Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siècle Europe

Here are some highlights from this 1994 book:

* In Germany, for example, Jews went from being called and calling themselves Jews in the eighteenth century, to Israelites in the nineteenth, to German Citizens of the Mosaic Faith into the twentieth.

* In his justly famous Essay on the Physical, Moral, and Political Regeneration of the Jews (1788), the pro-emancipationist Abbe Gregoire argued that Jews possessed a number of unique characteristics that set them off from other Europeans. For example, despite his adherence to the Enlightenment concept that the environment has the power to change people, he believed this was not really the case with the Jews: “Climate has scarcely any effect on them, because their manner of life counteracts and weakens its influence. Difference of periods and country, has, therefore, often strengthened their character, instead of altering its original traits. In vain has their genius been fettered; it has never changed; and perhaps there is more resemblance between the Jews of Ethiopia and those of England, than between the inhabitants of Picardy and those of Provence.”

Citing Shaftesbury’s Characteristics (1711), Gregoire noted that the Jews appeared “naturally gloomy and melancholy.” On the basis of a report… Gregoire was assured that “the Jews in general had sallow complexions, hooked noses, hollow eyes, prominent chins, and that the constrictory muscles of the mouth were very apparent. There were sexual charges as well. The Jews were concupiscent because of the accumulation of many acrimonious particles in the mass of humours contained in their bodies. Moreover, Jewish women “would be very subject to nymphomania, did they not long pine in a state of celibacy,” and Jewish males were chronic masturbators.

* Cosmopolitan ideas of universal brotherhood and inherent equality had gone out of vogue, replaced by a biological determinism that saw differences in bodily forms as the key to the unfolding of human history.

* Despite great variations of interpretation about the meaning of such biological differences, few questioned the legitimacy of such distinctions.

* “Science? That is what one Jew cribs from another.” (Mayor Karl Lueger)

* [Gustav] Klemm posited that the active races were masculine, thriving in cold climates, while the passive ones, residing in warm climates, were effeminate.

* …it was the mathematization of physical anthropology that assisted in the development of scientific racism and the reaffirmation of preexistent prejudices. For example, numbers that indicated lower brain weights or smaller cranial dimensions were cited as proof…

* The kind of threat the Jews posed [to Germany] varied according to the ideologies of the different power groups in society… To nationalists, Jews still formed a state with a state and therefore were a potentially traitorous enemy. To groups touting a volkisch ideology, lamenting the rapid and unprecedented changes that Germany was undergoing due to unification and industrialization, the Jews were charged with being responsible for…those changes. To many on the left, the Jew represented the interests of capital and therefore, exploitation. Conversely, the Jews were often denounced as the bearers of socialism, and promoters of revolution.

* Although they classified Jews as members of the white race, German medicine and anthropology also isolated Jews and referred to them as a group apart, thus reflecting the Jews’ dual position of being German but not being fully part of German society.

* Fritz Lens: “Jews do not transform themselves into Germans by writing books on Goethe.”

* Until the end of the nineteenth century, German anthropology unanimously regarded the Jews as racially pure.

* Lord Acton: “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.”

* If England can be said to have had an antisemitic tradition, it is most clear in the image of the Jew in English literature. From Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale and Shakespeare’s Shylock to Rebecca in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Dicken’s Fagin, the Jew had been presented as an alien figure consumed by vengefulness, miserliness, and avarice.

* Nationalities, empires, and monarchies are plastic and ephemeral, “human contrivances often held together by fraud and violence.” Races, however, are stable and permanent. Any people can become members of a nation and display its national character, but they can never…become members of a race… This type of thinking was rare among German and French race scientists who hardly distinguished between race and nationality.

* [Joseph] Jacobs gave as the historical reasons for the prevalence of first-cousin marriage among Jews the absence of theological prescriptions against the practice (such as obtained in the Catholic church), “the existence of small communities scattered about, the rare communion between the sexes, and, above all, the absence of any ideal of pre-nuptial love.” He adduced several other reasons for its prevalence in England, whose room lay in the particular historical conditions under which English Jewry lived. These were the absence of a shadkhan (marriage broker), who would have brought people together from different parts of the country, the relative wealth of English Jews, which led the wealthier families to marry among themselves; and the practice of what he termed “shoolism” or limiting one’s circle of friends and acquaintances to one’s own synagogue.

