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The American Delegate(s)* at the First Zionist Congress Part 6

Posted on September 20th, 2017 by

Written by Avi Y. Decter. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel

Sidebar III: “The Time is Now!” – The Editor of Ha-Ivri Publishes a Diatribe

Missed the beginning? Start here.

The Ha'Ivri Masthead, August 1897. Courtesy of Yeshiva University, Mendel Gottesman Library.

The Ha’Ivri Masthead, August 1897. Courtesy of Yeshiva University, Mendel Gottesman Library.

In August 1897, Katriel Hirsch Sarasohn, the publisher of the Hebrew-language newspaper Ha-Ivri in New York City, used his lead article to attack the New York Hoveve Zion [Lovers of Zion] Society for failing to send a delegate to the first Zionist Congress, soon to convene in Basel, Switzerland. Sarasohn contrasted the commitment of the Baltimore Zion Association with the ineffectiveness of its New York counterpart and employed the embarkation of Rabbi Schepsel Schaffer as a club with which to beat New York’s Zionist leaders.

Sarasohn was a highly critical and contentious publisher. In 1892 he had printed an attack on Shavei Zion by S. W. Natelson, denouncing the leaders of New York’s Shavei Zion and Hoveve Zion organizations in such inflammatory terms that Adam Rosenberg, an officer of Shavei Zion, felt compelled to sue for libel. Rosenberg accused Sarasohn of “publishing the most scandalous libels against the officers of Hoveve Zion charging them with swindling, humbugging the poor and embessling the Society’s funds.” The case achieved sufficient notoriety to be reported in the New York Times, and Sarasohn appears to have been compelled to cease his attacks on Rosenberg.[1]

This document is notable not only for what it can tell us about the state of Zionist organization in New York and Baltimore on the eve of the Congress, but also for what it says about the role of personality and politics in the Zionist movement. Soon after the first Zionist Congress adjourned a new Federation of American Zionists was organized, giving the Zionist movement in America greater coherence nad strength. But debate, dissent, and conflict persisted nonetheless.

The article, Ha'Ivri, August 1897. Courtesy of Yeshiva University, Mendel Gottesman Library.

The article, Ha’Ivri, August 1897. Courtesy of Yeshiva University, Mendel Gottesman Library.

The Article (in translation)

The learned Rabbi Dr. Schaffer of Baltimore has been chosen as a trusted delegate by the Zion Association of that city to represent them at the Zionist Congress in Basel. This organization, by choosing to send this distinguished and beloved rabbi to the Congress, revealed both its good taste and its true love of Zion and its adherents; and, aside from the honor it will gain by being the only organization in America that will have its name mentioned among the participants in the Zionist Congress, it will also enjoy the honor bestowed upon it for choosing such a distinguished delegate, as our Sages said: “A man’s agent is a reflection of himself.”

Of all the nationalist [i.e. Zionist] organizations in our country – at least in name – only the Baltimore Zion Association has sent a special delegate as its representative to the Zionist Congress in Basel. Instead of bombarding the world with loud proclamations and fliers, only this group quietly discharged its responsibility and duty, while New York’s Hovevei Zion created a tempest in a teapot and blew its horn about the Zionist Congress, but, when the time came to send even one delegate, they were overwhelmed with the pangs of childbirth like those of a woman in labor who wasn’t strong enough to give birth, unable to collect $100 to send the delegate on his way and acting as if they hoped to be rewarded for talking and not doing.

Isn’t it a laugh and an amazement to all who hear it, that the Hovevei Zion in New York – the city with the largest Jewish population in the world – let such a small amount as $100 prevent their sending a representative to show their love and commitment to the national goal. Indeed, it is a heartbreaking joke, but the surprise quickly dissipates with the realization that in reality this organization barely exists. The truth is that it is almost extinct, fading from the world with only its name still inscribed on its charter, while a few individuals who lack the spirit of the real Hovevei Zion have appropriated its name to crown and adorn themselves.

We say “genuine Hovevei Zion” because it is our strong belief there are many true lovers of Zion in our city, particularly those who founded this organization, those who supported it when it was doing well, and those who were devoted with all their being to the national goal: however, they don’t want to be affiliated with this current organization, which they left and which has turned away from its purpose. Why don’t the nationalists [Zionists] in New York City create a new society of select members that is managed in better order?

Is it because Hovevei Zion did not turn out well and they saw its disintegration, making them fearful about launching a new society that is true to the cause? Even G-d created and destroyed many worlds until he built this world, which He saw was good. Experience from past failures will show them how to be more cautious in the future. Arise and unite all you in New York who are true and honest lovers of Zion, because the time of redemption is now!

