As 35th World Congress gathers, website provides background


“In Basel I have founded the Jewish State. Were I to state this loudly today, the response would be universal derision. Perhaps in five years, certainly in fifty years, all will admit it.”

Theodor Herzl wrote those words on Sept. 3, 1897, following the First Zionist Congress held in Basel, Switzerland. [] Since that historic congress, Zionists have met dozens of times and will carry on the tradition this month as Jewish delegates from around the world gather in Israel at the 35th World Zionist Congress. This time and next, a look at past congresses and at the issues facing delegates this year in Jerusalem.

Although the official Congress site is replete with requisite constitutions, proclamations and sundry legal documents [], I’d like to point out a corner of it that I found particularly compelling — two essays that stir up debate over modern Zionism. Veteran left-wing Member of Knesset Yossi Sarid asks whether Herzl is “turning in his grave in view of what has become of his vision in reality.” Sarid says Herzl wisely warned against putting a higher value on territory than on the importance of people. In addition, Herzl warned against “the theocratic urges of our clerics to dominate.”

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in Israel and former Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel, responds by saying Herzl was mistaken. Without the “profound influence of the religious leadership, Zionism would not have been conceived. Without Torat Israel which our priests have striven to teach, nothing would have survived. Herzl must have understood that.” These are two relevant and provocative essays that are certainly worth a read. []

Most Jews might be left scratching their heads when asked to define what the World Zionist Organization actually does, but they would probably be familiar with some of its bodies. Such as:

Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael/Jewish National Fund — founded at the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901 charged with redeeming lands in Israel and conservation as an eternal property of the Jewish people. []

Keren Hayesod /United Israel Appeal — founded in London in 1920, it is the central fundraising organization for Israel throughout the world (except the USA). []

Jewish Agency for Israel — Known in Israel as the Sochnut, it is the country’s largest social service agency. Established in 1929, its primary goals today are economic development and the absorption of immigrants. []

But what was accomplished at all the other Zionist congresses? You can read a brief summary of each one from the early ones that took place in European cities including Zurich, Hamburg and The Hague through the Jerusalem-based congresses after the establishment of the State. []

To get a different taste of congresses past, visit the online exhibit of the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. For example, a striking poster from the 21st Congress in 1939 in Tel Aviv advises workers to vote for the socialist list. It shows a red flag emblazoned with the words “Unhindered Jewish Aliya! Jewish-Arab Cooperation! Socialist Sovereignty!” [] You can see more posters at the Jewish Zionist Education site. []

The best site that I have come across that discusses with a minimum of rhetoric the function, history and challenges facing the Congress was created by the American Zionist Movement, an umbrella group responsible for running Jewish Congress elections in the U.S. Incidentally, this website is branded with an interesting title — Congress of the Jewish People. Although the site uses the word “Zionist” throughout, it does not explain why the word does not appear in its title or web address. []

Keeping in the spirit of being an umbrella organization to diverse groups who share a belief in Zionism, the Congress of the Jewish People links to another site worth a look, the Blogs of Zion, “an online forum for Zionists from across the ideological and social spectrum.” []


Speaking of blogs: You are probably familiar with the work of Yaakov Kirschen, the cartoonist behind Dry Bones. Although some of his cartoons have been archived online for some time, that site hasn’t been updated in a while. [] That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to come across the Dry Bones Blog. Several times a week, Kirschen posts current and classic cartoons along with biting insight. A different kind of Zionist site. []


Mark Mietkiewicz is a Toronto-based Internet producer who writes, lectures and teaches about the Jewish Internet. He can be reached at [email protected].