Political Essays on Zionism in Transylvania (19th and 20th Century).

Emeric Csengeri

Political Essays on Zionism in Transylvania

(19th Century and 20th Century)


In the present paper we would like to acquaint you with the earliest history of political Zionism in Transylvania at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

We will introduce outstanding leading personalities from the aforementioned period and the related history which has not yet been completed. The record of this historic epoch is long and complicated. We will deal with it briefly.

Throughout our long history the leading personalities of the Jewish people – rabbis and great masters of religion – preached about the return of the Jews to their own land.

In prayers, literature, poetry, Kabbalah, folklore and in music Zion and Jerusalem were constantly and always the center of Jewish life.

In the days of Prophets, after the loss of state – independence and many centuries in diaspora Jewish leaders, rabbis, poets and philosophers advocated the return to homeland as the only possible solution.

In the 16th century "Der Hohe Rabbi Low" (1512-1609) of Prague, in his commentary to the Haggadah for Pessach (Passover) expressed the view that. Jews in the diaspora is not a tragedy but an anomaly, an unnatural condition that can be solved by a return to the land of Israel.

Baruch Spinoza (1632-l677) – who was excommunicated by Christians and Jews – foreshadows the building of the Jewish land.[1])

However the thousand year long anomaly, the unnatural countrylessness has its effects.

After the destruction of the First Temple the two great prophets of the time gave different evaluations of the future of the people of Israel. Jeremiah, who fled to Egypt, predicted a long-lasting "galut" (exile) in Babylonia without political independence. He characterized the future situation of the Jews when preachers and missionaries would spread monotheism.

At the same time, Ezekiel, who fled to Babylonia, visioned the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem; and the reestablishment of monarchy of David

Without a home amid struggles, in the search to find explanations and solutions to the endless diaspora, many ideas and theories were presented.

Among them – the strong faith in the return to Zion and Jerusalem – and the concept of a lasting diaspora resolved only by the Messiah.

The series of false Messiahs proved the longing of the Jewish people for their return to their home.

At the same time, the "religious" and the "assimilated" Jews accepted an erroneous and dangerous concept that Jews are not a people, a nation, but a religion. This phenomenon, unknown to other people, to forget its natural origin and endorse instead an abstract doctrine was an irrational and controversial step.

In 1806, Napoleon – amidst the aura and process of emancipation – summoned the Jewish leaders to Paris for a meeting. Questions were raised: do they recognize France as their homeland? Which do they regard as their capital: Paris or Jerusalem? etc. The Answers were straightforward. France was their homeland and Paris was the capital. They requested permission to maintain their religion. As they put it: we are French of Jewish origin. Obviously, the Dreyfus case has proved the contrary of their unnatural illusion and error.

Ninety years after the Paris conference, growing, fierce anti-Semitism has clearly proven that the theorem of "we are French, German, Hungarian" etc., etc., of Jewish religion cannot be regarded as a viable solution; political Zionism was launched by Theodor Herzl in 1897 at the Congress in Basel.

Herzl was looking for the possibility to "normalize" the situation of the Jewish people. His belief was that the long history of European hatred for Jews reveals that Jews will never be accepted into European society. Anti-Semitism will follow and disrupt anywhere and always, regardless of where they are living, as long as this place is not their own homeland.[2])

The solution can only be of political nature: the return to the homeland, to Israel.

Like all the other nations, the Jewish people has to live in its own territory, in its own homeland, to cultivate its soil and to speak its own language.

Just as it has occurred in other European Jewish communities, the opinions concerning Zionism were varied in Transylvania, both for and against.

Even though there were not any large scale encounters, still those who did take part and who expressed their views played a leading role in drawing attention to the basic principles of Zionism, to making people accept or reject it.

