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Is the Jew White?: The Racial Place of the Southern Jew
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Is the Jew White?:
The Racial Place of the Southern Jew

In 1910 the Dixie Publishing Company of Moravian Falls, North Carolina, published The Jew a Negro, Being A Study of the Jewish Ancestry from an Impartial Standpoint by the Rev. Arthur T. Abernethy, A.M., Ph.D. Abernethy—a preacher, professor, and rustic journalist—sought to demonstrate through “ethnology” and “Scriptural proofs” how “the Jew of to-day, as well as his ancestors in other times, is the kinsman and descendant of the Negro.” 1

Behind The Jew a Negro lay a century of transatlantic speculation on the racial status of the Jew. In the American South the problem of the Jew’s racial identity was a footnote to the larger debate on white-black relations, a question pushed forward in the racially unsettled period between 1850 to 1915. Jews were accepted as white, but their precise racial place was not fixed. A long tradition of European folklore, reinforced by an emerging racial science, cast the Jew on the black side of the color line. Southern racial ideology was not distinctly regional but borrowed from the international debate. Ideologies born in the salons of European intellectuals and the academies of New England professors found their way into the sermons of backwoods Southern preachers like Abernethy. Such a work as The Jew a Negro is representative of texts that transmitted cosmopolitan racial ideologies into Southern popular culture.

Jews were a racial tabula rasa upon which anything could be written. Over the course of the nineteenth century, nationalists split races into increasingly discriminating categories. Whether racial theorists defined Jews as Semites or—as became more common later in the century—Orientals, the Jews’ status as Europeans was questioned. The Jews’ color was described variously as white, black, or mixed. The anthropological status of the Jews refiected their social standing. In the American South after Reconstruction, a new social line between Jew and white gentile followed the disengagement of white and black. This separation occurred at a time when the Jews’ color was being questioned. The [End Page 195] immigration of millions of “swarthy” East European Jews exacerbated these racial anxieties, although very few settled in the South.

The Jews who came South entered a bipolar racial society. Did Southern race thinking on the black affect the Jew’s social status? What was the place of the Jew in the Southern racial hierarchy? Southerners as Christians inherited a folkloric prejudice, a color symbolism, that attributed virtue to white skin and evil to black. This bias drew on more ancient theologies and folk beliefs that physiology refiects character. A folklore evolved of the Jew as “dark and ugly” in contrast to the fair and handsome gentile. This folk belief, Sander Gilman observes, originated in the Middle Ages. The Jews’ inner depravity as children of Cain or Satan had a physical sign, traditionally rendered as horns, hooked noses, or discolored skin. Jews were thought to exude a peculiar body odor, and their men were said to menstruate. The Jew’s sallow complexion refiected a diseased soul. The liberal Bavarian writer Johan Pezzl in the 1780s compared the Polish Jew to an “Orang-Utan . . . their necks exposed, the color of a Black.” Adam Gurowski, a Polish nobleman visiting America in the 1850s, “took every light-colored mulatto for a Jew.” John Quincy Adams disdained Florida Senator David Levy Yulee for “the dash of African blood in him,” and Confederate statesman Judah Benjamin, olive skinned and black haired, was immortalized as the “dark prince.” 2

The folkloric biases against Jews found reinforcement in the racial science that emerged from the Enlightenment. Proponents of racial science believed race to be more than a criterion of head size and shape, skin color, or hair texture. They argued that race also implied moral, intellectual, and psychological character, the capability to be assimilated into civil society and granted political rights. Natural scientists and racial philosophers like Carolus Linnaeus and Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, promulgated taxonomies that placed the Caucasian on top and the African at the bottom. Race thinkers usually classified race by three colors—white (Caucasian), yellow (Oriental), and black (African)—or by five...