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Jewish Social Studies 11.1 (2004) 52-92



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Anglo-Jewish Scientists and the Science of Race

The belief in innate racial differences was well entrenched in Western science by the start of the twentieth century. It was widely believed that the world's population was divided into distinct races and that the physical and cultural differences among them were rooted in biology. For Jewish physicians and academics, for whom science was supposed to be a neutral arena in which their Jewishness was irrelevant, the ubiquity of this belief was a challenge, both to their professional authority and their emotional equanimity. It was not the idea of race itself that was troublesome but rather the subsidiary idea that invariably accompanied it—the belief that races were ranked hierarchically and that Jews were an inferior race, marked by a distinctive mental and physical pathology. Jewish scientists who wanted to think of themselves as neutral observers found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being both the observer and the denigrated object of observation.1 Those who tried to escape this double bind pursued various strategies. Some disputed the stability and permanence of racial traits and the existence of pure races. Others internalized racial thinking and then unconsciously reworked and subverted its premises. Still others accepted the idea of racial differences but turned conventional stereotypes on their head.

Jewish scientists in Central Europe experienced the double bind more acutely than their counterparts elsewhere in the West. The stigmatization of Jewishness was more pervasive and the barriers to career [End Page 52] advancement higher than in Western Europe. By comparison, few Jews in early twentieth-century Britain found themselves in a similar position. In part, this was due to the occupational aspirations of the Anglo-Jewish middle class, which did not, as a rule, view the academy and the laboratory as arenas in which to pursue social prestige and material success. This was also due to the relative disinterest of British scientists (with the notable exception of the eugenicist Karl Pearson) in Jews.2 While they were not altogether absent in British social scientific and racial literature, they were not the prime focus of its gaze, which was directed outward to the more "exotic" peoples of the British Empire or downward to the urban poor at home. Events abroad—the India mutiny (1857), the Jamaica revolt (1865), and the Boer War (1899-1902)—and the differential birth rate between the upper and middle ranks, on the one hand, and the lower ranks, on the other, fed and formed British anxieties about "racial fitness" and "racial degeneration" more than concerns about Jewish domination. While John Efron exaggerated when he wrote "Jews as Jews simply failed to arouse British scientific curiosity," he was not altogether wrong.3

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that Anglo-Jewish scientists in the early twentieth century, however small their number, were able to ignore notions of racial difference. Whatever its place in British science, racial discourse was too pervasive in cultural and political life to allow them to escape or ignore its influence. Jewish writers, preachers, and publicists, most of whom were not biological determinists, repeatedly referred to Jews as a race. Their use of the term was imprecise, which is not surprising, given the fluidity and inconsistency of racial thinking. It often functioned as a synonym for Jewish peoplehood, signifying little more than the collective nature of Jewish life and fate. Even liberal integrationist opponents of the nascent Zionist movement were not averse to referring to the Jewish people as a race. In a letter to Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) in 1903, Lucien Wolf (1857- 1930), for example, admitted there was "a Jewish race" as well as "a Jewish religion" while denying there had been "a Jewish nationality" since the destruction of the Second Temple.4 Moreover, even if British science, by comparison with German science, overlooked Jews, the literature of science circulated beyond the national borders within which it was produced. The work of Jewish medical men in Germany, Austria, Russia, and the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2028
Print ISSN
0021-6704
Pages
pp. 52-92
Launched on MUSE
2005-03-10
Open Access
No
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