~The End~


[1] Klausner, “Adam Rosenberg,” 25 lff. Sarasohn also carried on a lengthy feud with Wolf Schur, the publisher and editor of Ha-Pisgah. See Kabakoff, “The Role of Wolf Schur,” 431.

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The American Delegate(s)* at the First Zionist Congress Part 3

Posted on September 11th, 2017 by

Written by Avi Y. Decter. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel

Part III: A National Assembly

Missed the beginning? Start here.

Some of the participants in the World Zionist Congress, Basel, 1897. Theodor Herzl is in the center. Courtesy of Herbert Levy, L2008. 135.1

Some of the participants in the World Zionist Congress, Basel, 1897. Theodor Herzl is in the center. Courtesy of Herbert Levy, L2008. 135.1

One of the key tasks of the organizers was to establish the Congress as an effective organization. Herzl himself, in his opening address to the Congress, declared that “Through this Congress, we are creating an agency for the Jewish people.”[1] Rosa Sonneschein reports that Herzl characterized the Congress as a “Jewish organ, which heretofore it did not have, but which it needs for its existence.”[2]

Only a few days before the first Zionist Congress convened Herzl wrote that “I stand in command of striplings, beggars, and sensation-mongers…Nevertheless, even this army would do the job if a success were in sight. Then it would quickly become a first-rate body of regular troops.”[3] Gathering a group of self-selected individuals would not make the Congress an effective body – the Congress needed to assert a claim to representing organizations and communities. This, the distinction between individual attendees and organizational delegates was made clear in the first session of the Congress, when Dr. Karpel Lippe referred in his opening remarks to “This meeting of Jewish associations and of individual Jews.”[4]

Transforming the Zionist Congress into a representative body was a critical, challenging step, and one not easily achieved. Once Herzl determined to organize a world congress and the site was finally chosen, he devoted his immense energies to gathering participants from all corners of the world. Letters of invitation were sent out to Zionist leaders, to Zionist organizations, and to Jewish communities calling for the election of representatives to the Congress.[5]

At the beginning of August, 1897, a Congress office was established in Basel, and a preparatory committee reviewed, approved, and registered the Congress participants.[6] When Herzl arrived in Basel on August 25 he took personal charge of all the details. As one observer noted, “He gave his attention to all the minutiae of the work. He let nothing slip past him. He issued the instructions, and supervised the carrying out of the instructions.”[7]

Looking back on the first Congress, Dr. Herzl wrote that “our movement has entered into the stream of history…If I were to sum up the Congress in a word – which I shall take care not to publish – it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State…I gradually worked the people up into the atmosphere of a State and made them feel that they were its National Assembly.”[8] Herzl’s comment about “founding the Jewish State” has entered into the lexicon of Zionist ideology, alongside his famous dictum, “If you will it, it is no dream,” which became the slogan of the modern Zionist movement.

Herzl’s comment about creating a “national Assembly” is less well-known, and yet this seemingly more mundane task was every bit as important as providing a vision and a compelling rhetoric. On the third and final day of the Congress, it was “resolved that each local society of Zionists have a right to send on edelegate and one more for each succeeding hundred.”[9]

Afterward, Herzl wrote that “in principle the most important event which perhaps remained quite unnoticed was my introduction of the representative system, that is, of the national assembly.”[10] In this critical effort Rabbi Schaffer, a Baltimore resident, and Adam Rosenberg, a Baltimore native, played important roles. Although their routes to the first Zionist Congress were distinct, and their designation as official “Delegates’ came about in totally different ways, both deserve to be recognized and remembered as the American delegates to the first World Zionist Congress.

Continue to Sidebar I: The Other Americans: Rosa Sonneschein (1847 – 1935)


[1] S.U. Nahon, ed., The Jubilee of the First Zionist Congress, 1897 – 1947 (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1947), 54.

[2] Sonneschein, “The Zionist Congress,” 15.

[3] Marvin Lowenthal, ed., The Diaries of Theodor Herzl (New York: Dial Press, 1956), 220. Alex Bein’s version of this same diary entry is even less flattering: “The fact is that I have only an army of schnorrers. I stand at the head of a mass of youths, beggars, and kacjasses.” Quoted in Theodore Herzl: A Biography (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication society of America, 1962), 227f.

[4] Nahon, Jubilee of the First Zionist Congress, 65.

[5] Bein, Herzl, 224.

[6] Bein, Herzl, 226ff.; Bettina Zeugin, “Three Days in Basel,” in Heiko Haumann, ed., The First Zionist Congress in 1897 – Causes, Significance, Topicality (Basel: Karegen, 1997), 141f.

[7] Quoted in Bein, Herzl, 226.

