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The National Karaite Movement - Firkovich, Abraham

Abraham Firkovich was the central figure of the Karaite National Movement in nineteenth century Russia and the most important collector of Karaite manuscripts. He was born in Lutsk, Poland, but was active mainly in the Crimea. Such local leaders sponsored him as Simha Babovich, who took him in 1830 on a visit to the Holy Land. Firkovich collected in Jerusalem, Hebron and Cairo numerous old manuscripts. In the years 1831 ­ 1832 he transferred his collecting activity to Istanbul, and 1839 ­ 1840 to the Crimea (especially Chufut­Kale, which was being left by its Karaite inhabitants). Further he copied old Karaite tombstone inscriptions in the Crimea and Caucasus, many of which he published in his "Avnei Zikkaron" (1872). In 1863 - 15 he returned to Palestine and Egypt and obtained, now that he was old, experienced and wealthy, perhaps the most important part of his vast collection of over 15,000 manuscripts.

His discoveries stimulated wide interest. S. Pinsker based his "Likkutei Kadmoniyot" mainly on material supplied by him. H.Graetz and J. First, too, used it uncritically. Firkovich's thesis was that the forefathers of the Karaites had come to the Crimea in the seventh century BCE and thus could not have been involved in the crucifixion of Jesus. Nor had they any connection with the preparation of the Talmud. He believed the Khazars to have been Karaites. His views were obviously politically motivated and were intended to give a "scientific" underpinning to the Karaite National Movement. When in 1839 the governor ­ general of the Crimea, Voronzow, addressed six basic questions on the origins of the Karaites to Babovich, Firkovich was commissioned to answer them. The Karaite leadership used his opinions and writings also otherwise in its endeavors to distance itself from Judaism and receive full civil rights for all Karaites from the Russian authorities.

Firkovich often came into direct confrontation with the Rabbanites. In 1825 he submitted a memorandum to the Russian authorities, suggesting that the Jews should be removed from the border areas in Russia's west, in order to prevent them from smuggling. His suggestion was, that they should engage in agriculture instead. The memorandum had no effect, but its sentiments did not endear Firkovich to his Rabbanite contemporaries. A Hassidic teacher, who accused him of being an ignoramus and heretic, thus accosted him once, publicly, in Berdichev. In reply Firkovich composed his biting "Masa Merivah". In another polemic book, "Sela ha­Mahloket" (1834), he turns, in rhymes, against the Hassidim.

Most later scholars did however not hold these attacks against him. What they would not forgive, were the numerous changes and outright falsifications, especially of dates, in colophons, or on tombstones, included in his scientific work and in the publications of the Gozlow press when he was in charge of it, in order to make the Karaite community of the Crimea appear much older than it was. Such scholars as H. Strack, A. Harkavy and P.F. Frankl demonstrated soon after his death, that his publications abounded in such forgeries. There is now, however, a revisionist trend (Z. Ankold, T. Harviainen, V.L. Vikhnovich) which explains that modern western standards of scholarship were unknown to Firkovich and to his type of oriental manuscript collectors. He is still
vigorously defended by the present day Karaites of the Crimea. Some of the original accusations against him have proved unfounded, as, for instance, when the "Mandeglis Document" used by him, which disappeared later, was recently rediscovered. Even some of his claims as to Jewish­Khazar influences in tenth century Crimea and elsewhere, sound nowadays less outlandish than a century ago. Mainly, however, the academic community finds itself deeply in Firkovich's debt, because of the unique collection of manuscripts that he has bequeathed to it.