Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Specially produced beautiful and deeply poignant official postcards were issued for all of the pre-Israel Zionist Congresses (all Congresses after 1948 were held in Jerusalem), and I present here the official cards of the first seven Congresses accompanied by a brief description of the Congress highlights.




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Basel (August 29-31, 1897)


The rare card issued by the First Zionist Congress depicts Jews praying at the Western Wall and a planter spreading seeds in Emek Yisrael. On the sides of the Magen David in the middle is the beautiful verse from Psalms 53:6: “Would that the salvation of Israel come forth from Zion!” Also shown is perhaps the rarest of all Zionist Congress cards, a card similar to the official postcard except that it includes Rosh Hashana greetings (Rosh Hashana that year fell about a month later, on September 27). The verso (not exhibited here), shows that this second card was mailed to Dr. Heinrich Lowe, a Jewish folklore scholar who founded Young Israel, the first German Zionist group, and served as editor of the central organ of German Zionists.

Before Herzl’s publication of Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State,” 1896), none of the previous historical attempts to convene general assemblies of the Jewish national movements succeeded in creating an instrument similar in scope or nature to the Zionist Congresses. Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress as a symbolic parliament for those in sympathy with the implementation of Zionist goals, but it became much more; as Herzl famously wrote in his diary:

Were I to sum up the Basle Congress in a word – which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly – it would be this: at Basle I founded the Jewish State.

Herzl acted as chairman of the Congress, which was attended by some 200 participants from seventeen countries, 69 of whom were delegates from various Zionist societies (the remainder were individual invitees). Following a festive opening, the Congress turned to the formulation of the Zionist platform, which became known as “the Basle Program,” pursuant to which “the aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Eretz Yisrael secured by law.” When numerous delegates sought the inclusion of the phrase “by international law,” a compromise formula proposed by Herzl was eventually adopted:

Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz Israel secured under public law. The Congress contemplates the following means to the attainment of this end

1) The promotion by appropriate means of the settlement in Eretz Yisrael of Jewish farmers, artisans, and manufacturers.

2) The organization and uniting of the whole of Jewry by means of appropriate institutions, both local and international, in accordance with the laws of each country.

3) The strengthening and fostering of Jewish national sentiment and national consciousness.

4) Preparatory steps toward obtaining the consent of governments, where necessary, in order to reach the goals of Zionism.

The First Congress also saw the foundation of the World Zionist Organization, with Herzl elected first WZO president, and the election of an Inner Actions Committee and a Greater Actions Committee to run the affairs of the movement between Congresses.

The Congress developed a schedule that was followed by all subsequent Congresses: reports on the situation of Jewish communities in the Diaspora; lectures on Eretz Yisrael and settlement activities; and debates on cultural questions, which were always highly contentious. A straight line can be drawn from the First Congress to the birth of the State of Israel only 50 years later, and history proves that Herzl was correct: at Basel he founded the Jewish State.


Basel (August 28-31, 1898)


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In the official card for the Second Congress, created by M. Okin, planters work the land in Eretz Yisrael under a bright sun while, at the lower left, a group of men are praying at the Western Wall. The caption is “Behold, I will take the Jewish people from amongst the nations and I will bring them into their land.” (The actual full quote from Ezekiel 37:21 is “Behold, I will take the Jewish people from amongst the nations, wither they have gone, and gather them on every side, and bring them into their land.”)

The Second Congress also issued a special Rosh Hashana card with a portrait of Herzl inside a Magen David in the middle surrounded by portraits (clockwise, beginning at upper left) of Rabbi Moshe Gester, Max Emanuel Mandelstam, Bernard Lazare, and Max Nordau. It is interesting to note that this card has mirror-reversed the image of the Western Wall and the image of the seeder and tiller from the original card. I have been unable to ascertain if this was intentional, but I would argue that this could hardly have been coincidental; perhaps the thrust was to emphasize the “religious” aspect of Zionism in a religious-themed Rosh Hashana card.

The leadership of the Zionist movement had been elected through the issuance of the first “Zionist Shekels” prior to the Second Congress, which was attended by some 400 delegates. Herzl demanded that the movement not only focus its attention on Eretz Yisrael but that it also work within Diasporan Jewish communities and, when he was attacked by anti-Zionist rabbis, he remarked that “it is difficult to understand how these gentlemen continue to pray for Zion daily and at the same time launch a war against it.”

The foundations were laid for the establishment of the Jewish Colonial Trust, a financial body aimed at the development of Eretz Yisrael. Leo Motzkin, having completed an exploratory investigative trip to Eretz Yisrael, bitterly criticized the reliance of the colonists there on external support from Baron Edmond de Rothschild and others, and argued that their agricultural and industrial projects in the land should be administered by the Jewish Colonial Trust. The basis was laid for the Zionist Central Bank, to be headed by David Wolffsohn, which Herzl viewed as a powerful instrument for political, economic and Zionist activity, and newcomer Chaim Weizmann recommended that steps be taken to ensure that such funds be used only for purposes directly connected to Zionist goals.


Basel (August 15-19, 1899)

Official card issued by the Third Zionist Congress.


The official card of the Third Congress, which clearly manifests the theme of bringing secular and religious Jews together under the umbrella of the Zionist movement, depicts a tallit-clad Orthodox Jew extending his hands to bless the (likely secular) laborers who work the land of Eretz Yisrael.

The Third Congress differed from its predecessors in that the ideological opponents of Zionism did not participate but, nonetheless, opposition to the political dimensions of Zionism was raised by delegates who believed that the emphasis should be on settlement. Herzl, who insisted that the Zionists seek a charter for their settlement in Eretz Yisrael, opened the Congress with a report on his meetings with Kaiser William II in Constantinople and Jerusalem and, although no practical results were achieved, the mere fact that these meetings took place was considered to be of considerable symbolic value to the Zionist movement.

The question of “culture” – the Zionist attempt at a national/ethnic identity for the Jews – dominated the Congress, and Herzl, who feared that the politics of culture had the potential to split the nascent Zionist movement, sought to avoid controversy with the rabbis, who viewed the mere discussion of cultural issues as anathema to Jewish religious values. It did not adopt any major resolution on cultural activities except for a general resolution on the need to disseminate the Hebrew language and an agreement to support the printing of textbooks for schools in Eretz Yisrael. Interestingly, at a time when no country in the West had introduced women’s suffrage, the Congress extended the right to vote to women.


London (August 13-16, 1900)

Official card issued by the Fourth Zionist Congress originally signed by Herzl and Nordau.


The official card of the Fourth Congress illustrates “wandering Jews,” Diasporan Jews in exile carrying their meager possessions while the “Angel of Zion” framed by a Magen David extends its wings and points them toward Eretz Yisrael, where Jews are at work on their land. This incredible showpiece is originally signed by both Herzl and Nordau.

Herzl realized that support from Britain, then the world’s greatest power, was a necessary prerequisite to the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Indeed, this was why the Jewish National Fund was incorporated as a British company; why the Fourth Congress was convened in London, marking the first time it was held outside Switzerland; and why the first part of Herzl’s opening address was delivered in English: to affect public opinion in England in sympathy with the Zionist idea.

The Congress met in an atmosphere of growing concern over the situation facing Romanian Jewry, where many thousands had been forcibly expelled, and the remainder subject to extreme persecution. The Jewish situation in much of Eastern Europe was dire, and many of the addresses at the Congress contained seeds of prophecy regarding the European Holocaust to come. Although this appeared to provide further evidence of the need for a formal charter, Herzl did not have anything substantial to bring relief to these persecuted Jews.

On the cultural question, the religious Zionists, led by Rav Yitzhak Yaakov Reines, demanded that the Zionist movement restrict itself solely to political matters. The Congress also discussed the plight of Jewish agricultural workers in Eretz Yisrael following the termination of Baron Rothschild’s involvement in the moshavot and the transfer of their support to the Jewish Colonization Association, as the previous Congress had demanded. The “cultural question” came to the fore again and the clash between the Orthodox and the secular culturalists became particularly sharp and adversarial, but Herzl stood firm in his attempt to suppress the differences and accentuate common Zionist objectives.

One practical achievement of the Congress was the resolution founding the Jewish National Fund, whose task was to purchase land in Eretz Yisrael. Weizmann first introduced the idea of a Jewish University in Eretz Yisrael, which became the Hebrew University a quarter-century later. The Congress also saw the birth of what later became the religious Zionist Mizrachi movement through the efforts of delegates/rabbis Reines, Nissenbaum and Rosovsky.


Basle (December 1901)


Official card issued by the Fifth Zionist Congress.


The official card of the Fifth Congress by Ephraim Moshe Lilien strikingly depicts a sad old Jew behind barbed wire obstructing his dream of the Promised Land; an angel wearing a Magen David rests a comforting arm on his shoulder while directing his attention across the horizon to an enchanted dream-vision of Eretz Yisrael where, in the distance, robust ears of corn bend in the breeze while a Jewish farmer plows his land as he walks toward the setting sun. The legend beneath is the Hebrew verse from the thrice-daily Amidah: “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion with mercy.”

The Congress marked the first appearance of an official oppositionist group, the “Democratic Faction,” whose leading spirits were Buber, Weizmann, Lilien, and Motzkin. The cultural issue again came to the fore, as the faction aimed to promote a more deeply rooted nationalism and a greater degree of democracy in the leadership of the movement. After Herzl failed in his attempt to further defer debate and decision on the “culture” resolutions, the Congress resolved that the Zionist Organization was going to concern itself with cultural work as a matter of principle. As a result, the Bezalel Art Institute was created in Jerusalem, which helped establish Jewish visual art as a legitimate component of the Jewish cultural resurgence, and a program was launched fostering global Zionist national education and secular Hebrew culture as part of the Zionist movement, which enraged some of the religious Zionists.

Herzl announced that the Jewish Colonial Trust was now open for business, even though it had not yet become the powerful instrument that he had hoped it would be. Moreover, the purchase of land in Eretz Yisrael had previously been funded by isolated philanthropists, and the Congress officially created Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, the Jewish National Fund, for which Herzl himself was singularly responsible. For the first time, the Congress closed with the singing of the Hatikvah (then called “Tikvatenu”).


(Basel, August 23-28, 1903)


Official card issued by the Sixth Zionist Congress.


The official card of the Sixth Congress by Ranzenrofer returns to the “angel” theme with the angel in this illustration holding fronds aloft as it appears before a Jewish worker wielding a hoe he is using to clear stones to create arable land. The caption is from Psalms 126:5, “They who sow in tears shall reap in joy,” which is part of the Shir Hama’alot (a song of those who ascend to Eretz Yisrael) that we recite after every Shabbat and Yom Tov meal.

The deeply controversial Uganda Plan dominated the Congress. Herzl, who understood that British support was a necessary prerequisite for a Jewish homeland, had traveled to London the previous year to testify before the Royal Commission for Alien Immigration, where he declared that while the Zionist movement was committed to settling in Eretz Yisrael, it would consider plans to alleviate the plight of Jews in any method possible.

While emphasizing that the Plan was not intended as a substitute for Eretz Yisrael, he thought it necessary to establish a Jewish homeland anywhere, even in Uganda, particularly in the wake of the Kishinev pogrom in Russia, with more to come. Some delegates, including Max Nordau, argued that Uganda could serve as a temporary “night shelter” for the hundreds of thousands of Jews whose very survival was at stake, and the matter was set for discussion at the next Congress to afford the delegates an opportunity to further consider the issue.


Basle (July 27-August 2, 1905) 


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There were two official cards issued by the Seventh Congress, the first Congress held after the untimely death of Herzl at age 44. The first, by painter Carl Josef Pollak, illustrates the late Zionist leader standing amongst his fellow Jews awaiting entrance to Eretz Yisrael, and the second is a photograph of the assembly site in Basel draped with a Seventh Congress banner.

The Congress opened with Nordau’s eulogy to the great Zionist leader, after which debate resumed on the question of Jewish settlement outside Eretz Yisrael. The principal matter before the Congress was the report of the Commission that had been sent to East Africa, which had concluded that Uganda was unsuitable for mass Jewish settlement. In one of the most momentous decisions of modern Jewish history, the majority of the delegates refused to compromise on a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael, which they viewed to be a fundamental tenet of Zionism.

The Congress also discussed providing support to agricultural settlements and industrial activity in Eretz Yisrael and sharply criticized the JNF for having failed to purchase land there, the very purpose for which it had been created by the Fifth Zionist Congress. The Congress voted to establish both a National Library based upon its collections (which was later transferred to the Hebrew University upon its founding) and the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem.

After Max Nordau declined the offer to succeed Herzl as president of the Zionist Organization, David Wolffsohn became president and the WZO executive moved its offices from Vienna to Cologne. Finally, the enthusiastic singing of Hatikvah by the entire assemblage to close the Congress is said to have confirmed it as the national anthem of the Zionist movement and the Jewish nation (the Hatikvah was formally adopted as the official anthem by the Eighteenth Zionist Congress in Prague in 1933).

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].