[8] Lowenthal, The Diaries of Theodor Herzl, 223f

[9] Sonneschein, “The Zionist Congress,” 18.

[10] Nahon, Jubilee, 98.

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The American Delegate(s)* at the First Zionist Congress Part 2

Posted on September 6th, 2017 by

Written by Avi Y. Decter. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel

Part II: The Congress Participants

Miss the beginning? Start here.

The first World Zionist Congress convened in Basel, Switzerland, on August 29, 1897. For three days the Congress participants listened to speeches and reports on the condition of world Jewry, debated issues, adopted a program “to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine,” and defined the fundamental structure of a new World Zionist Organization.[1]

During the course of the Congress, an official list of participants was published, naming 199 men and women. Two-thirds of these “participants” were there in their “private capacities,” mostly individuals with a strong interest in Zionism and the nationalist ideal. Sixty-nine of the participants were designated by asterisks (*) as “delegates” representing Zionist organizations or Jewish communities. (As in baseball, asterisks do matter.) Also on the official list were about a dozen journalists and several guests.[2]

Most of the participants came from Europe, as might be expected given its dense concentration of Jewish population at the time and the expectation Zionism would alleviate the burden of antisemitism, especially in Europe. Only four people were cited in the official Congress list of participants as coming from America. Davis Treitsch (1870 – 1935), listed as a participant from New York City, appears to have been a German national who resided in New York for several years while studying immigration issues. Treitsch, an advocate for Jewish settlement in Cyprus, the “gateway to greater Palestine,” paid his own way to Basel to lobby for his pet scheme.[3]

A second American participant was the redoubtable Rosa Sonneschein (1847 – 1932), editor of The American Jewess, who was present as a journalist. Sonneschein, who had advocated for a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the pages of her journal, came to Europe to cover two conferences: the Zionist Congress in Basel and, in October, the Woman’s Congress in Brussels.[4]

The other two Americans at the Congress were Rabbi Schaffer of Baltimore and Adam Rosenberg (1858 – 1928) of New York City, both of whom were marked as official delegates in the participant list of the Congress.[5] Adam Rosenberg’s journey to the Congress was complicated. Born in Baltimore, the son of an immigrant German rabbi, Rosenberg grew up in Germany, returned to the United States around 1886 as a young man, and became an attorney in New York. Although he is little remembered today, Rosenberg was among the leading American Zionists of his generation. In addition to being active in New York’s Hovevei Zion, in 1891 Rosenberg founded and presided over Shavei Zion [Returners to Zion], an organization composed of investors who sought to buy shares of land in Palestine for Jewish settlement, and, if all went well, to promote agriculture in the new Jewish colonies.[6]

Adam Rosenberg, from the Herzl YEar Book, Volume I.

Adam Rosenberg, from the Herzl Year Book, Volume I.

On behalf of Shavei Zion, Adam Rosenberg traveled to Europe and Palestine in 1891. While in Europe he met with key Zionist leaders who had decided in September of that year to establish an “International Committee.” In January 1894, on a subsequent trip to Europe, Rosenberg participated in the first “World Congress of Hovevei Zion,” at which he proposed establishing a “Central Zion Federation” to offset the fragmentation and duplication of effort he had found among the Zionist organizations and to serve as the single coordinating body for world Zionism.[7] In the following years Rosenberg continued to agitate for a Central Committee of Hovevei Zion in the United States and also for a world center. In this regard Rosenberg was a forerunner of Theodor Herzl, and when Herzl succeeded in establishing the Zionist Congress and a World Zionist Organization, Rosenberg’s leadership role quickly eroded.[8]

When Herzl began organizing the first Zionist Congress, Adam Rosenberg was among the leading figures in American Zionist circles – and one of the few Zionist leaders who had direct experience of conditions in Palestine. On Rosenberg’s initial visit to Palestine in 1892, he struggled to secure title to land in the Golan and to initiate Jewish settlement and agricultural development. He returned to Palestine in late summer of 1895 and spent two years there trying to promote settlement in the Golan.[9] By the summer of 1897 Rosenberg was exhausted, sick, and ready to return to America. That spring, however, he received a personal invitation from Herzl (via Wilhelm Gross) to attend the Zionist Congress. Herzl – mistakenly – thought that Rosenberg was the “Director of the Hovevei Zion in America,” and this, when Rosenberg, leaving Palestine, decided to attend the Congress in Basel, he, together with Rabbi Schaffer, was listed as a delegate.[10]

