World Zionist Organization (WZO)

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Organization that transformed the Zionist idea of establishing a Jewish state into reality.

Founded in 1897 by Theodor Herzl at the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, the Zionist Organization, as it was originally known, was created to serve as the organizational framework for the Zionist movement. It was to be composed of "all Jews who accept the Zionist program and pay the shekel (a nominal membership fee, differing from country to country)."

The Zionist Congress was established as the supreme governing body of the WZO. Before 1948 congresses were held in many European cities; thereafter, beginning with the twenty-third congress in 1951, all congresses were held in Jerusalem. At first they were held every one or two years; more recently they have been convened every four years. Herzl, the first president of the WZO, chaired its first five congresses. After his death in 1904 the movement was headed by lackluster figures until the election of Chaim Weizmann as its president in 1920.

Between congresses, the movement was guided by a Greater Actions Committee, or General Council, and a Smaller Actions Committee, or Executive. Under the aegis of the WZO, the Jewish Colonial Trust was formed at the second Zionist Congress to serve as the bank of the Zionist movement. The Jewish National Fund was initiated at the fifth Zionist Congress to act as a land-purchasing agent in Palestine for the Jewish people.

Membership in the World Zionist Organization was initially on a regional basis, but as ideological differences emerged the membership structure splintered along ideological lines. Distinct political parties were formed, of which the most important were the Labor Zionists, the General Zionists (liberal centrists), the Mizrahi (religious Zionists), and (after 1925) the Revisionists (right-wing nationalists). The latter, led by Vladimir Zeʾev Jabotinsky, split from the WZO altogether in 1935 and formed the New Zionist Organization.

During the period of British mandatory rule in Palestine between 1920 and 1948 the WZO assumed many of the powers of a quasi-government of the Jewish community in the country. Article 4 of the Mandate provided for the establishment of a Jewish Agency, which "shall be recognized as a public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the administration of Palestine in such economic, social, and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish national home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine." Until 1929 the WZO acted as the Jewish Agency for Palestine; thereafter, the agency was enlarged to include non-Zionists, but the WZO remained the dominant power within the new body. The political department of the Jewish Agency functioned, in effect, as the foreign ministry of the WZO throughout this period.

After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 the WZO gradually evolved into a foreign propaganda and political mobilization arm of the Israeli government. Many of the WZO's functions were assumed by the new government, but the Jewish Agency was not dismantled. In 1952 the Law of the Status of the WZO-Jewish Agency was promulgated whereby primary responsibility was assigned to the Jewish Agency for the development and settlement of the land and for the absorption of immigrants. In 1960 the WZO adopted a new constitution under which individuals were denied eligibility for membership, which was thereafter reserved for organizations.

see also herzl, theodor; jabotinsky, vladimir zeʾev; jewish agency for palestine; jewish colonial trust; jewish national fund; labor zionism; weizmann, chaim.


Laqueur, Walter. A History of Zionism. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972.

bernard wasserstein

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World Zionist Organization (WZO)

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