This article presents the reader with an overview of the history of the World Zionist Organization.
The Jewish striving to return to Zion- the Land of Israel- began when the Jewish People were exiled from their country by the Romans. Throughout the centuries they continued to return to their homeland. Despite successive conquerors and rulers, they maintained their bond with the land, some always living in it, the rest preparing for it and yearning for the day they could again be free people on their own soil.
The striving took concrete form in 1897, when the World Zionist Organization was founded at the First Zionist Congress, convened by Theodor Herzl in Basle. The purpose of the organization was "to obtain for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally secured home in Palestine."
The Zionist movement proposed to transform both the Jewish People and the Land of Israel. It aimed at revitalizing a land which had been lain waste by neglect and warfare. It strove to convert an oppressed minority, remote from the land and from basic occupation, into an independent people living on its own land and working it.
The struggle for a publicly recognized Jewish State achieved its first success with the issuing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, proclaiming Great Britain's support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish People." Five years later, in 1922, the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine gave international sanction to the declaration and charged Great Britain with carrying it out.
But the World Zionist Organization did not wait for official recognition before it began to take practical steps. As early as 1905 it established the Jewish National Fund to acquire land upon which the growing number of pioneers could settle. In 1909 the first all-Jewish city, Tel Aviv, was founded, as was the first Kibbutz, Degania,- the pioneer of Israel's collective settlement movement, which was to become a household world all over the world. Over the years, the total number of agricultural settlements of different types grew from 22 in 1899 to 707 in 1970, and their inhabitants from 5,000 to 272,000.
The Mandate for Palestine recognized the World Zionist Organization as "an appropriate Jewish Agency" to advise and work with the government of Palestine in all matters concerned with the establishment of the Jewish National Home. Immediately after the British capture of the country in 1917, a Zionist commission arrived in Palestine to act as the liaison between the British and the Jewish community. Headed by Dr. Chaim Weizmann, later President of the World Zionist Organization, the commission soon became the Palestine Office of the WZO. In 1921 the Twelfth Zionist Congress elected a Zionist Executive to replace the Palestine Commission and eight years later the Jewish Agency for Palestine was formally constituted as the representative of the WZO in Palestine. The President of the WZO was also the Chairman of the Jewish Agency.
During the three decades of British rule in Palestine, the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency built a state-within-a state. In the country, educational, social and health institutions were created; abroad, Jewish and non-Jewish public opinion was mobilized; immigrants were trained in preparation for settlement and funds were raised to support the immigration and settlement of Zionist pioneers. On the political scene, there was a constant struggle with the British to allow the Aliyah of Jews seeking refuge from persecution and to allow the purchase of land for reclamations. Moreover, the Jewish community in Palestine was forced to defend itself against the attacks of the Arabs who surrounded them.
The centuries’ old struggle of the Jewish people to reclaim independence came to a climax on May 14, 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel. Dr. Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization, was elected the first President of Israel; David Ben Gurion, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, became the country's first Prime Minister; other leaders took up leading positions in the new government.
At the same time the World Zionist Organization continued its traditional search for peace with the Arabs. As early as 1919, Dr. Weizmann signed an agreement with Emir Feisal for cooperation between the Arab National Movement and the Zionist Movement. The Zionists stretched out their hand to the Arabs, but the Arab extremists rejected the plea for peace. After three wars- 1948, 1956 and 1967- the need for a just and honorable peace between Jew and Arab remained as vital as ever for both peoples in order to enable them to realize their legitimate national aspirations.