Zionism in Jassy, Romania: The importance of history

The community’s story shows us how the collective strength of Jews helped create a strong unified community amid persecution and anti-Semitism.

Romania flag 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Romania flag 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Zionism, a polemical issue, still causes fiery debate amid Israeli and international politics and is seen by some as a movement, culture and mentality that is no longer viable in the current Israel. Whatever the case may be, how can one understand the viability of an ideology, without first understanding the history of its design? Jassy might only be a small piece amid the long and complex battle of Zionism for the Jewish people in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it can help to show how to facilitate the organization of a people surrounded by adversity. In better words the formation of a strong collective – something that not only helped to make Israel a reality, but continues to keep it one today.
Once a great center of Jewish culture, Jassy seems to have disappeared from the view of Jewish historians, let alone the general public. In fact, few know that it was the place where the famous Naphtali Imber wrote “Hatikvah,” the poem which gave Israel its national anthem. Or the fact that it was once the home of the first Yiddish theater of Eastern Europe, founded by Abraham Goldfaden.
The great bulk of Jassy’s Jews, which at one point amalgamated to 45,000, could trace their roots to Poland, where thousands of Jews facing persecution at the hands of the Cossacks migrated southward across into Romania. Although the majority of the population consisted of Ashkenazi descendants, there were very small remnants of Shepherdim that escaped Spain in the 15th century.
The history of Jassy’s Jews is as comprehensive and as complex as most communities that once inhabited Eastern Europe. Yet Romania, called by Hannah Arendt the most anti-semitic country prior to the rise of National Socialism in Germany, was not very welcoming to its Jewish populations.
In fact, Jassy’s Jews, although they got along with the national and local government, were in constant turmoil with the severely xenophobic Moldavian populations.
It was of no surprise that even before Zionist organization became a viable reality in Europe, and as some sources claim even before Hibbat Zion, Jassy’s Jews began organizing groups based on proto-Zionist ideas. The first among these was Dorshei Zion, which sought after the creation of literary framework by building libraries.
The reformation of Jewish and Hebrew culture became the most important goal, as was the trend with most Zionist-oriented groups in the 19th century.
Perhaps the best example of this being the foundation of the Ohalei Shem foundation in 1878, that had as its main goal to educate the Jewish masses in Hebrew and Jewish studies.
This cultural rebirth played an important role in creating a mentality of secularization among Jassy’s Jewish population, amid religious tradition and convention. Something which in itself would become the vanguard goal of Herzlian Zionist groups, which sought at the creation not just of a Jewish state, but a Jewish culture devoid of religion.
The most important Zionist organization to have ever existed in Jassy was Yishuv Erez Israel, founded by Lippe Karpel in 1880 as a response to the incessant anti-Semitism that Romanian Jews faced across the nation.
The group helped facilitate the transport of numerous Jews from Romania to Palestine between 1882 to 1890. Although Karpel was opposed to the creation of a Jewish state he still encouraged the formation of Jewish culture in Palestine in order to escape persecution in Europe.
Karpel famously gave the opening speech at The First Zionist Congress in 1897 advocating for the purchase of land in Palestine, but also representing Romanian and Jassy Jewry. Immediately after the congress the Jewish community of Jassy began to be far more organized in the creation of Zionist organizations. About nine of them had formed, until they all conjoined into one in 1919 under the name of the Romanian Zionist Movement.
The first meeting took place in 1920 in Jassy.
In the period up until 1941, when the notorious Jassy pogrom took place resulting in the death of 14,000 Jews, the movement helped to organize the community, build schools. libraries and educate the Jewish populace. Its greatest accomplishment was aiding thousands of Jews to achieve aliyah before they could be murdered. Unfortunately a great many of Jassy’s Jews did not leave for Eretz Israel, as was the case of the rest of European Jewry.
You might be asking yourself what the reason for knowing all of this might be. Well in short, by understanding small insular pockets in the greater narrative of European Jewish history, such as Jassy, we can better form an understanding of the way Israel came to be in 1948, and more importantly an understanding of the necessity of moderated Zionism as a means to facilitate a cultural and national Jewish identity.
Zionism is not nationalism, it is cultural and physical self-preservation. Jassy’s Jews used Zionism to ensure their survival as a community, and as a people.
The author is a history student at the University of British Columbia and a writer. He is currently working on a book on the Jassy Pogrom of 1941.