We will try to illuminate the participation of the r Transylvanian Jews in the political Zionist movement via three different directions, with the writings of three great leading personalities. They arc: Dr. János Rónai (1849-1919), a lawyer from Blaj–Balázsfalva, who was present at the Congress in Basel; Moshe Glasner (1856-1924), an orthodox rabbi of Cluj – Kolozsvár, who took part in 1904 at the pro-Zionist Conference of religious Jews, united in Pozsony under the name of "Mizrachi ; and Dr. Lipót Kecskeméti, the chief rabbi of the neolog congregation of Oradea – Nagyvárad,  o belonged to the-Zionist mo ementtation of Oradea-Nagyvá rad, who belonged to the anti-Zionist movement.

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János Rónai was born in Blaj-Balázsfalva or in Alba Iulia-Gyulafehérvár in 1849. His mother, supposedly of Portuguese origin, moved to Transylvania with her husband coming from Vienna at the end of the 18th or the beginning of the 19th  century. The name "rónai" comes from a village called Róna, where they were land-owners. Rónai studied to become a lawyer in Vienna and in Budapest and later he ran a legal office in Fogaras and in Balázsfalva.

He published his work, entitled: "Cosmopolitismus and Nationalismus" in 1875 in Budapest, in which he wrote: ...mit jugendlichen Trotz, für die Pflege des jüdischen Stammesbewustseins, eintrat ..., he was taking steps against the anti-Semitic attacks of a member of Parliament, Victor Istóczy.

 Before the Basel Zionist Congress, he prepared the pamphlet entitled: "Zion and Ungarn" in which he explained his pro-Zionist point of view.

On April 8, 1875 Victor Istóczy stated in the Hungarian Parliament that anti-Semitism in reality is nothing else but "self-protection" against a Semitic group of people that is captive in its boundaries.

On June 24, 1878 Istóczy expressed his view in the Hungarian Parliament that the answer to the Jewish problem would be the founding of the Jewish State, to which the Jews could be expelled from Hungary.

Perhaps it is worthwhile mentioning that there was an idea experimented by Jews for the "Zionisation of anti-Semites" Herzl tried to influence Plehve, the bloodthirsty interior minister of czarist Russia. After the first World War, during the 30s, Max Nordau or Zeev Jabotinsky and Chaim Weizmann made attemps to influence anti-Semites to favor the Zionist idea.

Istóczy had a partner in the Hungarian Parliament, namely Gyula Vérhovay, who did not believe in the assimilation and the Christianization of Jews as an acceptable solution: "The Jew will remain a Jew after his conversion to Christianity", he wrote.[3])

The monthly periodical promoting anti-Semitism, entitled "Tizenkét Röpirat" (the Twelve Pamphlets) (Budapest, October 1880 - September 1884) was also connected to Istóczy, against which - as a protective measure - the "Twelve Counter Pamphlets" was published in Nagyvárad (nov. 1880 - Oct. 1651) by Martin Hegyesi and Armin Lustig.

Increasing anti-Semitism enlightened János Rónai to see and to accept the Zionist concept.

The so-called negative "raison d'étre", the hatred toward Jews, served during history as a shocking catalyzer.

Rónai's first reaction to anti-Semitism was the awakening of Jewish self-consciousness, which he had strongly protected.

Without being aware of Zionism developing abroad – for example, the Zionist Conference in 1854, chaired by Samuel Mohilewer – he had explained the concept of Zionism in his publication, "Zion and Ungarn" in 1897.

In the preface he stated: "I have no knowledge of any non-Jews who have attacked Zionism, but unfortunately it was done by both enlightened and religious Jews".[4])

The Orthodox in their everyday prayers affirmed their conviction of the return to Zion, nonetheless in reality – as they professed – the time is not appropriate since it is not happening by the will of God.

The Orthodox did not have confidence in the non-religious Zionist leaders and they rejected the possible use of armed force. They were awaiting a miracle of intervention of God.

Who is to decide what a miracle is? asked Rónai. Who knows whether a certain event that we witness is a miracle or not? Apart from the deep faith in the Messiah, all Jews must be happy to meet the man or the movement that will lead them back from the galut to their homeland.

Let us leave the decision-making to God – writes Rónai – and to the future generations to judge its significance.

