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Vote! Election Posters for the Zionist Congress
May 20, 2003

Sponsored by
of The Jewish Theological Seminary
3080 Broadway, New York, NY 10027-4649

On September 3, 1897, after the First Zionist Congress held in Basle, Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary, “In Basle I have founded the Jewish State…Perhaps in five years, possibly in fifty, everyone will realize it.” These words have by now become famous, because they are as true as they are grandiose. When the State of Israel came into being on May 14, 1948, many of the political and administrative institutions of the new republic were already in place, having evolved under the auspices of the Zionist Congresses. Some of these institutions, in fact, continue to dominate the contemporary Israeli political scene.

Between 1901 and 1946 the Zionist Congresses met bi-annually in various European cities with interruptions for the two World Wars. These Congresses created an institutional framework whose aim it was to further the cause of Jewish settlement in Palestine. The Zionist Organization, created at the First Congress, served as an umbrella organization for the Zionist movement. Its financial operations were conducted by the Jewish Colonial Trust (founded 1899), and land acquisition was delegated to the Jewish National Fund (founded 1901). Membership in the Zionist Organization was open to all Jews, and the right to vote for the Congresses was secured by the purchase of the Zionist Shekel.

The peculiarity of the Zionist movement, which was similar in ideology and aims to other forms of European nationalism, consisted of the fact that at its very inception, owing to the realities of Jewish dispersion in Europe and America, it had to be organized on a supra-national basis. An additional factor influencing the emergence of the Zionist institutional framework was the need to unite under the banner of Zionism an extremely varied array of ideological groupings, which included Marxist Socialists, largely bourgeois Revisionists, who seceded from the Zionist Organization after the Eighteenth Congress (Prague, 1933), and the Orthodox Mizrachi faction. Because of these factors, the parties represented at the Zionist Congresses tended to be organized along ideological, rather than territorial lines. At the Twenty-First Congress (Geneva, 1939), there were 386 delegates from such ideological parties, versus 171 delegates representing territorial groupings. This lack of territorially based representation persists in the Israeli electoral system. Another inherited feature is voting for party lists, rather than for individual candidates.


Three major parties emerged in the yishuv (Zionist community in Palestine) during the Mandatory period: Ben Gurion’s Labor party Mapai (an acronym for Mifleget Poalei Yisrael), Jabotinsky’s Revisionists, and the General Zionists who were loyalists of Chaim Weizmann. When the Zionist Organization was named by the League of Nations as the “Jewish agency” whose task it was to cooperate with the British Mandatory power in the development of the yishuv, the respective strengths of the parties in terms of membership acquired a new and vital significance – certificates for entry into Palestine were granted by the Mandatory authorities in accordance with the “party key” system, i.e., in accordance with the proportion of the electorate controlled by each of the parties.

The election campaigns were organized in ways familiar to the citizens of democratic states – slogans displayed on posters, propaganda meetings led by party representatives, booklets detailing party platforms, and the dissemination of voting information by non-partisan election committees. The voting procedure, still in use in Israel, consisted of selecting one of a series of printed sheets containing the various party lists and placing this sheet into the ballot box. This exhibition highlights some of the printed ephemera generated by the election campaigns for the Zionist Congresses as they were conducted in the yishuv.

Guest Curator: Michael Rand

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