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The Mideast: A Century of Conflict
Part 1: Theodor Herzl and the first Zionist Congress

Morning Edition: September 30, 2002

audio icon Listen to Part 1 of Mike Shuster's series.

BOB EDWARDS: Today Morning Edition begins "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict," a seven-part series on the history of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians.

The recent violence is just the latest in a long series of turning points in the conflict between these two peoples. Each side has its own interpretation of these crucial, historical episodes. And too often, the march of daily news obscures a broader review of the past to understand the roots of the conflict.

The reports begin with the emergence of the Zionist movement more than a century ago. Here's NPR's Mike Shuster.

MIKE SHUSTER: Modern Zionism was a product of its age and its place: the late 19th century in a Europe where anti-Semitism was rampant and Jews in many nations experienced persecution and at times murderous pogroms which left hundreds dead.

For centuries some Jews longed to return to Zion, the biblical Israel. But until the 1890s, they failed to formulate a concrete plan of how to do that, says Howard Sachar, author of A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time.

HOWARD SACHAR: The notion of Zionism is actually a cultural conception which had been nurtured in the latter decades of the 19th century, particularly among the Jews of Eastern Europe. But they really did not impose upon this paradigm any conception of a political state.

SHUSTER: The idea of a modern state for the Jews emerged from the mind of Theodor Herzl, for whom Zionism was political and had nothing to do with Judaism, the religion, says Avi Shlaim, author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.

AVI SHLAIM: Herzl was an assimilated Viennese Jew, a journalist and a playwright. He was completely secular and he had no particular attachment to the Jewish religion. As he conceived it, the idea of a Jewish state was a secular idea.

SHUSTER: In 1894, Herzl was the correspondent in Paris for a Vienna newspaper, and he reported on the case of Alfred Dreyfus, an officer in the French army, falsely accused of treason because he was Jewish. It was an experience that proved the catalyst for Herzl's embrace of political Zionism.

Herzl set out his ideas about what was then called the Jewish question in detail in an 1896 pamphlet, entitled Der Judenstaat, or "The Jewish State."

THEODOR HERZL (ACTOR'S VOICE-OVER): The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers. Where it does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations. We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there, our presence produces persecution. This is the case in every country, and will remain so, even in those highly civilized -- for instance France -- until the Jewish question finds a solution on a political basis.

SHUSTER: Originally Herzl did not restrict his musing on the location of a Jewish state to the Middle East, according to Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, author of Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel.

BENJAMIN BEIT-HALLAHMI: Herzl wasn't interested in Palestine. He just wanted a place for the Jews to settle, and at first he was interested in Argentina and East Africa and other places....

SACHAR: Although later on in later years after he organized the Zionist movement...

SHUSTER: Again Howard Sachar.

SACHAR: ...he began to realize that there was a deep-rooted wellspring of religio-cultural identification with Palestine among most Jews. And so he by and large fixed his attention essentially on a diplomatic solution to the Jewish issue in Ottoman Palestine.

SHUSTER: Herzl understood that his political goal needed an organization. So in 1897 he gathered about 250 followers at the first Zionist Congress. It opened in Basel, Switzerland on August 29, 1897, and launched the World Zionist Organization. The goal, expressed in a formally adopted program, would be the creation of a home in Palestine for the Jewish people.

Herzl judged the first Zionist Congress a success, as evidenced in his diary entry the day the Congress closed, September 3rd, 1897.

THEODOR HERZL (ACTOR'S VOICE-OVER): Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word, it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years and certainly in 50, everyone will know it.

SHUSTER: Herzl's words were prophetic. The state of Israel would be founded just over 50 years later.

In 1897, though, Palestine was a sleepy Arab backwater of the Ottoman Empire. It had been ruled from Constantinople by the Turkish sultans for nearly 500 years and was populated by largely Arab peasant farmers, most of whom had never heard the word Zionism.

Herzl realized early on that the Jews as a small, weak, dispersed people would have no chance to create a state of their own without the backing of a world power.

Herzl first approached the Germans, meeting Kaiser Wilhelm in Palestine in 1898, according to Howard Sachar.

SACHAR: The way Herzl tried to maneuver his negotiations -- he was a very shrewd student of international diplomacy -- was to point out to the Kaiser and to the foreign minister Von Bulow that it would be very useful indeed if Germany had a kind of enclave of loyal German-oriented inhabitants living in this corner of the Ottoman Empire and most Jews that Herzl had in mind were people like himself who spoke German and were great admirers of German civilization.

SHUSTER: The German Kaiser was not interested, having his eye on an eventual alliance with the Ottomans.

Herzl would lobby many of the kings and ministers of Europe before his death in 1904 as well as the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II. Howard Sachar says his secular concept of Jewish statehood and his idea of how to bring it into existence were for their time dazzling in their originality.

SACHAR: And he worked these conceptions very shrewdly. He projected the notion of a Jewish state into the very centers of European statescraft. And for the first time thereby he gave the Jewish people a kind of address, a central address in Europe.

SHUSTER: Some early communities of Jewish immigrants had been established in Palestine. Estimates of their population in the 1890s range from 20,000 to 50,000, living among half a million Arabs. Herzl and his followers paid little attention to them, says Benny Morris, author of Righteous Victims, A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict.

BENNY MORRIS: They knew there were Arabs there. They preferred not to look at them, but they weren't Palestinian Arabs in the sense that these Arabs who lived in the area of Palestine at the time of Herzl didn't see themselves as Palestinians. They were just Arabs who saw themselves if anything as southern Syrians. But generally they regarded themselves as just Arabs. The movement, the national movement of Palestinian Arabs come into existence decades later.

SHUSTER: The Arabs of Palestine knew little of the plans of Theodor Herzl and the first Zionists. A general awareness of the Zionist goal would not take hold in Palestine for some time, says Rashid Khalidi, author of Palestinian Identity, the Construction of Modern National Consciousness.

RASHID KHALIDI: The first Basel congress of 1897 was well reported in the German and Austrian press. And a number of Palestinians found out about it as the news was published. So from the 1890s when political Zionism first started up in its formal form, there were Palestinians who were aware of it. And that knowledge spread relatively rapidly in the next decade or two.

SHUSTER: Although relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine at that time were generally cordial, there were hints of what was to come.

In 1905, Najib Azouri, published what is considered the first public appeal to Arab nationalism, a book called The Awakening of the Arab Nation.

This came just at the moment that thousands of additional Jewish immigrants were arriving in Palestine, fleeing a new wave of anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia, Ukraine, and Poland.

Two things were happening in the Ottoman Middle East, Azouri wrote: "the awakening of the Arab nation, and the effort of the Jews to reconstitute the ancient kingdom of Israel."

His conclusion was also prophetic: "These movements are destined to fight each other continually until one of them wins."

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Los Angeles.

EDWARDS: Tomorrow, in Part Two of our series, Britain issues the Balfour Declaration supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine. But Palestinians oppose it, and Britain's rule ends in violence and failure.

There's a timeline, historical maps and background on leaders in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Web site npr.org.


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