As far as the use of arms is concerned, Rónai was seeking a practical approach to normalcy. If the return to the homeland was to be achieved in a peaceful manner, its protection would be their own army, just as is the case in other countries.

"Und zur Abwehr feindlicher Einbrüche wilder Horder, nicht um fremde Soldner, Hilfe jammern, sondern ausschliesslich lüdisches Blut zu den Waffen rufen für Alles was uns heillig und teuer ist".[5])

Concerning the Zionist leaders being non-religious, Rónai thought that the religiosity of the Zionist leaders was insignificant.

Those Orthodox who kept alive the belief in a return to Zion had to support and back-up the practical plan as well.

Concerning the theses of the assimilated Jews:

–       to he assimilated into the people of the country where they lived;

–       that the Jews were not a people, a nation, but a religion;

–       and that their aim was the dissemination of the teaching of the Bible,

to accomplish a world-wide moral mission;

Rónai answers as follows:

The one and only effective form of absorption would be absolute biological assimilation just as in England with the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons.

However, the Jewish people throughout its long history – despite conversions and mixed marriages – remained Jewish. Despite

acculturalization and assimilation, they did not change. Speaking about "patriotism" of the Jews, it is not a kind of compliment, but rather an affection inherited from honest parents and ancestors. We remained good patriots.

We intend to teach the Jewish youth to provide protection for their defenceless brothers.

The aim is to emphasize the origin, the ethnic character and national aspirations of the Jewish people.

Why should the Jewish people have a world-wide cultural and moral mission when no other nation undertakes such a task?

To survive just for purpose of becoming martyrs would be foolish. There are two possibilities left for the Jewish people: to vanish or to succeed.

Zionism rejects the path of assimilation, whereby our "ethnic affiliation" would have long ago ceased to be.

A Jewish state is necessary to relieve the countries of the Jews whom they don't want, and to provide shelter for all Jews in need of protection. Rónai reminds the reader of the prayers in which the faith in the Messiah is emphasized and the unquestionable belief in the assembly of the Jewish people from all four corners of the world into Palestine.

Speaking about the history and the status of Jews in Hungary, Rónai indicated that the Jews in Hungary were orphaned. Anti-Semitism in Hungary, which resulted in the infamous blood-libel in Tiszaeszlár (1882), the existence of an anti-Semitic political party and movement and the anti-Jewish campaigns of the liberal press proved it. The forecast was emphasized by Rónai that the situation will worsen.

The "People's Party" and the leaders of political life stated freely: "Es gab noch keinen Antisemitismus, es wird erst einen geben".[6])

The "Egyenlőség" (Equality), the weekly periodical of Hungarian Jews, instead of welcoming Zionism with admiration, protested against it on behalf of the Jews who never consented to it. The editor, Szabolcsi Miksa, believed that Zionism was "utopian" and is mere fantasy.

Rónai condemned the editor of "Egyenlőség" for not knowing the real situation of the Jews in the cities and villages outside the capital, who were incriminated, disgraced and accused of spreading spiritual decay.

Even friendly members of Parliament regarded the Jews as "indispensable yeast" which "in greater quantities can be harmful".

Only the "Ungarische Wochenschrift" dared to welcome the Zionist movement. The Zionists were accused of deliberate anti-patriotism. When Rónai returned from the Congress of Basel, the "Budapesti Hirlap" published most of his lecture, whilst other newspapers did not even mention it.

I have a feeling – wrote Rónai – that the Zionists of Romania and Bulgaria have greater freedom than we in Hungary where Zionism is being attacked.

It is looked upon as a "disease causing anti-Semitism". There are people who are to become Zionists because anti-Semites used this to prove that Jews are not willing to assimilate. And thus the circle is complete:

Anti-Semitism gave birth to Zionism, and at the same time it is Zionism that causes anti-Semitism.

Our purpose is to establish a safe homeland – concluded Rónai in his

work written with ardent enthusiasm – to re-educate a youth to accept their national identity, to maintaining Jewish self-consciousness; and finally to demand that this movement should not be treated in a hostile manner.

