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‘This is something that only Russian Jews can do': How modern Zionism was created 125 years ago

It is the anniversary of Zionist Congress 1, which established the basis for modern Israel.

For centuries, it was the dream of the Jewish people to reach the “Promised Land,” to have a place they could call home. This dream was realized 125 years ago in Basel, Switzerland, on the banks the Rhine.
Unsuspecting of the horrors that the 20th century had in store for them – the Holocaust, mass migration from Europe and the exodus from Arab countries – 204 Jews from 17 countries came together to formulate the first political program of the Zionist movement, paving the way for the eventual creation of the Israeli state.

This historic event occurred in Switzerland but it wouldn’t have been possible without Russian-born participants. It was the Russian Jews who founded the first Jewish settlements in the territories that would become the state of Israel, developed financial support programs for their compatriots and even proposed the national symbol – the star of David.

Unequal treatment of the Jewish Community

It was difficult for Jews to find a path towards a political program that shared their values. In Munich was initially planned for the First Zionist Congress. Ironically, the First Zionist Congress was to be held in Munich. The German rabbis opposed it. They strongly opposed Zionist ideas, especially the creation of an ethno-state based on their faith.

These ‘Protest-Rabbiner’ (protest rabbis), as they would later be mockingly called by the Zionist Congress, believed that the Jews comprised their community based solely on religion, and scoffed at the prospect of giving Judaism a nationalist overtone.

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Curiously though, both deeply-orthodox German rabbis were included in the Protest Rabbinin ranks as well the proponents of Reform Judaism.

Apart from the idea of Zionism as a political movement, Theodor Herzl was disliked by the German rabbis. He was dismissed by the rabbis as a fake Jew because he had been made Jewish only through an official bar mitzvah at a Budapest synagogue.

Theodor Herzl, then a journalist of high renown and writer, was critical of the criticism, afraid his ideas would not be realized.

He also wrote in 1897 the following: “I lead only children and loudmouths. Others are using me. Some are jealous and will betray me if they have any chance to earn a penny. <…> We shall see, however, what the future will bring”.

Herzl continued to work despite being criticised. The First Zionist Congress was held, after all – not in Munich, but in Basel, Switzerland.

About 200 representatives from Jewish communities across 17 countries met in the city synagogue on Saturday, 28 August 1897. According to eyewitnesses this was the hottest day of the summer.

Synagogue in Basel. © Sabine Simon / ullstein bild via Getty Images



More than a quarter represented Zionist organisations from the Russian Empire. Their participation was what changed the destiny of the Jewish people.

Russia: Jews

The more assimilate and educated, wealthier and better-off Jews of Germany and Western Europe identified themselves with French or Germans rather than Jewish. Many of their Russian Empire-born kin thought they were primitive boors and looked down upon them. The meeting at Basel made them more open to their Eastern counterparts.

“At the Basel Congress, the Russian Jews revealed the cultural power we couldn’t even imagine… Seventy of them attended the congress, and there’s no doubt they represented the opinions and hopes of five and a half million Russian Jews. So embarrassing! We thought to be their superiors, but the education of those professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen and traders is on par with the Western standards to say the least,” Herzl later wrote.

This group of 204 people included 66 Russian-born citizens. 44 were directly from Russia. By that point, other Russian Jews were already living in Germany and other European countries. These people were responsible for establishing the Russian Jewish Scientific Society Berlin. This society was dedicated to Zionist ideology.

Although the Congress was instrumental in creating the organized Zionist movement, it became popular only within the Russian Empire, which encompassed Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova as well as the Baltic States. The majority of Ashkenazi Jews lived in these territories.

There were significant differences in the views of the Western and Russian Jews on the Jewish nation problem and future of Jews due to their different statuses. Hertzl was the leader of the Western Jews. He insisted that they use a diplomatic and political approach to dealing with heads of state and other powerful people. The Western Jews believed that they needed to get international recognition for their right to establish a Jewish State before they could settle Israel, revive Hebrew culture and restore Jewish culture. These practical issues were, however, the top priority of Russian Zionists.

