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