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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 99-100

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Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity

Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity. By Mitchell B. Hart (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2000) 340 pp. $55.00

Hart has made a significant contribution to European Jewish history, to the social scientific study of Jews, and to the intellectual history of the social sciences in his innovative study of the politics of modern Jewish identity within the newly developed field of Jewish social sciences. Hart defines his approach to statistics as "constructivist," because he does not write about the history of statistical studies as much as he studies the narratives encoded in debates about, for example, Jewish falling birthrates and occupations.

The modern bourgeois nation-state created questions about the nature of Jews' identity as "folk," race, or religion. By the late nineteenth century, scientific antisemitism vied with Zionism and liberalism to offer alternative responses to how Jews should live as citizens within modern society. The rise of a Jewish social science was a fascinating, and little explored, setting in which these debates were played out and of which methods became a central component. Hart charts these debates within the institutes, journals, and Zionist conferences that used descriptive statistics as a crucial weapon in waging a campaign for one or another form of Jewish politics.

The lives of Western European Jews underwent dramatic changes during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—chief among them being declining birthrates and increasing mental illness, suicide, crime, and intermarriage. History, anthropology, and nascent statistical studies were all engaged in explaining these developments. Antisemitic "scientists" and politicians drew on these social realities to advance their claims that Jews were racially inferior and diseased, incapable of integrating into "normal" European nations. Zionists argued that these conditions [End Page 99] were caused by history and environment, and that, within their own nations, Jews would be restored to "normality." Integrationists saw in these same conditions the effects of the social transitions of immigration, urbanization, and modernization, arguing that, with time, Jews would fully acculturate and become successful citizens of Western Europe.

Hart examines these debates among researchers in order to illumine competing theories of modern Jewish identity. His investigation ranges from Berlin's Institute for Jewish Statistics, founded in 1902, to the researchers throughout Europe and the United States who collect, interpret, and debate the relevant data. He carefully links the rise of Jewish social science to Zionism as a political movement, and his analysis of the political controversies makes clear why Zionists were drawn to statistical studies.

Hart effectively argues that the field of Jewish statistics could not disentangle its assumptions from those that shaped most of the sociological studies of the period. Hence, Jewish researchers internalized some of the racism and normative biases of European social sciences. The language of "pathology" and normality often trapped Jewish thinkers in judgments about normal and abnormal behavior in their fight against antisemitism and their attempt to demonstrate Jews' fitness for citizenship and to provide models for Jewish life.


Riv-Ellen Prell
University of Minnesota



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