The first Zionist Congress was set up by Theodor Herzl as a symbolic Parliament for those in agreement with the implementation of Zionist goals. The Congress was due to be taken place in Munich, Germany. However, because of local opposition by both Orthodox and Reform community leadership, Herzl decided to transfer the gathering to Basel. The Congress took place in the concert hall of the Basel Municipal Casino on August 29, 1897.
Herzl acted as chairperson of the Congress which was attended by some 200 participants from seventeen countries, 69 of whom were delegates from various Zionist societies and the remainder were individual invitees. Ten non-Jews were also in attendance and were expected to abstain from voting. Seventeen women attended the Congress, some of them in their own capacity and others who accompanying representatives. While women participated in the First Zionist Congress, they did not have voting rights. Full membership rights were given them the following year, at the Second Zionist Congress.
Following a festive opening in which the representatives arrived in formal dress, tails and white tie, the Congress moved onto the agenda. The most principal items on the agenda were the presentation of Herzl's plans, the establishment of the Zionist Organization and the declaration of Zionism's goals-the Basel program.
At the Congress, Herzl was elected President of the Zionist Organization and Max Nordau one of three Vice-Presidents. Also, an Inner Actions Committee and a Greater Actions Committee were elected to run the affairs of the movement between Congresses.
On the second day of its deliberations (August 30), the version submitted to the Congress by a committee under the chair of Max Nordau, it was stated: "Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz Israel secured under public law." This gave clear expression to Herzl's political Zionism in contrast with the settlement orientated activities of the more loosely organized Hovevei Zion. To meet halfway the request of numerous delegates, the most prominent of whom was Leo Motzkin, who sought the inclusion of the phrase "by international law," a compromise formula proposed by Herzl was eventually adopted.
The political program, which came to be known as the Basel Program, laid out Zionism's goals. It was adopted on the following terms:
Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine. For the attainment of this purpose, the Congress considers the following means serviceable:
1. The promotion of the settlement of Jewish agriculturists, artisans, and tradesmen in Palestine.
2. The federation of all Jews into local or general groups, according to the laws of the various countries.
3. The strengthening of the Jewish feeling and consciousness.
4. Preparatory steps for the attainment of those governmental grants which are necessary to the achievement of the Zionist purpose.
The First Zionist Congress is credited for the following achievements:
Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary (September 1, 1897):
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. If I said this out loud today l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.
Thereafter, the Zionist Congress met every year (1897-1901), then every second year (1903-1913, 1921-1939). Since the Second World War, meetings have been held approximately every four years and since the creation of the State of Israel, the Congress has been held in Jerusalem.