This Day in Jewish History / August 29

The First Zionist Congress opened in Switzerland, with its eyes fixed on Palestine and a vision for the future State of Israel.

On this day in 1897, the First Zionist Congress opened at the municipal casino in Basel, Switzerland. Less than two years earlier, Theodor Herzl, the founder and first elected president of the Zionist movement, had written his visionary novel “The Jewish State.” Now, 200 delegates from 17 different countries were attending the founding meeting of the organization – the same organization that 51 years later would pave the way for the declaration of Israeli statehood.

The Congress, which had originally been scheduled for Munich, resulted in the adoption by the delegates of the “Basel Program,” which declared that, "Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish People in Palestine secured under public law."

A few days after the Congress, which closed on August 31, Herzl famously wrote in his diary, “In Basel, I founded the Jewish state … Perhaps in five years, and certainly in 50, everyone will know it." From then until his death, in 1904 at age 44, Herzl undertook an exhausting campaign of diplomatic activity intended to convince the Ottoman sultan, the European powers, the Church and the Czarist government of Russia of the necessity of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

At the same time, he pursued an alternative plan to accept land for Jewish settlement in British-owned East Africa, in what is today Uganda. That plan was rejected by the Seventh Zionist Congress, in 1905, after Herzl’s death. The First Congress adopted “Hatikvah” as its anthem and a flag that is similar to the flag of Israel, but with a yellow, rather than blue, Star of David, one with a lion at its center.