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Organized in 1897, the 204 delegates to the first Congress represented many Zionist societies in 17 countries. The Congress elected Theodor Herzl as the first president of the World Zionist Organization and worked out a constitution with the Basle Program as its basic plank. The constitution provided that any Jew could become a member of the World Zionist Organization by subscribing to the Basle Program and by paving the minimal dues, called a shekel. The Zionists of each country elected one delegate to the Zionist Congress for each unit of 1,500 shekel holders. The Congress in session served as the governing body of the Zionist movement. Each Congress elected two bodies: the general council, or actions committee, to determine Zionist policy between sessions, and the executive, to carry on day-to-day Zionist affairs. As the movement grew, right- and left-wing parties developed programs reflecting the times, conditions, and the thinking of the various groups within the Jewish communities. These parties, advocating their particular programs for the upbuilding of Palestine, became constituent organizations, elected delegates to the Congress, and were represented on the Actions Committee and on the Executive. (See also General Zionism, Mizrachi, and Labor Zionism.)

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