The Myth of the Jewish Race: A Biologist's Point of View (review)
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The Myth of the Jewish Race: A Biologist's Point of View, by Alain F. Corcos. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2005. 170 pp. $39.50.

With the best of intentions Alain Corcos, a biologist, seeks to bury—for all time—the ludicrous myth that Jews constitute a "race." The crux of his argument is certainly convincing, and his further challenge to the terms "Jewish blood" and "Jewish genes" is an important corrective to ideas that have lingered even among a few post-Holocaust Jewish scholars. But is this book, even as brief as it is, justified as a monograph? It would have been better as a journal article or part of an anthology. As much as Corcos is deft in applying biology to Jews, therefore handily debunking the myth of a Jewish race, he is far less adept in his control of Jewish history. He has virtually no understanding of ethnic and religious identity as conceived by historians and social scientists, instead embracing a view of Jewry based on too narrow a definition of Judaism (p. 72). Corcos does not see that different cultural forms, which came to be associated with Jews and Judaism, developed around the practice of Judaism. Perhaps most seriously, the author underestimates the extent to which processes of secularization were ways of transforming and even preserving Jewishness (pp. 18ff.). In other words, he is excellent on race (pp. 126–8), as understood biologically, but clumsy on identity.

His chapter on "Spain and the Concept of the Jewish Race" does not recognize that racism arose concomitant to the Enlightenment, and the persecution of the Inquisition derived from a simplistic notion of heredity allowing for numerous exceptions that would have been anathema to Nazi racism. "Whatever the reason," Corcos states, "the result was clearly a preview of the Holocaust" (p. 37). Here he commits the historical gaffe of reading backwards. Given his quest for precision, it is surprising that he conflates "ancestry" with [End Page 215] racism (p. 39). His synopsis of "Science and the Concept of the Jewish Race" and recounting of "The Final Solution" are solid but offer nothing new.

The strongest sections of this book, not surprisingly, are those that deal with human races generally. Corcos would go so far as to replace the term race with "deme," denoting "groupings." "No matter how many [racial] groups we propose, we always find people who do not fit any one category. Racial classification is impossible because humanity is very diverse, and distinct lines of demarcation among groups do not exist." Nevertheless, there exists some "resemblance within groups," that results mainly from intramarriage (p. 71). His discussion of skin color related to supposed racial groups and demolition of the concepts of "Jewish Blood, Genes, and Diseases" are brief but compelling (pp. 73–8). The author's attempt to read Jewish history with an eye toward demonstrating the extent to which Jews mixed with surrounding non-Jewish populations, through sexual relations and proselytism, is commendable. His treatment of Ethiopia and China, however, ignores recent scholarship, such as that of Daniel Summerfield and Zhou Xun, which calls into question the notion that Jews in these regions "practiced for centuries a pre-rabbinic form of Judaism" (p. 102). Likewise, there are number of problems in his summaries of German, Russian, Soviet, and American Jewish history. Despite these many reservations, this book will come in handy as a hard-science rejoinder to lame-brained students and cranks who invariably show up at public lectures with the stupid and dangerous contention that Jews are a race.

Michael Berkowitz
University College London