The History of Race, the Race of History
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The History of Race, the Race of History
Mitchell B. Hart, editor. Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference, 1880–1940. Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry Series. Brandeis Library of Modern Jewish Thought. Waltham, Mass., Brandeis University Press, 2011. Pp. xxxix + 281.
Iris Idelson-Shein. Difference of a Different Kind: Jewish Constructions of Race during the Long Eighteenth Century. Jewish Cultures and Contexts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. 267.
Eliza Slavet. Racial Fever: Freud and the Jewish Question. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009. Pp. xiii + 300.

It seems only right to oppose history to race, to historicize where some had wanted to racialize. Was there—prior to the twentieth century—a more virulent form of “negationism” (as the French would come to call it) than that which sought to confine entire populations to history, extracting history out of them, making them into stagnant or unchanging races, before erasing them from history altogether?

It also seems right to point out that Jews have not only been among “the primary victims of racialist or racist thought” (Idelson-Shein, p. 3) but that “Jewish scholars and writers [have been] actively engaged in debates over the racial history and identity of the Jews” (Hart, p. xvii): Jews have taken part in the history of race and of racism. Indeed, the juxtaposition of these terms (Jews, race, history) carries an aura of inevitability, even of necessity. Their entanglement is, at the very least, such that we could hardly speak of one without recalling, wondering about, or considering the others. We might argue, for example, that the Jewish contribution to history is, if not quite the writing of history, at least the notion of a historical revelation, even the emergence of historical consciousness.1 [End Page 515] We could also signal, as Carlo Ginzburg has, “the conception of historical truth that remains—and here I deliberately use an all-embracing term—our own,” thus pointing to the central, and centrally ambivalent, place of the Jews in the (Christian and modern) construction of history.2 From the other end of that triune conceptual scheme, we might reflect on the particular function of the Jews in the emergence, and perdurance, of the category of race, or the role attributed to Jews in the invention of “blood purity” or “racial superiority” (the election-envy of the master race, in Steven Spielberg’s popular rendering, the “collapse” of race and genealogy in Eliza Slavet’s).3 We could mention Aryans and Semites—the latter persisting in different circles from the former— and think finally of other examples from nineteenth-century France, England, and Germany (as both Hart and Idelson-Shein document) or from contemporary Israel, whether with regard to “the return to history,” or to Mizrahi or Ethiopian Jews, or, obviously, with regard to Palestinians.4

Jews, race, history. We, here, now (Hegel would translate). Whether meant to restore agency or to explore the complexities of acculturation (or, more accurately I think, Christianization), studying the evolving connections between these terms as Mitchell Hart has done for some time now, and as Eliza Slavet and Iris Idelson-Shein propose anew, is therefore more than commendable, it is unavoidable. The enduring rift between Jewish studies and race (or ethnic) studies would otherwise [End Page 516] continue unabated. Still, there are difficulties. Let me call them, here and now, historical difficulties.

First there is the matter of the relation of race thinking to history. If history is a counter to race (as Maurice Olender persuasively argued), it is because race first emerges as a counter to history.5 Modern historical consciousness, whether one traces it to Giambattista Vico or to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi dates his professional “lineage” as a Jewish historian to the “second decade of the nineteenth century” and to the work of Jacques Basnage, a contemporary of Vico),6 is articulated against the nonhistorical, the savage, or the arrested. Arguments over the humanity of the “Indians,” such as famously articulated by Bartolomeo de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, recast the “obstinacy” of the Jews while announcing the familiar opposition of religion and race...