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  • Sugar Island Jews? Jewish Colonialism and the Rhetoric of “Civic Improvement” in Eighteenth-Century Germany
  • Jonathan M. Hess (bio)

In March 1782 Johann David Michaelis’s Orientalische und exegetische Bibliothek (Oriental and Exegetical Library) published a rather strange contribution for a journal dealing with questions of biblical exegesis. Written by Michaelis himself, a professor in Göttingen and author of the preeminent late eighteenth-century work on Mosaic law, this essay entered into a heated political debate, the discussion on Jewish emancipation that had been unleashed by Christian Wilhelm Dohm’s 1781 book Ueber die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden (On the Civic Improvement of the Jews). 1 Dohm, claiming that the “degenerate” character of the “Jewish nation” was a product of political and historical circumstance, argued that it was the task of the state to rehabilitate the Jews and transform them into productive members of a non-Jewish body politic. In this context, Dohm proposed that the government lift economic and social restrictions, admit Jews to the military, and move them away from trade and into the more “productive” and more “honorable” fields of agriculture and the crafts. 2 Michaelis, writing as the “astute expert” on ancient Judaism whom Dohm had quoted to bolster his argument, 3 sought to use his professional expertise to correct Dohm and put an end to this debate on “civic improvement”:

Do the laws of Moses contain anything that would make it impossible or difficult for the Jews to be completely naturalized and melt together with other peoples? One should nearly think so! Their intention is to preserve the Jews as a people separated from all other peoples, . . . and as long as the Jews retain the laws of Moses, as long as they for example do not dine with us . . . they will never melt together with us—like the Catholic and Lutheran, the German, Wend and Frenchman, who all live in a single state. 4

Michaelis argues against granting Jews civil rights here by adopting Dohm’s basic blueprint for political modernization. Like Dohm, Michaelis envisions a multiconfessional, multinational political order that would naturalize and melt together its subjects, an all-encompassing, all-assimilating state that he—like Dohm—conceives of as the antithesis of the perceived Jewish insistence on national particularity. 5 What distinguishes Michaelis from Dohm is thus not his antagonistic stance toward Jewish otherness but the conviction that this otherness cannot be eradicated, the assumption that Jews are as Jews intrinsically incapable of being turned into productive members of a non-Jewish state.

At this point, Michaelis goes beyond all questions of biblical exegesis. Rather than speaking as an expert on Mosaic law, he continues his argument by vaguely invoking the racial theories of his Göttingen colleagues, Christoph Meiners and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Michaelis does not follow Dohm and see the Jews simply as displaced persons, as “unfortunate Asiatic refugees.” 6 Jews differ from Germans, Wends, and Frenchmen, rather, because they are the “unmixed race of a more southern people” that even in ten generations will not have the proper bodily strength to perform military service for a German state. 7 In this framework, what perpetuates Jewish national character is not just Mosaic law but an innate racial Jewishness inherited from the Jews’ Asiatic climate of origin, an almost ineradicable physical difference that makes it impossible to assimilate the Jews into a non-Jewish state. Michaelis’s insistence on racial incompatibility, however, does not lead him to reject Dohm’s proposal that the Jews be made more useful to the state. Adopting Dohm’s basic program to move the Jews away from trade, Michaelis proposes his own solution to the Jewish question: “Such a people can perhaps become useful to us in agriculture and manufacturing, if one manages them in the proper manner. They would become even more useful if we had sugar islands which from time to time could depopulate the European fatherland, sugar islands which, with the wealth they produce, nevertheless have an unhealthy [End Page 92] climate.” 8 The ideal—if not the most practical—solution to the Jewish question, Michaelis argues, lies thus in colonial expansion, in relocating the southern Jewish race to a climate that...

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pp. 92-100
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