Biography of Leon Pinsker

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Leon Pinsker (1821 - 1891)


     On January 1, 1882, a pamphlet was published in German called “Auto-emancipation” and subtitled “Mahnruf an seine Stammesgenossen von einem Russischen Juden” or “Warning call to the fellows of his community from a Russian Jew.”

     This pamphlet caused a sensation among the Jews who could read it. It had been composed by the Jewish physician Leon Pinsker, who then lived in Odessa in the Ukraine,  although he had been born in Poland.

     Pinsker witnessed one of the Odessa “pogroms,”  a Russian word meaning destruction. These attacks on the Russian Jews occurred sporadically again and again over all the years of the Jewish presence there. There were pogroms in 1821, 1851, 1871, 1881, and 1905.

     The Jewish population lived in Odessa since the eighth century. Odessa is located in the Ukraine, which was a province of Russia at that time but is now an independent dictatorship. The word Ukraine means “frontier.” Odessa at one time had a most prominent Jewish community, where the first Russian Jewish newspaper was published, the first synagogue with a choir was founded, and where the Jewish enlightenment as well as Zionism originated. It was also in Odessa that Hebrew literature underwent a renaissance with the works of Mendele Sephorim, Ahad Haam, Bialik, Klausner and others.

     Pinsker, like most Jews, was a physician. Having seen the murderous rage of the Russian populace against the 180,000 Jews living in his city, he concluded that the Jewish affinity for “humanism” and “liberalism” was a foolish delusion, as it still remains. In “Auto-emancipation,” he explained anti-Jewish attacks as a psychosis, a pathological disorder, and an irrational phobia. He avoided the word “anti-semitism” coined by the German hatemonger Wilhelm Marr in 1873, because that label implies that we are members of a so-called “semitic race” which never existed.

     Pinsker wrote: “…to the living, the Jew is a corpse, to the native a foreigner, to the homeless a vagrant, to the proprietor a beggar, to the poor an exploiter and a millionaire, to the patriot a man without a country, and for all a hated rival.” 

     Pinsker could not have known much about the American Jewish community and so he wrote: “In seeking to fuse with other people they (the Jews) deliberately renounced their own nationality. Yet, nowhere did they succeed in obtaining from their fellow citizens recognition as natives of equal status.”

     Pinsker organized an international conference for the purpose of promoting a national Jewish homeland. That meeting took place in Katowitz, then located in Prussia although now included in Poland. The outcome was the organization of the Hoveve Zion movement, leading to the earliest settlements in Israel on the part of Russian Jews and backed by the baron Edmond de Rothschild.

     In 1890, Pinsker and others established the “Society for the Support of Jewish Farmers and Artisans” in Israel. This group was popularly called “the Odessa Committee.” Unfortunately, numerous factions among the members led to a decline in Jewish immigration to Israel. In addition, the Ottoman Empire discouraged and finally prohibited further Jewish immigration to the Holy Land, which had to wait until 1946.

     Because Pinsker’s Hebrew name was Yehudah, the Israeli town of Nahalal Yehuda is named after him, as are a number of streets in Israeli communities.

     Pinsker may not have foreseen the German atrocities of the 1930’s and 1940’s but he did recognize that the Jews of Europe were doomed. Indeed, in 1941 Germany occupied Odessa and murdered almost all of the 180,000 Jews then living there. Since then, the Jewish community has recovered somewhat, so that at this time there are about 40,000 Jews in a city of 1.2 million.

     The future of the Ukrainian Jews is no better than that of any Jews living in Europe today. Of the 832 million Europeans, only 1.6 million are Jewish. Yet, the old hatred continues. From  Norway to Italy, from the Ukraine to Ireland, anti-Jewish propaganda rants on and on about “Christ killers,” “Jewish capitalists,” “Jewish communists,” etc., etc. There is no future for Jews in any European country, showing that 65 years after the Holocaust nothing has changed and that Pinsker was right.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Criminal Justice System (2010).

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