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Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity (Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture).Pre-Nazi Essentialist, and Even Racial, Views of Jews Held by Jews Themselves

jan peczkis|Thursday, July 28, 2016

Pre-Nazi Essentialist, and Even Racial, Views of Jews Held by Jews Themselves The author, Hart, identifies himself as Jewish. (p. viii). By way of introduction, "As we shall see, just how to classify the Jews--as a religion, race, nation, VOLK--remained open to debate well into the twentieth century." (p. 7). It is a mistake to think of "Jews as a race" thinking as only a product of the Nazis. In addition, such beliefs were hardly limited to anti-Semites and political rightists among gentiles (p. 25, 175), as commonly supposed. In fact, such beliefs were widely held, in academia, as recently as the 1910's and 1920's. (p. 295).

In the several decades preceding WWII, Jewish social scientists also had divergent opinions on what Jewishness entailed. Some believed that Jewish thought and behavior were solely the products of environmental and historical causes, while others considered them innate to Jews in some way, and immutable to varying degrees. The essentialist view of Jews was a systematic way of thinking of some Jewish scholars, and not merely a mirror image to pejorative anti-Semitic opinions of Jews. (p. 14). Some of the Jewish thinkers I mention in this review include German Jewish writer Moses Hess, Polish Jewish anthropologist J. M. Judt, and German Jewish Zionist Arthur Ruppin.

Concepts of "Jews as a race" did not necessarily entail the premise that races are pure, or immutable over prolonged periods. (pp. 184-185). Thus, for example, anthropologist Judt believed that Jews had a clearly identifiable "social and racial particularity", one that had crystallized long ago (during the racial mixing of ancient times in the Middle East), but which had not significantly changed since then. (p. 89).

Arthur Ruppin also contended that Jews had retained a high degree of racial unity (not racial purity), which is demonstrated by a continuity of physical and moral characteristics. (p. 189). He also suggested that Jewish conversions to other religions could best be prevented, not by emphasizing Jewish religion, but by making Jews aware of their value as a VOLKSGEMEINSCHAFT, what they had contributed and achieved in terms of human culture, and "`what they signify as a race'". (p. 268). Ruppin also believed that alcoholism (as well as proneness to brutality and violence) was a racial, hereditary trait of Christians. Jews, in turn, were more prone to fraud because of their racially based "greater cunning". (p. 136). Taking this reasoning further, Ruppin contended that the Jews' talent for trade and commerce was not racial itself, but instead followed from racially based Jewish intelligence--the same cause for the relative abundance of Jewish chess players, writers, and white-collar criminals. (p. 207).

Essentialist or racialist views of Jewishness had obvious significance for Zionism. As early as 1862, German Jew Moses Hess wrote of Jews along the following lines summarized by author Hart, (quote) If, as Zionism claimed, Jews were united by more than a common faith, and yet lacked many of the attributes associated with nationhood--common territory, language, manners and customs--then on what basis could the Jews be said to constitute a VOLK? Jewish racial unity and particularity provided scientific proof for Zionist claims that despite apparent differences between Jews around the world, they nonetheless constituted a people or nation. In other words, geographic disunity was transcended, and temporal unity established through the social science narrative. (unquote)(p. 182).

Belief in Jewish essentialism also had obvious anti-assimilationist significance. Hart elaborates on Moses Hess as follows, (quote) And the Jew, on the other hand, fools himself into believing he can alter his appearance, thereby transforming himself into what he most wishes to be--a German...According to Hess, it was this Jewish racial particularity, and the hatred it elicited among Germans, that rendered false the liberal promise of integration. (unquote)(p. 183).

Even during (and after) the Nazi era, some quasi-racial views of Jews remained current. However, the reader should note that "Jews as a race" thinking should not be confused with the biological determinism advocated by the Nazis. (p. 230). For instance, in 1940, Arthur Ruppin still wrote of the "racial differences of mentality" between Jews and non-Jews. (p. 230).

Although not mentioned, this work clarifies the Endek (Polish National Democrat) attitudes towards Jews. Even though Endeks recognized the fact that Jews can become patriotic Poles, they were generally skeptical of the premise that assimilation would systematically make Poles out of Jews. The resulting criticism commonly directed at Endeks is misplaced. It turns out that the much-condemned Endek belief in Jewish essentialism, apart from the fact of being relatively mild and non-racial, was widely held at the time--ironically by some educated Jews themselves.
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