JERUSALEM: Exactly one hundred years ago, the Zionist movement was founded. A few hundred Jewish intellectuals -- writers, doctors, lawyers, even a few women -- mainly from Eastern Europe, came together in Basil, Switzerland. This was the first Zionist Congress, chaired by a then only moderately-known Viennese journalist and playwright Theodor Herzl.
The delegation had no power. No one had elected them. Europe’s Jewish elite -- rabbis, local community leaders, bankers such as the Rothschilds -- were skeptical when they were not outright hostile in their attitude toward the congress. What Herzl and his followers were aiming for was something truly revolutionary: the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire.
The meeting was held at a perilous moment for European Jewry. Competing nationalist movements were on the rise in a disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire. Anti-Semitic theories and parties were emerging in Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Social unrest in Tsarist Russia was bringng a growing pauperization to the large communities of Russia’s Jewish Pale. Alongside this increased poverty came many violent pogroms. In the face of this turmoil, Herzl and his supporters argued that neither religious tolerance nor social justice could serve as a lasting solution for the “Jewish problem.” Only national self-determination would do. Let the Jews have a homeland, they argued in language derived from the Italian risorgimento, from Polish nationalism, from romantic literature. Europe needs it; the Jews need it.
Few followed Herzl’s call. Most Jews continued to believe in the vision of their integration into a bourgeois, liberal Europe. Others, especially in Eastern Europe, continued to pray for a messianic deliverance from their troubles in God’s own time. Still others joined revolutionary movements. Few shared Herzl’s angst that European culture, symbolized by the legendary longevity of Queen Victoria and Emperor Franz Josef, would violently collapse. Less than ten years after Herzl’s death, however, it did collapse in the carnage, nationalisms, revolutions and counterrevolutions of the Great War and its aftermath. Herzl’s pessimism, nurtured by his having witnessed Vienna’s disintegrating fin de siecle order, turned out to be tragically prescient.