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Jewish Social Studies 6.2 (2000) 56-101

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Johann David Michaelis and the Colonial Imaginary: Orientalism and the Emergence of Racial Antisemitism in Eighteenth-Century Germany *

Jonathan M. Hess

When the term "antisemitism" was first introduced in Germany in the late 1870s, those who used it did so in order to stress the radical difference between their own "antisemitism" and earlier forms of antagonism toward Jews and Judaism. In contrast to religiously motivated Jew-hatred, antisemitism introduced itself as a distinctly secular doctrine, a political ideology that took the alleged biological otherness of the "Jewish race" as the basis for a totalizing worldview. 1 The irony in this assertion of a radical break with religious anti-Judaism is that the concept of antisemitism as it was used in the late nineteenth century was itself indebted to developments within Christian theological discourse. Indeed, the concept of an alien "Jewish race" that antisemites introduced as their innovation did not derive solely from nineteenth-century pseudoscience. It also had its roots in the "Orientalist" branch of theological discourse that, from the late eighteenth century on, had concerned itself with "Semitic" languages, "Semitic" peoples, and the "Semitic" race.

The concepts "Semite" and "Semitic" were coined in the late eighteenth century by the Göttingen historian August Ludwig von Schlözer, who used the terms as early as 1771 to designate both a family of languages and a related group of peoples. 2 Once introduced by Schlözer, [End Page 56] "Semite" and "Semitic" quickly gained prominence in theological scholarship, particularly among the growing group of "Orientalists" eager to read the Hebrew Bible as a product of ancient Israel in its historical specificity. Two of the most influential such works of the 1780s, Johann Gottfried Eichhorn's Einleitung in das Alte Testament (Introduction to the Old Testament, 1780-83) and Johann Gottfried Herder's Vom Geist der Ebräischen Poesie (On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry, 1782-83), frequently referred to "Semites," "Semitic languages," and "Semitic tribes." 3 Once introduced into historical-theological and philological discourse, the terms "Semite" and "Semitic" began to be used widely, often set in opposition to "Indo-European," "Indo-Germanic" or "Aryan," and linked, particularly in the nineteenth century, to emergent concepts of race. In this context, the inevitably inferior "Semitic race" was often cast as the foil for the triumph of Western, Christian civilization. As an allegedly stagnant people impervious to history and progress, the "Semites" needed to be superseded by the victory of Aryan, Indo-European culture, often embodied, as in the works of Ernest Renan, in the figure of Jesus. 4 When the term "antisemitism" was introduced in the late 1870s as a designation for a secular, political ideology grounded in an antagonism toward the Jewish race, it very consciously gestured toward this discourse.

The specific link between theological antagonism toward Judaism and a racially conceived, politically charged antisemitism, however, is not entirely a nineteenth-century innovation. This connection was forged as early as the 1780s, in the context of the initial debates on the question of Jewish emancipation and at a point when modern concepts of race were first in the process of being formulated. Johann David Michaelis (1717-91), the Orientalist who trained Schlözer and Eichhorn in Göttingen, was not just the author of the standard eighteenth-century work on Jewish law, the six-volume Mosaisches Recht (Mosaic Law, 1770-75). As one of the Enlightenment's foremost authorities on--and admirers of--ancient Judaism, Michaelis also took an engaged role in the early debates on whether to grant contemporary Jews civil rights, vehemently arguing against the systematic proposals for the "civic improvement" of the Jews that the Prussian official Christian Wilhelm von Dohm had set forth in his 1781 treatise Ueber die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden (On the Civic Improvement of the Jews). 5 In 1782, Michaelis devoted the lead article of his Orientalische und exegetische Bibliothek (Oriental and Exegetical Library), one of the major organs of biblical scholarship in late...