The Pre-Zionist Congress That Started It All
Five questions for Alina Marincean
In August 1897, the First Zionist Congress took place in Basel under the stewardship of Theodor Herzl, the writer and political activist, who proposed the erection of a Jewish State. But was Herzl’s First Zionist Congress really the very first? At a dinner at the conference of the Association of European Jewish Museums (AEJM) in Frankfurt in 2022, Alina Marincean, curator at the Elie Wiesel Maramures Museum in Romania, offered insights into an almost forgotten pre-Zionist Congress which started it all.
Naomi Lubrich: This year, we are celebrating the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in 1897. But some argue that Theodor Herzl’s Basel Congress wasn’t the very first. Which conference came before?
Alina Marincean: On December 30 and 31, 1881, the Jewish community leaders from Romania held what is today known as The Zionist Congress in Focșani or The Big Congress in Focșani. At a time of growing anti-Semitism in large parts of Europe, the conference proposed a new solution to anti-Jewish sentiment, namely to move to Palestine and establish agrarian colonies there.
NL: Who organized the Congress? And who participated in it?
AM: The Congress brought together 56 delegates from 29 regions, representing 50 organizations and 70 000 Zionist activists, many of whom showed interest in migrating to Palestine. It was presided over by Samuel Pineles, the son of the Talmudist Hers Mendel Pineles.
NL: The term «Big Congress in Focșani» eschews the word Zionism? Why?
AM: The term «Zionist» for the Big Congress is disputed. Though the event in Focșani was fundamental to the burgeoning Zionist movement – it looked sceptically at attempts to assimilate in an increasingly hostile European environment and cemented the idea of moving to Palestine and establishing agrarian communities there – it did not go so far as to call for a political solution, meaning the erection of a state. That was Herzl’s contribution sixteen years later. For this reason, some historians prefer to call the Congress «pre-Zionist.»
NL: Did the Congress in Focșani actually inspire migration to Palestine?
AM: The Congress was a success nationally and internationally. Historians credit it with initiating discussions all over Europe and immediate action in Romania. Emigration began in 1882. A ship called «Tethis» left for Palestine with 228 Jews, mostly from Moinesti, who became the first settlers of two communities that still exist in Israel today: Rosh Pina and Zichron Yacov. The Focșani Congress had a clear agenda and a realistic implementation, despite its meagre financial means and the difficult journey to be made. The pre-Zionists were poor, but they were also highly motivated. They inspired others to follow their lead. They were the first pioneers of the State of Israel.
NL: Looking back at the Big Congress today: Who remembers it in Romania, and who in Israel? Has it been unfairly forgotten?
AM: Altogether the interest in Romanian Jewry is unduly small, considering the size of the community, which was the third largest in Europe, after Russia and Poland. Today, it is mainly the Romanian Jewish communities along with specialists and scholars who remember the Big Congress in Focșani, and they organize events to celebrate it. Internationally, the Congress is known even less. That doesn’t do it justice, considering what an important event it was and how strongly it reflects on the lives and souls of Jews in Eastern European communities, and on their immense efforts and creative energy to establish new, independent Jewish lives.
NL: Alina, let’s change that, here and now: Thank you very much for remembering the Focsani Congress on the Jewish Museum of Switzerland’s blog.
verfasst am 10.08.2022
Photos: JMS 1808, Panorama Foto Jerusalem, 1886.