social problems. It was in Paris that he witnessed the rising tide of anti-Semitism amongst intellectuals and in 1894 was confronted with the Dreyfus case.

The Dreyfus Case

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an officer in the French army, was charged with selling secret documents to Germany. Although he protested his innocence, the trial found Dreyfus guilty and condemned him to deportation for life. He was publicly stripped of his rank and dismissed on Saturday, 5 January, 1895, as the crowd shouted: death to the Jews! Herzl was shattered: death to all Jews because one of them is a traitor?7

For Herzl, the Dreyfus case was decisive in strengthening his developing idea that a Jewish state in Palestine was the only solution to the Jewish problem.8 A country was needed where Jews could live and govern themselves and with which all Jews could identify nationally as a Frenchman identifies with France wherever he may live in the world.

The idea was not new, but its expression in such stark political terms was new. Jews had always longed to return to the Land of Israel, but they did not believe that this should be a mass movement advertised publicly to the world. That would have to wait until Messiah appeared, or the time was “right”. Few advocated action by Jews to establish a Jewish state. Herzl clearly stated the problem and its solution and set about its realization.

At first, Herzl attempted to interest the rich Jewish philanthropists such as Baron Maurice deHirsch, who funded a colony in Argentine and the Rothschilds, who provided support to Jewish settlements in Palestine. To do this he began to set his ideas down on paper and made a greater impression on himself than those he sought to persuade.9 The philanthropists were not interested. Herzl’s ideas were “unrealistic”. Then in five feverish days he drafted what was to become the basis of his pamphlet: Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State).10

About this time, he was visited by a friend who was stunned by his untidy appearance (Herzl was usually impeccably dressed and well groomed) and after listening to his ideas recommended he rest and seek medical treatment. At this point, Herzl was so shaken by his friend’s concern that he almost abandoned the project. But he soon regained his equilibrium.11

The Jewish State

Herzl’s failure to influence individuals led to his decision to publish his ideas. Published in 1896, The Jewish State was like a thunderbolt to the Jews throughout the world. Reactions were strong. The rich and assimilated Jews rejected it as dangerous and only an encouragement to anti-Semitism. The poor and oppressed in Eastern Europe and Russia welcomed it and saw in Herzl the leader who would liberate them from their wretchedness. Young Zionists saw it as the sudden opening of a door and the statement of a clear goal, and the steps that lead to it.

But who is Herzl, many associated with Zionism asked? What did he want? Was he serious? Why did Herzl ignore others who had already written about a Jewish state? Had he not read Rome and Jerusalem, published in 1862 by Moses Hess? Or Leo Pinsker’s Auto-emancipation (published 1882)? The fact was that Herzl either had not heard of them or had not had time to read their works. Herzl said later that he may not have written The Jewish State had he have known of Pinsker’s Auto-emancipation, so similar were its ideas to The Jewish State.12

The eight years from 1896 until his death were occupied with incredible, energetic Zionist activity. Herzl took the lead in the work of the Zionist movement. But he continued to work as a journalist because he did not want it to be said that he benefited in any way from his position as leader. Building on the response to The Jewish State, Herzl set about organizing a Zionist Congress to openly discuss the Jewish problem before the world.

A Zionist Congress

The idea of a Zionist Congress had been in Herzl’s mind for some time, but only in 1896 did it begin to take concrete form.13 He saw it as a representative parliament that would meet regularly to discuss the Jewish question and report on developments. By 1897, the idea was beginning to take definite shape. In March, a conference was held in Vienna that resolved to convene the Congress in Munich, if possible. To this end, an organizing committee was set up to assist Herzl.14

Herzl was equal to the task and the task was realistic, if controversial. As Paris correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse, Herzl had gained an understanding of the political process and also the confidence he needed to operate in public a airs. The call for a Congress also forced the issue by requiring its support or rejection. Herzl’s aim was to demonstrate to the world what Zionism is and what it wants.15 By April 1897, the Congress was formally announced and delegates invited to register. Herzl wanted to attract Jews of reputation. His single-minded devotion to the Congress and attention to detail even went so far as personally addressing envelopes.16

But there was unease about the Congress amongst the wider Jewish community in Western and Central Europe. Some were fearful of the publicity that the Congress would attract. They were uncomfortable about the Jews acting politically. Herzl received pressure from his employers at the Neue Freie Presse to abandon the project. A further objection came from the rabbis of Germany, who condemned the Zionist idea as contrary to the Scriptures.17 Herzl refused to compromise, but pressed on. His response to the Munich Jewish community was to move the Congress to Basel in Switzerland.

Opposition was strong, but the First Zionist Congress assembled at Basle in August, 1897. Over 200 delegates from all over the Jewish world were present. To emphasise the dignity of the occasion, formal dress was prescribed: men were to wear white tie and tails. The Congress met for three days. The proceedings were comprehensive.18 There were introductory speeches by Herzl and Max Nordau, (the famous writer and social critic who had embraced Zionism), outlining the aims and purpose of the Congress.