In September 1897, after the Zionist Congress, Rónai visited Herzl in Vienna.

Following this, they exchanged correspondence. Dr. Herzl entrusted the establishment of the Zionist organization in Hungary to Rónai. In 1892, by the initiative of Herzl, a general meeting was held in Pozsony where Dr. János Rónai was elected as national chairman of the organization in Hungary.

On April 17, 1867 upon the invitation of Baron Joseph Eötvös, Minister of Religion and Education, a Congress was held in Budapest. The rabbinical and lay leadership of Hungarian Jewry participated. The purpose of that Congress was to establish an organizational framework concerning administration and education for the Jewish communities in Hungary. After more than two years (1868-1869) of deliberations, the participants couldn't find a common platform and the end result was the division of that Jewry in three factions: a) Orthodox (traditional), b) Neolog (interested in some changes in the synagogue eservices: installation of an organ, aesthetical arrangements in the services, use of the Hungarian language, etc.) and c) Status quo ante (neutral, didn't join either of the two main factions). Zionism was not discussed at the Congress, but they were in accord in rejecting it. Dr. János Rónai tried to persuade the divided Jewry to accept Zionism as the only one political solution tor the Jewish people. Very few were ready to follow his advice. to help the Zionist movement in Hungary in disseminating its ideas. Therefore, a special place belongs in the history oft he Zionist movement in Hungary and especially in Transylvania to Rabbi Samuel Glasner, the chief rabbi of the orthodox community in Kolozsvár (now Cluj, Romania).

Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner published "Der Zionismus and seine Nebenerscheinungen im Lichte der Religion.' in 1920. In the very first sentence, speaking about "Herzl's movement" he revealed his point of view:

"Since Herzl's movement has awakened the developing but slumbering Jewish people and has launched the challenge to hell) themselves, a wideranging debate has emerged to determine whether the Jews living in dispersion and in adjustment so different people, as a nation?"[7] The debate went on among the Jews between the religious and the assimilated.

Both desperately fought from different points of view against awakening Jewish-ethnic-national awareness, but the assimilated did not believe in the future as Jews. Their attachment to their own community was restricted appearance in the synagogue on the main holidays, but in reality they were convinced that they did not differ from the Christian society; they were incapable of understanding why this non-Jewish society was against them and why they were not accepted as equals.

The emergence of the new Jewish-ethnic-national selfconsciousness was disturbing to them.

These people, due to the euphoria caused by the paper-emancipation", tried to give up their ethnic origin as in the days of Napoleon – when they declared themselves to be a religious denomination, not a people, a nation. It seemed simpler to be French, German or Hungarian, etc. of Jewish religion.

There were traditional Orthodox Jews who adhered to their natural origin. They hoped that because of emancipation their freedom would he secured. The return to their homeland would happen with God's help. This was the deep belief, hope and philosophy of those Jews who followed the Shulchan Aruch (The Code).

Chief Rabbi Glasner declared that neither the so-called religious nor the so-called assimilated had the courage to admit the truth.

They adhered to the religious tenet which led to the separation of Hungarian Jewry – they fought against each other despite belonging to the same religion and they were eager to prove their Hungarian patriotism and at the same time to reject their own common roots.

The orthodox Rabbi Glasner expressed his opinion concerning those extreme individuals who formed the majority of the so – called traditional faction. He said that after World War I, when the superpowers in Europe recognized the independence and natural ethnic aspirations of the smaller nations, then the assimilated Jews nurtured the shameful lie that the Jews are a religion and hence they can become Germans, Czechs or Slovaks, etc.

Thereafter, Rabbi Glasner, with logical analyses, exceptional talent of expression, and with his colossal Torah knowledge, explained the ideology of the religious "Mizrachi" movement established in 1904 in Pozsony, which joined the Zionist World Organization.

It is a false approach – indicated Rabbi Glasner– to look upon the Torah as a compendium of religious laws. It is the constitution of a State which anticipates "a people in its own country".

