The Zionist Organization was the most important and active body of international Zionism prior to 1948, uniting ideologically divergent and geographically dispersed activists in the cause of establishing a Jewish nationalist presence in Palestine. The Zionist Organization was the umbrella for all the crucial bodies that provided funding and land to early Zionist colonists, the most crucial being the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Jewish Colonial Trust. After the British Mandate was formalized in 1923, the British government designated the Zionist Organization’s subsidiary Palestine Zionist Executive to serve as the “Jewish Agency” described in Article 4 of the Mandate Charter as the body responsible for “advising and co-operating” with Britain on all matters that “may effect the establishment of the Jewish national home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine.”
The first Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, established the Zionist Organization as an umbrella organization to serve the interests of the Zionist movement. The Basel Program, adopted at the congress, set forth the goals of the organization: “the establishment of a publicly and legally secured home in Palestine for the Jewish people.” To attain this goal, the Basel Program enumerated four specific activities:
- The appropriate promotion of colonizing Palestine with Jewish agriculturalists, artisans and tradesmen.
- The organization and gathering of all Jews through suitable local and general institutions according to the laws of the various countries.
- The promotion of Jewish national feeling and consciousness.
- Preparatory steps for the attainment of such Government consent as is necessary in order to achieve the aim of Zionism.
Membership in the Zionist Organization was open to any individual or group that accepted the Basel Program and paid dues called the “Zionist shekel.” The organization’s full constitution was formulated at the third Zionist Congress in 1899. The constitution defined its operational structure, which consisted of a seven-member Smaller Actions Committee (whose chairman was also the president of the Zionist Congress) and thirty-seven-member Larger Actions Committee, composed of the leaders of various organizations in different countries. (This last body was expanded at subsequent Zionist Congresses.) Theodor Herzl was elected the Zionist Organization’s first president, serving in this role until his death in 1904.
The key practical problems facing the Zionist movement at the turn of the century were the lack of funding and access to land that were required to settle Jewish colonists in Palestine and the lack of official sanction from the state whose sovereignty extended over Palestine, namely the Ottoman Empire. In order to solve these problems, the Zionist Organization established several key subsidiary bodies. The second Zionist Congress of 1898 established the Jewish Colonial Trust to raise funds for the Zionist project and to serve as the Zionist Organization’s financial instrument. It was incorporated in London in 1899 and in 1902 it established its Palestinian subsidiary, the Anglo-Palestine Bank, opening its first branch in Jaffa in 1903. The Anglo-Palestine Bank supported Zionist land purchases, imports, and concessions, and it established a network of credit unions to provide Jewish colonists with long-term agricultural loans. During the Mandate, the Jewish Colonial Trust ceased to serve as a bank, becoming a holding company for Anglo-Palestine Bank shares. Keren Hayesod (The Foundation Fund), established at the 1920 conference of the Zionist Organization, served as the international fundraising arm of the Zionist movement.
To secure Jewish ownership of land, the Zionist Organization established the JNF at the fifth Zionist Congress in 1901. The JNF collected donations internationally to fund land purchases in Palestine. The JNF received its first parcel of land as a gift from a Russian Zionist landowner in 1903, and in the following years made its first purchases. In 1909, it played a key role in the establishment of Tel Aviv. By the end of the Mandate, JNF purchases amounted to relatively little (less than 4 percent) of the total lands of Palestine, but more than half of the lands held by Jews in Palestine. Through the JNF, the Zionist Organization played a crucial role in the settlement of Jewish immigrants in Palestine, providing land upon which Jewish colonists could live and work even if they did not have the resources (and few did) to purchase these lands or rent them on the open market. The JNF played another significant role after 1948, when it was allowed to purchase “absentees’ property”—lands ethnically cleansed of their Palestinian owners—from the state. In 1953, the JNF was reorganized as an Israeli company. In 1960, it was given a significant influence (nominating ten of twenty-two directors) in the newly-established Israel Land Administration, a government body tasked with managing all lands designated as state- or JNF-owned.
Having thus established the key institutions through which Zionists around the world could lend their support to building a Jewish national home in Palestine, the Zionist Organization set about turning this support into facts on the ground. In 1908, the Palestine Office opened in Jaffa as the operational branch of the Zionist Organization. Headed by Arthur Ruppin, the office presumed to represent Jewish immigrants to Palestine in dealing with the Ottoman state and coordinated land purchases with the JNF. With the outbreak of World War I and the signing of the Balfour Declaration, the Zionist Organization was able to solve the last of its key concerns: receiving state sanction for its colonizing efforts. In 1918, Chaim Weizmann—the influential president of the British Zionist Federation and later president of the Zionist Organization—formed the Zionist Commission, which was to study conditions in Palestine and report back to the British government, and set about restructuring the Palestine Office into departments (agriculture, settlement, education, land, finance, immigration, and statistics) that would allow it to build its parastate infrastructure on the ground in Palestine under British sponsorship. In 1921, the Zionist Commission was rebranded the Palestine Zionist Executive, and the British designated it the Jewish Agency described in the Mandate’s text.
Even after the Jewish Agency was expanded in 1929 to include non-Zionist Jewish representatives, the Executive of the Jewish Agency was nearly identical to that of the Zionist Organization. Thus, until the foundation of Israel in 1948, the Jewish Agency effectively operated as a Zionist parastate in Palestine in coordination with the Zionist Organization, which embodied the Zionist movement in its international scope. After 1948, the Zionist Organization continued through its institutions to support the immigration and settlement of Jews in Israel and, after 1967, the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. In August 1951, the Zionist Organization held for the first time its Congress (the 23rd) in Jerusalem and redefined the aims of Zionism (the "Jerusalem Program") as being "the consolidation of the State of Israel; the ingathering of the exiles in the Land of Israel; and the fostering of the unity of the Jewish people.” The Knesset enacted a law in November 1952 recognizing the Organization as an “authorized agency” to continue operating in Israel for the absorption of immigrants and settlement of the country, and authorized it to enter into a Covenant with the government (signed in July 1954). Its subsidiary bodies, including Keren Hayesod, the Jewish National Fund, and the Anglo-Palestine Bank—renamed Bank Leumi and having initially served as Israel’s national bank until 1954—continue to function to this day as the conduits between Zionist organizations outside Israel and the ongoing colonial project of the state.
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