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

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Theodor Herzl
Theodor Herzl
Photo courtesy the Herzliana collection of Dr. Motti Friedman, director of The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education

Herzl diary entry
Sept. 3, 1897, entry (in German) from Theodor Herzl's diary, in which he makes the famous statement: "At Basel, I founded the Jewish State."
Photo courtesy World Zionist Organization Hagshama Department

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"Herzl...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."

Avi Shlaim, author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World

Sept. 30, 2002 -- Jews living in Europe suffered for many years from varying degrees of anti-Semitism, and many had longed to return to the biblical land of Israel. But not until Theodor Herzl published his pamphlet Der Judenstaat, or "The Jewish State," did Jews in Europe begin to formulate a political solution to anti-Semitism.

As NPR Diplomatic Correspondent Mike Shuster, reports in the first of Morning Edition's seven-part series on the history of the Middle East conflict, Zionism emerged as the political movement to create a Jewish state.

"Herzl was an assimilated Viennese Jew, a journalist and a playwright," says Avi Shlaim, author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. "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."

In 1897, Herzl brought about 250 of his followers together in the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. The meeting, designed to formulate the movement's goals and strategies, launched the World Zionist Organization.

The goal of the Congress, expressed in a formally adopted program, would be the creation of a home in Palestine for the Jewish people. Herzl judged the meeting a success, writing in his diary: "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."

Herzl's words were prophetic, Shuster reports. 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. Palestine had been ruled from Constantinople by the Turkish sultans for nearly 500 years and was populated largely by Arab peasant farmers, most of whom had never heard of Zionism.

Some early communities of Jewish immigrants had been established in Palestine. In the 1890s, an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Jews were living among about 500,000 Arabs. Herzl and his followers paid little attention to the Arab population, and, at first, the Arabs of Palestine knew little of Herzl's plans.

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 as 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."

Theodor Herzl (1860-1904)
The founder of modern Zionism. Born to a middle class Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. Studied law at University of Vienna. Became successful journalist, essayist, and playwright. Covered Dreyfus affair in Paris for Viennese newspaper. Wrote pamphlet, Der Judenstaat or "The Jewish State" in 1896, setting out argument for a Jewish state as a solution to problem of European anti-Semitism. Organized first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, 1897. Met many European and world leaders in quest for support for Jewish state in Palestine, including the Ottoman Sultan, who ruled over Palestine at the time. In 1949, his body was buried near Jerusalem.

Other Resources

• Read a translated text of Theodor Herzl's 1886 pamphlet, Der Judenstaat or "The Jewish State."