The fundamental commandments of the Torah are related to the historic events of people in their homeland. ric events of people in their homeland.

Recited from the conversion of Ruth the Moabite:

"Your people is my people and your God is my God". It demonstrates that the first emphasis is the peoplehood because it is of greater importance than the "religious" attribute.

According to Rabbi Glasner's opinion, the statement that somebody is part of the Jewish religion and belongs to another people-nation is a total which is a total rejection of God: atheism.

Rabbi Glasner said in 1920 that the Hungarian Orthodoxy's attitude would remain a disgraceful stigma on orthodoxy in Jewish history.

Subsequently, with sincerity unknown in Torah-circles and with the true courage and authority based upon the bible, on his vast knowledge of the Talmud, he rejected all such "religion-threatening dangers", for the avoidance of which the Jews should voluntarily give up the aim to establish their ethnic-national life.

The Torah does not demand such an unnatural suicidal act. Everything can be sacrificed on the altar of the Torah - but not the people of Israel.

We are a people with all the aspiration of a people in our own country, having our language and national normalcy. If we give up our national existence, then we cease to exist as a religion, pointed out Rabbi Glasner convincingly.


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The philosophical approach of Dr. Lipót Kecskeméti, the chief rabbi of the neolog congregation of Oradea-Nagyvárad, a well-known opponent of the . . political Zionist movement, is discussed in his paper on Zionism and in his . . i k "National Jewry or Religious Jewry".

This is one of the many publications written by Dr. Kecskeméti in his exceptionally unique style of writing.[8])

His well-known Hungarian-nationalist perception is evident in his papers. This may explain his anti-Zionist behavior.

As he stated:

"... we never felt that we are part of the Jewish nation; what is national sentiment and political illusion in our souls, - all belong to the Hungarians ..." He continued:

"... until the history of nations is written with swords, we would like to see the sword of power in the hands of the Hungarians. And when the time has come culture will become the only weapon of the competing nations, our dream, our historic radiance will become the elevated moral and mental virtue of Hungarians; this is how we feel; this is what we are".

It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine on behalf of which "Hungarians Jewish masses" of Dr. Kecskeméti is speaking on behalf of which

He himself wrote:

"we are aliens who are being questioned: why are you here? Who is your relative in race? You don't even deserve the place for a grave in our soil. You boast of being the faithful son of each nation; you are not believed you are being laughed at, you are being pushed aside. You seek, you beg, but you are not wanted".

"we reject Zionism not because we feel good in this country; we refuse it even if we are the orphans of that nation; as we arc faithful sons even when the mother pushed us away."

"We reject it because of the present state of our souls, of our feelings since we are not sons of a Jewish nation, but are sons of Hungary ..."[9])

But in his reasoning - deliberately or not - Dr. Kecskeméti challenged reality, nature and common sense with pure theoretical thinking that be-longs to the world of idealism.

On his spiritual planet he gathers monotheism and ethical idealism around the abstract notion of "religion" as if the Jews would have had the historic role of a sacred mission; as if the Jews would have been the only one chosen missionaries, the eternal martyrs who voluntarily accepted being sacrificed.

"... If Israel must fall, let it fall as a religion, in the most noble duel ... and let it not disintegrate into its grave as a miserably sick, wretched nation ..."

With moral monotheism Israel cannot organize itself into a separate nation.

"Zionism is a disaster for monotheism ..."

Zionism – in Dr. Kecskeméti's opinion – does not require "moral elevation, religious and moral theories. A Jewish nation would be of little use both to God and to Mankind, but as a religion it can be preserved as a universal moral necessity.[10])

It is a paradoxical situation: Dr. Kecskeméti is regarded both by the anti-Zionists and by the religious Zionists as an assimilated man who protected religion from Zionism.

But the picture wouldn't be complete if we would not mention that Kecskeméti struggled with that problem.