Reports were given on the situation of the Jews in various countries, on the revival of the Hebrew language and on the settlements in Palestine, and petitions on a variety of issues were tabled. Proposals were presented for a Jewish national fund, a committee for Hebrew literature, and the collection of statistics on the Jews. Discussion was lively.

The Zionist Program

On the second day of the Congress, there was extended debate over the wording of the Zionist program, with some desiring that it state clearly that a Jewish national home was the aim. After much argument and discussion, the Zionist program finally stated:

The aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law. The Congress contemplates the following means to the attainment of this end:

  1. The promotion, on suitable lines, of the colonization of Palestine by Jewish agricultural and industrial workers.
  2. The organization and binding together of the whole of Jewry by means of appropriate institutions, local and international, in accordance with the laws of each country.
  3. The strengthening and fostering of Jewish national sentiment and consciousness.
  4. Preparatory steps towards obtaining government consent, where necessary, to the attainment of the aim of Zionism.19

At the Congress, Herzl was elected President of the Zionist Organization, while Max Nordau was appointed one of the three Vice-Presidents. On the final day of the Congress, proposals were debated, voted upon and approved. The Congress emerged as the primary body of the Zionist movement, with an action committee to be responsible for business between Congresses. From 1897 to 1901, the Zionist Congress met every year; then from 1903 to 1913 and from 1921 to 1939, every second year. Following World War 2, it has more or less met every four years.

As he reflected on the First Congress, Herzl wrote in his diary:

“If I were to sum up the Basle Congress in a single phrase—which I would not dare to make public—I would say: In Basle I created the Jewish State. Were I to say this aloud I would be greeted by universal laughter. But perhaps five years hence, in any case, certainly fifty years hence, everyone will perceive it.”20

And certainly, fifty years later, in November, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, laying the foundation for the establishment of the State of Israel on 14 May, 1948.

Herzl’s Achievements

Herzl’s impact on the Zionist movement was as a public figure, man of action, brilliant leader and organizer of the Jewish national renewal. He cut through the dilemmas that paralysed the actions of the Jews of Europe to determine their future, and introduced new dilemmas and problems. But Herzl died before their full impact could be realized, leaving others to continue the work begun. Herzl had achieved far more in a few short years than many before or after him: “Zionism as a true political movement and as an international force […] is to all intents and purposes his invention and his creation”.21

As Joseph in Egypt before his death “gave commandment concerning his bones” (Heb 11:22, Gen 50:24-25), so Herzl in his will instructed that he be buried beside his father “and to remain there until the Jewish people shall transport my remains to Palestine”. 22 On 17 August, 1949, Herzl’s remains were brought to Israel and buried in the country of which he was the principal architect: an instrument used by Yahweh to bring about His purpose in the latter days (Jer 16:14-16). When David Ben Gurion read the Declaration establishing the State of Israel on 14 May, 1948, Herzl’s portrait was on the wall behind him.

With the appearance of Herzl, there began a new epoch in the history of the Jewish people. After 1,900 years, the Jews once again became an active factor in world history and remain so today. A political resurrection had taken place (Ezek 37:3-6,21). But for us, Israel remains the clear and certain sign of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ to establish the Kingdom of God and “turn away ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom 11:26).


  1. “The Basle Declaration”, in The Israel-Arab reader: a documentary history of the Middle East conflict, edited by Walter Laqueur, revised ed., Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1970, p. 28.
  2. John Thomas, Elpis Israel, 14th ed. Revised, Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1958, p. 441.
  3. Alex Bein, Theodore Herzl: a biography, translated from the German by Maurice Samuel, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1962, p 8.
  4. Alex Bein, p. 35.
  5. Alex Bein, p. 36.
  6. Alex Bein, p. 35.
  7. Alex Bein, p. 115.
  8. David Vital, The origins of Zionism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 244.
  9. Alex Bein, p. 133.
  10. Alex Bein, p. 138.
  11. Alex Bein, p. 140-141.
  12. Alex Bein, p. 182.
  13. David Vital, p. 328.
  14. David Vital, p. 331.
  15. David Vital, p. 332.
  16. David Vital, p. 334.
  17. David Vital, p. 335-336.
  18. For an outline of the proceedings, see: David Vital, p. 364-370.
  19. “The Basle Declaration”, in The Israel-Arab reader, p. 28-29.
  20. Theodor Herzl, The complete diaries of Theodor Herzl, edited by Raphael Patai, translated by Harry Zohn, New York: Herzl Press and Thomas Yoseloff, 1960, v. 2, p. 581, quoted in Alex Bein, p. 243.
  21. David Vital, p. 233-234.
  22. Alex Bein, p. 505.