OTTO WARBURG - A biographical note

In 1903, at the third Zionist Congress, Warburg was asked to chair the newly founded “Eretz Israel Committee” [EIC] whose members, in addition to Warburg, were Selig Sosskin and Franz Oppenheimer. This was practical Zionism as Warburg had desired since the committee was empowered to investigate the following issues: first, agricultural and other development in Palestine; secondly, the founding of an agricultural experimental institute as well as the founding of an institute for medical research dealing with common diseases in Palestine; and finally a central bureau of local intelligence. The EIC started its activities with the publication of a monthly journal titled “Altneuland”, which was dedicated to agricultural research and planning. It also organized an international research committee to investigate the Dead Sea region and its economic prospects. Simultaneously the EIC started to purchase land in various parts of the country, with Herzl’s full blessing despite the insufficient funds available at the time. However, all this came to an end with the untimely death of Herzl in 1904 when the Zionist movement remained without a leader and there seemed to be no suitable candidate to replace him. A committee of three, consisting of Max Nordau, David Wolfson and Otto Warburg, was elected in May 1905, to fill the gap. But the EIC suffered from both lack of funds for the practical issues the committee had decided upon, as well as lack of confidence by the Viennese contingent, which now composed the vast majority of the Zionist Executive. Led from Köln by Wolfsohn it feared that the initiative proposed by Warburg and his colleagues would lead to bankruptcy and demanded that every decision of the EIC would first be put to the Executive Committee of 13 for prior approval. Since they believed that the political decision, leading to a charter for Palestine, should precede any colonial activities in the country, they demanded in fact the right to veto any suggestion put forward by Warburg and his Eretz-Yisrael Committee. During the seventh Zionist Congress, convened in 1905, Warburg elaborated his plan for the movement under the following headings: first, increasing the number of Jewish people in Palestine and the creation of an economic basis for their existence and for further settlements; secondly, the founding of educational and cultural Jewish institutions in the country; thirdly, attempts to alter the legal status in Palestine and its limitations on Jews; finally, the continuation of attempts to gain a Charter for Palestine, not as an aim in itself, but as a way to increase settlements in the country. It was after this exposure that Warburg gained the confidence of the majority of the Zionist delegates and was elected as Wolfson’s vice-president of the Zionist movement. One of the first projects he proposed was to send a delegation to the Jordan Valley to research its economic potential. But although the new executive of the Zionist movement approved this plan, Warburg had to finance it provisionally from his own pocket due to lack of funds. Simultaneously he laid the foundations for an Industrial Syndicate which would gain a foothold in laying the foundations for railways, roads, the exploitation of the Dead Sea resources, irrigation projects, etc. He realized that the Zionist movement had no funds for such undertakings, however, he hoped that it would be possible to interest private Jewish and non-Jewish investors in these ventures, whilst keeping supervision and policy decisions in Zionist hands. Sir William Wilcox, the British hydrology expert, who was famous for his planning of the first Aswan Dam, offered his voluntary advice regarding Warburg’s plan to settle Jews in Aram Naharayim (Iraq), along the Baghdad railway, but this initiative too was blocked by his more conservative colleagues. His proposal regarding Jewish settlements in a Garden City in Famagusta in Cyprus or in Iraq, for which financial support could have been obtained from non-Jews, was also blocked by his fellow-members on the Zionist executive.

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