Rabbi Schaffer, on the other hand, was actually chosen by a Zionist organization as its official delegate. Abba Shabtei ben Chaim Aaron Schaffer was born in Latvia, the son of a rabbi. After attending various yeshivot he moved to Berlin, where he studied at Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer’s Rabbinical Seminary and also the University of Berlin. In 1889 he completed a Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig, and the next year was granted rabbinical ordination. In 1893 Rabbi Schaffer came to the United States to take up the pulpit of Congregation Shearith Israel in Baltimore, where he served as rabbi until 1928.[11]

Theodor Herzl, from a 1901 photographic postcard. Gift of Edith Cohen Roth, JMM 2004.15.2

Theodor Herzl, from a 1901 photographic postcard. Gift of Edith Cohen Roth, JMM 2004.15.2

Within two years of his arrival in Baltimore, Rabbi Schaffer was elected president of the Baltimore Zion Association (1895) and, two years later, was sent to Basel as the Association’s representative. Rabbi Schaffer was not, however, the only candidate for this role. Wolf (Zev) Schur (1884 – 1910), editor and publisher of the Hebrew-language paper Ha-Pisgah, lobbied his friends in Baltimore to be named as a delegate, claiming that he would attend the Congress with a smaller travel subsidy. Schur’s efforts were unavailing and Rabbi Schaffer embarked for the Zionist Congress (followed by an extended trip to visit family and friends).[12]

So, in August 1897, Schaffer, Rosenberg, Treitsch, and Sonneschein arrived at the Zionist Congress in Basel. Rabbi Schaffer was the delegate of a Zionist organization; Rosenberg was also an official “delegate,” through Dr. Herzl’s misunderstanding; Treitsch came as a private individual; and Sonneschein was there to report on the Congress. Surviving records do not indicate whether Schaffer, Treitsch, or Sonneschein spoke during any of the plenary sessions. Adam Rosenberg, in contrast, spoke twice, reporting to the Congress on conditions in Palestine and on the state of American Jewry – though Rosa Sonneschein tartly declared that the altter speech represented “simply his own views. It is to be hoped that the Congress will not accept the impression of an individual as an official report.”[13]

In the event, both men and women participated in the Congress proceedings (though the ladies were denied the vote), and all of the make participants – regardless of their private or official status – were put on an equal footing.[14] So, in these circumstances, did it matter at all if one was a “delegate” and another simply a “participant,” or was this a distinction without a difference? To Herzl in particular and to the other Congress organizers as well, the distinction did matter. To understand why we must touch on their intentions and the meaning they attached to the first Zionist Congress.

Continue to Part III: A National Assembly


[1] S.U. Nahon, ed., The Jubilee of the First Zionist Congress, 1897 – 1947 (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1947), 54.

[2] Haiyim Orlan, “The Participants in the First Zionist Congress, “ in Herzl Year Book VI (New York: Herzl Press, 1964-65), 133-152.

[3] Oskar K. Rabinowicz, “Treitsch, Davis,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Thompson Gale, 2007), Vol. 10, 146. See also Oskar K. Rabinowicz, “Davis Treitsch’s Colonization Scheme in Cyprus,: in Herzl Year Book IV (New York: Herzl Press, 1961-62), 119 – 206. See also Feinstein, American Zionism, 104.

[4] Rosa Sonneschein, “Something about the Woman’s Congress in Brussels,” American Jewess, Vol. VI, no. 1 (October 1897).

[5] Praesence-Liste.

[6] Israel Klausner, “Adam Rosenberg,” in Herzl Year Book 1 (New York: Herzl Press, 1958), 323ff. and 277f.; Israel Klausner, “Rosenberg, Adam,” in Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel (New YorkMcGraw-Hill, 1971), Vol. 2, 963.

[7] Klausner, “Adam Rosenberg,” 259-263. Also, Feinstein, American Zionism, 52f.

[8] Klausner, “Adam Rosenberg,” 277ff.

[9] Klausner, “Adam Rosenberg,” 267-237.

[10] Klausner, “Adam Rosenberg,” 274

[11] Arnold Blumberg, A History of Congregation Shearith Israel of Baltimore (Towson, MD: Towson State University, 1970), 4. Rabbi Schaffer continued as Rabbi Emeritus until his death in 1933.

[12] Jacob Kabakoff, “The Role of Wolf Schur as Hebraist and Zionist,” in Essays in American-Jewish History (Cincinnati: American Jewish Archives, 1958), 439 and 443f.

[13] Rosa Sonneschein, “The Zionist Congress,” in American Jewess,  Vol. V, No. 7 (October 1897): 15.

[14] Orlan, Participants in the First Zionist Congress,” 135, note 8. Compare Rosa Sonneschein, “The Zionist Congress,” 20: “And strange to say, with this strong craving for liberty and equality, the Zionists began their proceedings by disfranchising women.”

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