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Political Zionism was emancipated West European Jewry's response to the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism and to the failure of the enlightenment to alter the status of the Jew. Its objective was the establishment of a Jewish homeland in any available territory--not necessarily in Palestine--through cooperation with the Great Powers. Political Zionists viewed the "Jewish problem" through the eyes of enlightenment rationalism and believed that European powers would support a Jewish national existence outside Europe because it would rid them of the Jewish problem. These Zionists believed that Jews would come en masse to the new entity, which would be a secular nation modeled after the post-emancipation European state.
The first Jew to articulate a political Zionist platform was not a West European but a Russian physician residing in Odessa. A year after the 1881 pogroms, Leo Pinsker, reflecting the disappointment of other Jewish maskalim, wrote in a pamphlet entitled Auto-Emancipation that anti-Semitism was a modern phenomenon, beyond the reach of any future triumphs of "humanity and enlightenment." Therefore Jews must organize themselves to find their own national home wherever possible, not necessarily in their ancestral home in the Holy Land. Pinsker's work attracted the attention of Hibbat Tziyyon (Lovers of Zion), an organization devoted to Hebrew education and national revival. Ignoring Pinsker's indifference toward the Holy Land, members of Hibbat Tziyyon took up his call for a territorial solution to the Jewish problem. Pinsker, who became leader of the movement, obtained funds from the wealthy Jewish philanthropist, Baron Edmond de Rothschild- -who was not a Zionist--to support Jewish agricultural settlement in Palestine at Rishon LeZiyyon, south of Tel Aviv, and Zikhron Yaaqov, south of Haifa. Although the numbers were meager--only 10,000 settlers by 1891--especially when compared to the large number of Jews who emigrated to the United States, the First Aliyah (1882-1903), or immigration, was important because it established a Jewish bridgehead in Palestine espousing political objectives.
The impetus to the founding of a Zionist organization with specific goals was provided by Theodor Herzl. Born in Budapest on May 2, 1860, Herzl grew up in an environment of assimilation. He was educated in Vienna as a lawyer but instead became a journalist and playwright. By the early 1890s, he had achieved some recognition in Vienna and other major European cities. Until that time, he had only been identified peripherally with Jewish culture and politics. He was unfamiliar with earlier Zionist writings, and he noted in his diary that he would not have written his book had he known the contents of Pinsker's Auto-Emancipation.
While working as Paris correspondent for a Viennese newspaper, Herzl became aware of the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in French society. He saw that emancipation rather than dissipating antiSemitism had exacerbated popular animosity toward the Jews. The tearing down of the ghetto walls placed Jews in competition with non-Jews. Moreover, the newly liberated Jew was blamed by much of non-Jewish French society for the socioeconomic upheaval caused by both emancipation and accelerated industrialization.
The turning point in Herzl's thinking on the Jewish question occurred during the 1894 Paris trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, on charges of treason (the sale of military secrets to Germany). Dreyfus was convicted, and although he was eventually cleared, his career was ruined. The trial and later exoneration sharply divided French society and unleashed widespread anti-Semitic demonstrations and riots throughout France. To Herzl's shock and dismay, many members of the French intellectual, social, and political elites--precisely those elements of society into which the upwardly mobile emancipated Jews wished to be assimilated--were the most vitriolic in their antiSemitic stance.
The Dreyfus affair proved for Herzl, as the 1881 pogroms had for Pinsker, that Jews would always be an alien element in the societies in which they resided as long as they remained stateless. He believed that even if Jewish separateness in religion and social custom were to disappear, the Jews would continue to be treated as outsiders.
Herzl put forth his solution to the Jewish problem in Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) published in 1896. He called for the establishment of a Jewish state in any available territory to which the majority of European Jewry would immigrate. The new state would be modeled after the postemancipation European state. Thus, it would be secular in nature, granting no special place to the Hebrew language, Judaism, or to the ancient Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Another important element contained in Herzl's concept of a Jewish state was the enlightenment faith that all men--including anti-Semites--are basically rational and will work for goals that they perceive to be in their best interest. He was convinced, therefore, that the enlightened nations of Europe would support the Zionist cause to rid their domains of the problem-creating Jews. Consequently, Herzl actively sought international recognition and the cooperation of the Great Powers in creating a Jewish state.
Herzl's ideas were not original, his belief that the Great Powers would cooperate in the Zionist enterprise was naive, and his indifference to the final location of the Jewish state was far removed from the desires of the bulk of the Jewish people residing in the Pale of Settlement. What he accomplished, however, was to cultivate the first seeds of the Zionist movement and to bestow upon the movement a mantle of legitimacy. His stature as a respected Western journalist and his meetings with the pope, princes of Europe, the German kaiser, and other world figures, although not successful, propelled the movement into the international arena. Herzl sparked the hopes and aspirations of the mass of East European Jewry living under Russian oppression. It was the oppressed Jewish masses of the Pale, however--with whom Herzl, the assimilated bourgeois of the West, had so little in common--who absorbed his message most deeply.
In 1897 Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. The first congress adopted the goal: "To create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by Public Law." The World Zionist Organization (WZO) was founded to work toward this goal, and arrangements were made for future congresses. The WZO established a general council, a central executive, and a congress, which was held every year or two. It developed member societies worldwide, continued to encourage settlement in Palestine, registered a bank in London, and established the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet) to buy land in Palestine. The First Zionist Congress was vital to the future development of Zionism, not only because it established an institutional framework for Zionism but also because it came to symbolize for many Jews a new national identity, the first such identity since the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress