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Encyclopedia > Zionist Organization

The World Zionist Organization [WZO] was founded as the Zionist Organization [ZO] on September 3, 1897, at the First Zionist Congress held in Basel, Switzerland. The ZO served as an umbrella organization for the Zionist movement. Theodor Herzl, who organized the first Congress, later wrote, "In Basle I have founded the Jewish State... Perhaps in five years, possibly in fifty, everyone will realize it."

When the State of Israel was declared fifty years later, on May 14, 1948, many of its new administrative institutions were already in place, having evolved during the regular Zionist Congresses of the previous decades. Some of these institutions remain to this day.

In 1960 the ZO changed its name to the World Zionist Organization.


Membership and delegations

Membership in the WZO was open to all Jews, and the right to vote for delegates to the Congresses was secured by the purchase of the Zionist Shekel. Delegations from all around the world, and from many different political backgrounds and religious traditions, took part in each Congress; delegations/parties were mainly grouped by ideology, rather than by geography.

Sister organizations

The finances of the WZO were conducted by the Jewish Colonial Trust (founded in 1899), and acquisition of land was conducted by the Jewish National Fund (founded in 1901). Keren Hayesod (founded 1920) funded Zionist and Yishuv activities prior to the creation of the state of Israel through enterprises such as the Palestine Electric Company, the Palestine Potash Company and the Anglo-Palestine Bank.

World Zionist Congress

From 1897 to 1946 , a Zionist Congress was held every two years in various European cities, save for interruptions during the two World Wars. Their goal was to build an infrastructure to further the cause of Jewish settlement in Palestine.

As of 1997, the WZO is still holding a semiregular World Zionist Congress, based on the same structure it has had for a century. However, support for the concept and voter turnout are waning. Below is a quote from a speech given that year by Ismar Schorsch, then chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

This week I will leave for Israel to attend the World Zionist Congress along with 37 other delegates from MERCAZ, the official Zionist party of the Conservative Movement in the United States. Despite the overblown rhetoric that will be heard in Jerusalem, no one should imagine that this Congress is a matter of any consequence. Zionism is alive and well, but the World Zionist Organization died a long time ago. In Jewish life we simply can't muster the political will to dismantle organizational structures designed for a specific purpose after they have been crowned with success.
The recent elections in America for the World Zionist Congress prove my point incontrovertibly. Only 150,000 Jews registered to vote and no more than 110,000 of them actually saw fit to vote. Surely more than 2% of American Jewry is devoted to the cause of Zionism! Rather, the existing organizational structure, a relic of the heyday of the pre-state Zionist movement, is no longer adequate to give expression to the nature and expanse of Zionist sentiment in America. And no amount of campaign spending is going to rev up a political machinery encrusted with so much rust.

External Links

  • Exhibit of election posters (http://www.jtsa.edu/library/exhib/zion/1.html) for WZC elections across the decades.
  • brief Schorsch bio (http://www.jtsa.edu/progs/his/isschorsch/index.shtml) at the JTS site
  • full text (http://learn.jtsa.edu/topics/parashah/5758/vayeshev.shtml) of his December, 1997 speech.



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