- Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-siècle Europe
This wonderfully informative volume on Jewish race science will make an especially intriguing contribution to an already burgeoning historical literature demonstrating the embeddedness of science and medicine in culture. The point, indeed, is no longer novel—but the story that John Efron tells is, and it is also complex and absorbing. First, as he insightfully points out, in order to properly understand the Jews’ relationship to host European cultures—and more specifically, to locate their place in European anthropological thought—categories like [End Page 148] “empire” and the “colonized” need to be expanded beyond our commonplace notions that faraway lands and “exotic aborigines” were the only objects of the late-nineteenth-century ethnographic gaze (p. 3). To most European physicians and social scientists engaged in the racial classification that was integral to the emerging discipline of anthropology, the Jews, like native peoples in India, Africa, and the Far East, were “racialized others.”
Efron argues persuasively that, although race scientists generally agreed on the existence of a “Jewish problem,” the meaning of representing Jews as a race apart, the social and political implications of such an approach, and the degree to which it became entangled with anti-Semitism varied from country to country. France’s willingness to accept Jewish emancipation after the Revolution, for example, guaranteed a relatively secure place for French Jews. They were assimilated comparatively quickly and came to be regarded as French, allowing French race scientists to focus, not on Jewish difference, but on that of colonized peoples. Similarly, in England Jews found themselves only occasionally the objects of racialized literature—a reflection, Efron notes, of the reasonably tolerant circumstances under which they lived. Not so, of course, in Germany, where race science, anti-Semitism, and virulent intolerance of difference intertwined to produce tragic consequences.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this book is that it does not primarily treat the scientific racism produced to denigrate Jewish otherness, but rather the race science that Jewish physicians and social thinkers devised to cope with the social, political, psychological, and cultural effects of emancipation and modernity. In this respect Efron’s material is fascinating, suggestive, and detailed. He demonstrates how modern Jewish intellectuals, physicians, and social scientists contributed to a growing body of anthropological and medical literature on Jewish “difference.” For these men, some of whom were passionately committed to Zionism, race science played a central role in Jewish self-definition and national cohesiveness at a time when Jewish communities in Europe were being buffeted about by the complicated effects of migration, assimilation, secularism, anti-Semitism, and rapid political, cultural, and religious transformation. That most accepted and used the concept of race as a scientific given alerts us to the growing power of science in the late nineteenth century, and to the difficulties that those who became its victims had in emancipating themselves from its effects. However, as Efron argues, scientific discourse was not wholly negative: in the hands of Jewish thinkers it became a source of collective pride, reminding us once again of Foucault’s dictum that power, in the form of knowledge and language, is always contested terrain.