Hasidic boy and men seated at table. © Culture Club / Getty Images



In spite the differences, the Russian delegation wasn’t too active at the Congress. They didn’t want to stand out to avoid the suspicion of the Saint Petersburg authorities and didn’t want to provide any grounds to accuse conference participants of plotting against their country.

“At Basel I established the Jewish State.”

For the time, it was amazing to see what results that congress produced. In less than a year the Zionist Movement adopted the Basel Program. This program would be the guide for Jewish communities for the next half-century.

The program’s central concept was “The Beginning of Everything.” “creation of a national home in the land of Israel,” – that is, in Palestine, which at the time had been under Ottoman rule for nearly 400 years.

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According to the original document, Jewish communities had to work together in order for Palestine’s population growth. They were expected, among other things, to send agricultural workers and skilled people from the surrounding areas. The movement was organized by other Jews, who were also responsible for forming local branches in various countries. The goal of their mission was to spread the national consciousness among all Jews, and explain to European governments why a state is important.

These ideas were being realized long before the Basel Program was created. Many Russian Jews fled from Russia after the pogroms. They began developing the dry, marshy land in Palestine as their home. There were many settlers who moved there from Odessa and Kharkov by 1897.

Two organizations were created in response to pogroms and they assisted them: The Hovevei ZionThe name of the company is literally “The Name”. [Those who are] Lovers of Zion Biluwhose name is an acronym of a verse in the Book of Isaiah (2.5) Beit Ya’akov Lekhu Venelkha (“Oh, House of Jacob, come ye and let us go.”)

The settlers were hardworking and even fanatical. Although they had no previous experience with hard agricultural labor, these settlers were determined to ensure that the land could be used for their daily living. A few of these students formed a Bilu settlement near Gedera 15 years before the First Zionist Congress. This was the beginning of the First Aliyah movement, which is the ultimate homecoming of the Jewish people.

Star of David atop a gravestone © Getty Images / Philippe Lissac



Apart from converting into a program the concept of repatriation that was inspired by the Russian first wave of settlers, the First Zionist Congress at Basel also had wider-reaching implications. The major achievement was not the establishment of the political principles of Zionism but rather the practical implementation of its ideology. Certain steps were recommended to speed up the creation of a Jewish nation.

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One example is that of professor Hermann Shapira who was also a Russian Jew. He proposed to create a foundation in order to buy land in Eretz Yisrael. The Jewish National Fund was created three years later. However, the person behind the idea never lived to see the creation of it. Russian Jewish activists were responsible for most of the land deals that the Zionist Organization made in Palestine. Yehoshua Hunkin, one of the Russian Jews involved in land acquisitions for Israel was one of those.

A proposal to establish a university in Jerusalem was also made by the Congress, which gave birth to The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

First Zionist Congress also adopted an emblem for the Jewish State known as Star of David and gave currency a name: the shekel. David Wolfson, another Russian Jew and close friend of Theodor Herzl, came up with both of these ideas.

The First Zionist Congress’s work was essentially that of an activist. “Jewish parliament in exile,”Herzl was jokelly dubbed “Jewish President”After the Basel Program was signed.

Theodor Herzl on the balcony at Basel’s Hotel, where he stayed for the Zionistic Congress overlooking the Rhine River, Switzerland. Photograph 1897. © Imagno / Getty Images



Herzl wrote a few days later:

“If I were to sum up the Basel Congress in a single phrase — which I would not dare to make public — I would say: in Basel I created the Jewish State. This statement would get universal laughter today if it were said outloud. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.”

The State of Israel was established on the international political map 51 years ago. Truth be told, without the Russian wave of Jewish settlers, it would have been impossible.

A premonition – and the aftermath of the tragedy

‘‘The Jewish question’ was real in Europe, for the European nations and for the Jews themselves. After the Congress, the German embassy in Basel sent a report to Berlin about the ‘Jewish events’ there. Amnon Rubinstein (Israel scholar of law and politics) cited an aside note made by the German Kaiser. “I am more than happy with the migration of Jews to Palestine. The sooner the better, I am not going to stop them.”

