Before 1919, Jews in Romania had no civil rights.
Before 1919, Jews in Romania had no civil rights, because Article 7 in the 1866 Constitution provided that only Christian Orthodox people could be Romanian citizens. In the meantime, many Jews contributed to Romanian economy, culture, and the arts, and fought in the 1877 -1878 War of Independence and in WWI.
In 1919, in the aftermath of the Great War, Jews from the former Kingdom of Romania gained the right to be citizens of the newly formed Greater Romania. International peace treaties forced Romania to recognize the rights of the national minorities that had become part of it, along with the new territories with a majority Romanian population. Romanian legislation passed in 1919 brought the country in line with international realities, after decades of struggle for civil rights by Jewish organizations.
100 years after the restoration of civil rights for Jewish Romanians, historian Lya Benjamin spoke to us about this event. This is not only a story about the Jews of Romania, but of Romania itself a century ago: “The political history of Jews in the Romanian context, the history of the struggle for civil rights, starts in 1857, when, right before the union of 1859, a number of political events occurred. The initiator of the struggle was Iuliu Barasch, who wrote of memorandum submitted in 1857 to crown prince Ghica. It was a list of demands for rights, saying that quote 'we expect equality of rights enjoyed by the largest part of the people who share our religion across Europe'. This claim was addressed only after WWI, with plenty of hesitation and not a lack of restrictions.”
Romania before 1918 was a primarily rural society, like most states in Central and Eastern Europe, and a xenophobic society along with that. Romanian anti-Semitism was part of a general European attitude. In spite of intense campaigns for raising awareness among politicians and within society at large, the legal status of Jews remained unchanged until the spring of 1918, when Romania, a defeated country, signed the Treaty of Bucharest.
Here is Lya Benjamin: “The peace treaty of April 24, 1918, was a milestone on the long road to having civil and political rights granted to Jews in Romania. The German side demanded that the peace treaty included, among other things, a special article granting rights for minorities, and also another article, article 28, specifically about Jews. The article stated that differences of a religious nature cannot have any influence on civil status, especially on political rights. That same treaty dictated that a law should be passed according to which all those who did not have 'foreign allegiance' and who had taken part in Romania's wars, who had been born here out of parents also born here, should be granted citizenship and rights equal to those of Romanians.”
The first step, therefore, was made right before the end of WWI. The Conservative government led by Alexandru Marghiloman was trying to enforce the treaty, but faced strong opposition, as Lya Benjamin told us: “This provision in the peace treaty between Romania and Germany, according to some suppositions, was introduced upon demand from the Jewish community in Germany. In the spirit of the treaty, in the summer of 1918, the Marghiloman law was passed, which included a number of measures to provide citizenship to Jewish people. However, the measures were fairly restrictive and fairly complicated. The main Jewish organization in the country protested in Parliament on July 25, 1918, saying that the law was in violation of the peace treaty. The text of the law was vague, and did not contain the word Jew. The head of the Jewish Union, Wilhelm Filderman, along with the rest of the organization, believed that the law was inoperable, impossible to apply.”
The autumn of 1918 brought major changes to Romanian life, which suddenly turned from a defeated country to a victorious one. Alexandru Marghiloman, who was now branded a traitor, resigned in November 1918, and was replaced by his rival Ionel Bratianu, and the Marghiloman law got the axe too. The law passed by Bratianu was not Jewish friendly either, demanding that they go through a long chain of formalities in order to gain Romanian citizenship. The situation was now absurd: Jews from Bessarabia, Banat, Bukovina, and Transylvania had been granted Romanian citizenship automatically, but not the 270,000 Jews in the Old Kingdom that had completely integrated into Romanian society.
Jewish organizations demanded that the Jews in the Old Kingdom be granted citizenship simply by a signed statement that they had been born in Romania, and that they held no other citizenship. In the end, Bratianu conceded, as Lya Benjamin told us: “Under the pressure of these protests, Bratianu, who was abroad in the spring of 1919, sent home the text of a new citizenship law, which, in Filderman's opinion, was generally in line with his option, as he notes in his diary. That was because it was the first law that in fact granted citizenship based on a statement signed by the applicant. It was listed in the Official Journal of Parliament on May 28, 1919.”
However, that law did not ultimately provide security for Jewish Romanians. In 1938, a law rewriting the rules for citizenship struck mostly the Jews, paving the road to the Holocaust.