We can detect that in the same article by Dr. Kecskeméti:

"I am not a believer of [Zionism] but it forces me to think about it. According to my knowledge, Zionism in the life of Israel is the beginning of the end. The idea itself is breathtaking, maybe truth is in it and nothing remains only that last trial. We should not and cannot deal with Zionism in a shortsighted manner, by using sentimental language because it was not created by irrational caprice but by philosophy of historic powers".

That was a daring confession by a neolog rabbi, in the most Hungarian minded Jewish community in Transylvania.

"An incredible movement, stunning and bizarre, naive and fearless and dangerous too, since it carries the testament of Jews and the denunciation of Mankind's general attitude; - on the other hand, it is miraculous because even though in itself it can be a historical blunder in its effects one may find the truth of moral and formal beauty. Thus for this positive effect even those can praise Zionism who are not followers of it, in which case we can witness the souls' admiration of Jewish sentiment, and not due to invariable humiliation and hatred, but by free and daring souls touched by universal culture; it has provoked poets and painters to perform aesthetic miracles in which substances of the Jewish renaissance under preparation were detect-able".

"The shame of many thousand years will disappear from the life of Israel when it will once again be what it used to be and what it should be -a nation".

According to Monism – as Dr Kecskeméti commented - the Jews gave up their ancient rights for something new, which they never managed to get hold of; it wanted to be a religion although it always was a nation, and is today too; - but in our days (early 20th century) it is a nation without a home; an unworthy historic situation; therefore, let them look for their natural rights; for a homeland of their own; and if possible may this be that ancient, that sacred, that- it �(Admat Kodesh).

He even admits that if the People of Israel wants to survive - it must become a nation.

But at the same time he warned; "It would be unfortunate if the country would become a religious state, and the religion would become a state-religion.

Religion has no place in the political deliberation".

Though he asserts that the religion of the Jews is the undivided universal moral world-outlook, in which religion is morality. Religion in the Jewish spirit must be understood; the religion of the Jews is moral monotheism, which in its final form will not need dogmas or liturgy.

"We are and will remain a religion".[11])

So we are not a race, states the splendid study of the self-duelling Dr.

Lipót Kecskeméti.

He became more receptive to Zionism during the final years of his life. A colleague of his asked him to stand up on the pulpit and tell his congregants of the change in his political attitude (concerning the future of the Jews and Jewish nation). His answer was: "unfortunately, I can't step with my own legs on my neck!"[12])

Dr. János Rónai and Rabbi Moshe Glasner foresaw the future, Dr. Lipót Kecskeméti has used only one of his eyes to determine the practical position of the Jews – and in this he was not alone.

[1] Zionist Thought, Essays and Basic Writing. Edited by Zwi Barmeim, Jerusalem, pp. 32, 41–45.

[2] Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State. Translated by Flatly Zohn.

[3] Maria Schmidt, Collaboration or Cooperation? Budapest, 1990. P 346 347: Victor Istóczy, Die Wiederherstellung des jüdischen Staates in Palestina. Budapest, 1905; Nathaniel Katzburg, Antisemitism in Hungary, 1867-1914. Tel-Aviv. 1969. P. 73

[4] Rónai. Zion und Ungarn. Balázsfalva, 1897.

[5] Ibid., pp. 9-10.

[6] Ibid., p. 29.

[7] Moshe Shmucl Glasner. Der Zionismusnismus und   seine Nebenerscheinungen im Lichte der Religion. (Cluj-Kolozsvár, 1920) p. l. 

[8] Lipót Kecskeméti, Cionizmus (Zionism). In: The Annual of the Jewish Hungarian Literary Association (Budapest, 1908), pp. 221-239: Id., Nemzeti zsidóság vagy vallási zsidóság. Nagyvárad, 1922.

[9] L. Kecskeméti, Cionizmus, pp. 228, 237.

[10] Ibid. 237–238.

[11] Ibid , pp. 221-224, 228-231, 23n.

[12] Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger, Memorial Book for the Jews of Cluj-Kolozsvár. 2nd ed. NewYork, 1988. p. 205.