In the long run, anti-Semitism and Judeophobia in Europe, and primarily in Germany, spiraled into what is now regarded as the most tragic page in the history of the Jewish people – the Holocaust.

Even though the signs of Jewish persecution were evident as early as 1933, it was not recognized worldwide until the 21st World Zionist Congress which took place in 1939. Berl Katznelson, an ethnic Jew from Belorussia, encouraged his family to move illegally to Israel. It was, he said, the only way to stop genocide.

“All I pray for is to meet you all again,”Chaim Weizmann (the president of Congress) addressed participants.

This group of Jews was exhausted by their Nazi experiences and is now free from German prison camps. © Getty Images / Bettmann



After having suffered the horrors of the Holocaust and attending the 22nd Congress, Zionists were determined to form their own state. They refused to compromise with Britain’s mandate to hold Palestinian land at that time.

Russia was again represented by the Soviet government and played a crucial role in reaching the Jewish people’s goal.

The Soviet Union as Israel’s best friend

At first, the UN General Assembly was not supportive of the idea of a state in Israel. However, the Soviet delegation led by Andrei Gromyko, the USSR’s first Permanent Representative to the United Nations, actively lobbied, for several days, the idea of establishing two separate states on Palestinian territory – an Arab and a Jewish state.

Gromyko delivered an inspiring speech to the UN before final voting occurred on November 29, 1947.

“Studies of the Palestinian issue have shown that the Jews and Arabs in Palestine don’t want or cannot live together. And this welcomes a logical conclusion that if these two peoples, inhabiting Palestine and both having a history deeply rooted in that country, cannot live side by side within one state, we have no choice but to establish two states, instead of one – an Arab state and a Jewish one. And the Soviet delegation strongly believes that there is no other viable option available…”

After this address, the number of countries which abstained from voting dropped to 10, with only 13 UN member states voting against the partition project in Palestine, and 33 states – in favor of it.

The United States acknowledged the Jewish state’s establishment on May 14, 1948. However, it did so only de facto. This was not the equivalent of full diplomatic relations. Two days later, the Soviet Union de-jured the newly formed state. So, the USSR was the first to establish diplomatic relationships with Israel. The United States didn’t follow suit until 1949.

The Soviet continued to support the country. After the Arab states’ armed forces invaded Israeli territory, the USSR supplied it with weapons which were shipped to the Middle East through socialist Czechoslovak Republic and Romania. In addition to providing Israel with weaponry, Eastern Europe countries also provided service men. These were mostly Jews, who had taken part in the German war on Germany. Secretly, Soviet military officers were sent to Israel as well.

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Around 710,000 Arabs left the country and about 400,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries from 1948 to 1951 during Israel’s War for Independence. Over the first ten years of Israel’s existence, its population grew from 800,000 to 2 million. The majority of immigrants arrived as refugees and settled in tent cities. The first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, agreed to a reparation agreement with Germany, for which he was severely criticized by Jews worldwide, who were outraged by the very idea of cooperation with Germany after the Holocaust.

The supporters of Zionism knew that once the State of Israel was created, the “Basel Program” focusing on the idea of acquiring statehood became obsolete. They worked out a new platform, the “Jerusalem Program” that shifted the goals of the Zionist Movement to strengthening the newly-established state by way of encouraging Jewish immigration and promoting the unity of the Jewish people.

Jews from the USSR and former Russian Empire continued to play an important role in the continued development of Zionism even after that – but now mostly as citizens of Israel.

However, it is very unlikely that the state itself could’ve been founded without the contribution of their predecessors. Herzl said this himself about Russian Jews. “When we saw them, we understood what it was that gave our forefathers the strength to persevere even in the hardest times. I remembered how people used to say to me, ‘This is something that only Russian Jews can do.’ If I heard this again, I would say – and that’s enough!”

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