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Feb. 20, 2024-11 adar 5784

02/19/2024 02:58:47 PM


As international tensions mount, and pressure on Israel increases to stop the quest to end the rule of terror that is Hamas in Gaza, Friday’s news of the untimely death of leading Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny came as a personal gut punch. Isolated in a remote Russian prison with many restrictions, a survivor through the past years of attempts to suppress his message and movement, of harsh conditions and baseless accusations—even a nerve gas poisoning—in the end, Navalny has joined the lengthening list of Putin opponents who have died in unpredictable ways.

We might ask whether the death was ordered, of natural cause due to deprivation (which is, of course hardly natural, rather more passively aggressive), I cannot but observe that Vladimir Putin has blood on his hands. 

There is no direct Jewish connection to Navalny—born not far from Chornobyl, raised closer to Kyiv (in the Ukrainian spelling, Kiev in English following the Russian—that choice is yours). He was not Jewish. His cause—equity, justice, ending corruption—touches on essential Jewish contributions to modern efforts at a society that is international, reflects humanistic values, and seeks to end aggressive wars. 

Through the past weekend, my thoughts drifted to a now-forgotten but highly significant 20th-century figure—German Jewish mathematician Emil Julius Gumbel (1891/Munich-1966/New York). Gumbel, from his haute-bourgeois Jewish origins in 1890s Munich, on to years in Berlin as a student of Albert Einstein, developed mathematical theories dealing with limits, extremes, and the use of statistical evidence to demonstrate practical, actual problems. One field he touched on was flood danger, leading to a role of his theoretical work in the construction of the Netherlands' great dam, the Afsluitsdyk (pictured below cf. Afsluitdijk - Wikipedia).

I first encountered Gumbel’s name long after his death (1966) through the major collection of his literary estate at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York [it is now available online: Collection: Emil J. Gumbel Collection | The Center for Jewish History ArchivesSpace (]. 

Beginning in 1921, Gumbel published a series of statistical analyses of political assassinations in Weimar Germany, updating every few years as his academic career brought him to the faculty in Heidelberg. Those were stormy years, as Germany foundered badly after WW1, the USSR put down the roots that led to Stalinism, and the failed Marxist policies. At the same time, political movements of the extremes thrived—with the peculiarities of the Weimar Republic Constitution over-providing opportunities to minority parties via proportional representation. Socialist, Communist, Conservative and the anomalous NSDaP—the Nazis—took shape. The party of Hitler, coopting National-Socialism-German-Workers into a party was singularly deceptive—it was none of the above—and driven by the charismatic, increasingly maniacal Austrian, whose later path [1933-1945] destroyed everything in its path.

The core of Gumbel’s presentation was this statistic: 

“He is best known for his book Four Years of Political Murder, first published in 1922. In it, he used a comparative analysis of the statistical surveys to prove the political right-wing bias of the judiciary in Germany during the Weimar Republic between 1919 and 1922 by comparing the sentences in politically motivated murders by right-wing and left-wing perpetrators and thus came to the conclusion that the 354 perpetrators from the anti-republican right-wing spectrum, if at all, they tended to be spared with extremely lenient sentences, whereas the 22 perpetrators from the spectrum of the political left were sentenced to disproportionately harsh sentences.” [Emil Julius Gumbel – Wikipedia, translated via website]

Assassinations were all too regular in the Weimar Republic. Gumbel continued the publication of data that was confirmed but not published by the relevant government offices. The result was increasing unpopularity for the professor, who ultimately lost academic position, personal safety, citizenship, and homeland. In 1932, Gumbel fled to France; in 1940 he made his way to the United States—all the while continuing his important theoretical work, publication, and teaching. I recall reading his statement thanking the Nazis for singling him out early…as it saved his life [I don’t have current access to the source].

Is this but an excursion into arcane ideas? I hope not, as I sketch the landscape that connects this German-Jewish refugee to the patriotic depth of Aleksei Navalny. The extreme punishment, the previous attempt to assassinate him, and the misuse of government power for personal politics are in such danger of becoming normalized, that I would nominate Navalny as one of the just. He leaves a legacy for democracy, for values that have deep meaning for me.

And as to courts of justice and the annals of judicial [in]equity, in any nation that hopes in success yet to be achieved, my belief should be clear [hundreds of thousands of Israelis march regularly with this goal in mind]: just courts are outside political discourse and using them for personal gain is a journey into venality from which personal recovery is exceedingly difficult.

There are so many paths. Their paving stones are the balance that is justice.

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784