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In what language was the first Zionist congress in Basel held?

Was it Yiddish, Hebrew, German, English? Where there translators?

3 Answers 3

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This is an excellent question and this answer is only the "easy" answer based on easily available sources, and should be used primarily as a jumping off point for more research on what is in fact more likely a more complicated reality.

The full PDFs of the stenographic protocols of the Zionist congresses from 1897-1935 are available here:

All of these transcriptions of the speeches at the congresses are in German, but the 1897 congress, alone among all them, contains the protocol in both Hebrew and German:

I think it is safe to say, however, that the main language of this congress too, was German with a Hebrew translation of the protocols added. Skimming through the protocol, the majority of the speakers in the congress are marked as coming from Zürich, Köln, Berlin, Bingen, Wien, Frankfurt, Prague etc. where German would be the primary language. Most of those who were not from a German speaking area, very likely knew German:

  • Leo Motzkin - Kiew - from Russia but studied in Berlin
  • Marcus (Mordecai) Ehrenpreis - Kiakovar - but studied in Berlin

A few others among the participants you might want to check on: Adam Rosenberg (New York), Shepsel Schaffer (Baltimore), Jacob Berstein-Kohan (studied medicine in St. Petersberg, perhaps his letters to Weissmann will give a clue).

Also, the invitation card, and the programm for the conference were in German:

Also, the most famous two addresses, by Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau are usually translated from the German, which would be unusual for such important documents, if they were originally delivered in Hebrew or Yiddish.

Probably More To This

I think that even if the main language or official language was German, when you bring together something like 200 delegates from nearly two dozen countries, the actual experience was likely to be much more complex. Through a process of purification through editing, the language of the protocol very likely hid serious code-switching, the insertion of Yiddish or Hebrew phrases, and other linguistic mixing that is common in these kinds of settings.

Marcus Ehrenpreis gave a talk on the Hebrew language. He grew up writing Yiddish, and it wouldn't be surprising if Yiddish made its way into his speech. Jacob Berstein-Kohan may have used French while studying at St. Petersberg and he could probably assume, if a German word didn't come to mind, that dropping in a bit of French now and then would be fine. Of course, this doesn't come through in the record, but may come through in diaries or memoirs if you continue research.

One place to start would be the University of Basel, where there was a 1997 exhibition on the congress:

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    Excellent answer! One tiny remark: Prague in 1897 was very much within the German-speaking area (as part of the Habsburg empire). Commented Jul 6, 2013 at 11:45
  • Indeed. I shouldn't have called it a non-German area. Would it be appropriate to edit this out?
    – kmlawson
    Commented Jul 6, 2013 at 12:16
  • Sure, edit it out. Commented Jul 6, 2013 at 14:25
  • Thx, moved Prague to the list of other German-primary language cities.
    – kmlawson
    Commented Jul 6, 2013 at 14:41
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The Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Political, Social, and Military History:

The First Zionist Congress's official language, both spoken and written, was German, but many delegates also spoke Yiddish (Hebrew-German vernacular), the language of Ashkenazic Judaism, and a Yiddish-like German known as Kongressdeutch.

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Most delegates were Ashkenazi Jews, that is native Yiddish speakers (see the linguistic note below)... unless they were assimilated in German-speaking countries, in which case they would speak (a dialect of) German as their native language. They thus had no problem understanding each other, despite coming from countries with different majority languages.

Whether the language of Zionism should be Hebrew or German was a subject of a debate lasting for a few decades, with notably Herzl advocating for German, and Technion teaching in German. 10th Zionist congress was the first zionist congress where as session was held in Hebrew.

Linguistic note on Yiddish and Yiddish speakers
Yiddish is a Germanic language (more precisely a group of languages) - written in Hebrew script and with about 10-20% of its vocabulary borrowed from Hebrew, Slavic, and Romance languages. It is thus generally mutually understandable with German, to about the same extent as different German dialects are mutually understandable, or the German spoken in Germany vs. Swiss German/Alsatian.

An educated Yiddish speaker would typically speak Yiddish, the majority language of their country and Hebrew (which was learned as a part of the basic religious education, like Latin elsewhere, but was at the time of somewhat limited use for everyday communication). Even if they did not come from a German-speaking country, many would know German, since it came as an easy addition to Yiddish and, importantly, played the same role (alongside French) as English plays in the modern world.

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  • +1 For pointing that for practical purposes Yiddish speakers are German speakers.
    – Pere
    Commented Aug 28, 2021 at 20:21

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