December 6, 1867
Leo Motzkin was born in present-day Brovary, Ukraine in 1867 and was raised in a traditional Jewish household. Motzkin became interested in the Zionist cause after witnessing the 1881 pogrom in Kiev. He joined the Russian-Jewish Academic Society at his university in Berlin, which consisted of other Jewish students dedicated to Hibbat Zion (Love of Zion). This group became a key forerunner of political Zionism. Its members actively debated other Jewish students on Zionist ideologies and means for settlement in Palestine. Following the completion of his studies, Motzkin chose Zionism as his life’s work, rather than pursue a career in the sciences.
At The First Zionist Congress, which he attended at the age of 30, Motzkin established himself as an outspoken advocate for the Basel Program for establishing a Jewish state; he advocated for diplomatic relations with the then-occupying government of Palestine, the Ottoman Empire. Following the Congress in 1897, Theodor Herzl sent Motzkin to Palestine on a fact finding mission. He returned with a critical opinion of the Hibbat Zion (Love of Zion) movement, because he adamantly opposed the mass-settlement and land purchasing program set into motion by the French philanthropist, Baron de Rothschild.
Motzkin was an advocate for the rights of Russian Jewry and the promotion of their self-defense. At the request of the Zionist Organization, he wrote a book about the wave of pogroms and Jewish suffering in Russia which was published in 1909 and 1910. He was somewhat unique in that he demanded that Zionists also concern themselves with the civil rights and treatment of Jews in the Diaspora. He served as the Chairman of the Zionist Executive from 1925-1933.
Motzkin spent the latter part of his life focused on protecting the political and economic freedom of German Jews who were enduring Nazism. He passed away in 1933.
Photo Credit: leo Motzkin’s participant card from the First Zionist Congress