* “The Jewish poor have never been a burden to the general population but have been entirely supported by the Jews themselves.”

* “Jews do not lead “dangerous” lives in the insurance sense (sailors, soldiers, firemen, miners, etc.). The trades which they do exercise, except that of tailoring, seem more long-lived. Further, the Jewish nature does not seem to require stimulants, and Jews are markedly free from alcoholism. The tranquilising effects of Jewish family life, the joyous tone and complete rest of the Sabbath and other festivals, the unworrying character of the Jewish religion, are all important in the difficult art of keeping alive. The greater care taken of Jewish women, who
more rarely take to manual labour, aids also in producing good results in the tables of mortality. I attribute much importance, too, to the strict regulation of the connubial relations current among Jews.”

* Samuel Weissenberg took pride in East European Jewry’s “high sense of family,” the extraordinarily low rate of illegitimate births, the minimal amount of sexually transmitted diseases, the low infant mortality rate, the moderate alcohol intake, and the apparent immunity to many infectious diseases, but asserted that none of this was due to any particular racial qualities. These features were not so apparent in the less traditional Jewish communities of Western Europe. This was proof, for Weissenberg, that any biological benefits the Jews might have enjoyed were solely founded in their religion.

* For the Zionists, Jewish life in Germany (and eventually the entire Diaspora) was threatened not only by the hostile mob but also by the prospects of “race suicide.”

* A significant proportion of German Jews by WWI had “gone beyond Judaism.”

* German socialist leader Karl Kautsky: “There is rising within Judaism, as a reaction against anti-Semitism, a similar tendency to accept and use the theory of race. It is a natural application of the principle: If this theory permits Christian-Teutonic patriots to declare themselves demi-gods, why should Zionist patriots not use it in order to stamp the people chosen by God as a chosen race of nature, a noble race that must be carefully guarded from any deterioration and contamination by foreign elements?”

* For many Zionists who redefined Jewishness in nationalistic terms, the concept of race was an alluring device.

* At the turn of the century, Europeans of all political and cultural backgrounds believed in the concept of race.

* …a Jewish racial instinct whose effectiveness had ensured racial exclusiveness and therefore Jewish racial purity, was reminiscent of much of the German volkisch literature being disseminated by nationalist (and often antisemitic) groups.

* the campaign of Jewish doctors such as [Felix] Theilhaber and [Magnus] Hirschfeld for the rights of homosexuals and women as well as those suffering from venereal diseases — all groups who at the turn of the century were labeled as outsiders — was related to their Jewishness. These men also felt themselves to be outsiders — professionally, because as Jews they were pushed to the periphery of medical science, and individually, Theilhaber because of his Jewishness, Hirschfield because of that and his declared homosexuality.

* Theilhaber maintained that the Jews of Germany were confronted with the inexorability of their own demise due to “low fertility, conversion, intermarriage, the increase in celibacy, venereal diseases, mental illnesses, the movement from the country to the big cities, and the entrance into free and commercial professions at the expense of artisanal work.”

* When involved in criminal activity [in 19th Century Germany], Jews were generally found to be most frequently guilty of non-violent crimes such as defamation, embezzlement, the receipt of stolen property, perjury, and the forgery of documents.

* Zionist race scientists would not, indeed could not, be too harsh on their people’s past, especially its biological past. This meant perforce that they would take a decidedly environmentalist view. If a Jewish anthropologist had detected a “flaw” in the race and had been a biological determinist, then what was the point to the entire Zionist enterprise?

* The origins of modern racial thinking are to be found in the eighteenth century. Continuing encounters between Europeans and aboriginals, colonialism, and the slave trade served to diminish the avowed Enlightenment commitment to human equality.

* …in the United States [after WWI], the rejection of scientific racism proceeded more slowly [than in Britain].

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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