Zionism, a polemical issue, still causes fiery debate amidst 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 amidst 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 centre 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 it’s national anthem. Or the fact that it was once the home of the first Yiddish theatre of Eastern Europe founded by Abraham Goldfaden.
The great bulk of Jassy’s Jews, which at one point amalgamated to 45 thousand, could trace their roots to Poland where thousands of Jews facing persecution at the hands of the Cossacks migrated southward across into Rumania. Although the majority of the population was consisted of Ashkenaz descendents, there were very small remnants of Shepherds 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 Rumania, called by Hannah Arendt as 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 got along with the national and local government, was 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 Doroshei 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 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 amidst religious tradition and convention. Something which in itself would become the vanguard goal of Herzelian 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 the Yishuv Eretz Israel founded by Lippe Karpel in 1880 as a responce 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.