Jews and Race: A Pre-Boasian Perspective, Part 1

Brenton Sanderson


Whether the Jews comprise a religion, a nation, an ethnic group, or a race (or a combination of these) has always been central to the Jewish Question. The recently published Jews & Race — Writings on Identity and Difference 18801940 (edited by Mitchell B. Hart) is an anthology of Jewish writing which offers a fascinating insight into Jewish racial thinking during a period when hierarchic social-Darwinian race theory was generally accepted throughout the West. Before the rise of Boasian anthropology in the 1920s and 1930s, Western anthropologists posited a direct correlation between external racial traits and internal psychological traits. Skin color was regarded as not just a physical attribute, but an external racial marker tied to a correlative set of intellectual, political, and cultural capabilities. Given the consistent results from over 90 years of IQ testing of different racial groups (as defined by external traits like skin color) and other race-based life history statistics, we know this methodology, long dismissed by those within the Judeo-Marxist intellectual establishment as “pseudoscience,” to be entirely valid.

The Jewish socialist writer Chaim Zhitlowsky expressed the orthodox view in 1939 when he noted that “it is understood that each Volk is endowed with certain characteristic traits, some bodily, some mental. Such traits are transmitted hereditarily from generation to generation, and determine how in fact a people receive the phenomena of the external world and how it reacts to these phenomena. On such traits depend the particular and specific national customs or manners, insofar as the blessed children of a people, the most gifted by nature, bring forth human cultural treasures.” The study of racial differences was held by Zhitlowsky to be necessary “in order to clarify the fundamental role of biology in human progress. Here the history of culture must be considered with racial descent in thinking about the creator of culture, and it is not a superfluous or meaningless thing to take [the biological] into account.”

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As Kevin MacDonald points out in The Culture of Critique, this approach was largely abandoned after World War II with the rise of Boasian anthropology which was instrumental in totally suppressing evolutionary theory in the social sciences. Although Boas was influential at least by the 1920s in academic departments of anthropology, in his book The Sacred Chain, the Jewish historian Norman Cantor noted how “Since 1945 and more intensively since the 1960s all forms of racialist thinking are excluded from rational and enlightened discourse, especially in the United States, where the liberal civil libertarians have made racial doctrine intrinsically wrong, evil, and undiscussable.” The reason for this exclusion is that “modern anthropology, as defined the German-Jewish expatriate Franz Boas, for three decades head of the anthropology department at Columbia University, declared nineteenth-century race theory without foundation.” Cantor admitted that “this behavioral egalitarianism and universality was itself an ideology,” and that the Boasians never actually disproved social-Darwinian race theory, but rather insisted that it be “excluded from civil discourse as a result of what the Nazis and other such hate-mongering groups did with it.” This new ideology represented a radical shift in Jewish thinking given that race, racial purity, and the reality of ethnic interests lie at the heart of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy. Cantor acknowledged the racial basis of Judaism:

Racism is itself a central doctrine in traditional Judaism and Jewish cultural history. The Hebrew Bible is blatantly racist, with all the talk about the seed of Abraham, the chosen people, and Israel as a light to the other nations. Orthodox Jews in their morning prayers still thank God daily that he did not make Jews ‘like the other peoples of the earth.’ If this isn’t racism, what is? That highly regarded medieval book, Judah Halevi’s Kuzari, is blatantly racist. Halevi will not even allow that a convert to Judaism is the equal of a natural-born Jew. Martin Buber, the much-praised theologian and mystic, was still talking in the early 1920s about the distinctiveness of Jewish ‘blood’. Early Zionism was greatly affected by a positive view of racism. Herzl was inclined that way, and his close associate Max Nordau, for two decades a prominent Zionist leader in Europe, was the author of a classic of racist theory, Degeneration.

From about 1830 to 1900 Jews in Western Europe, especially in Britain, benefited rather than suffered from racist attitudes. Jews of Sephardi origin, if they were affluent, were regarded in aristocratic circles as esoteric creatures possessing superior bloodlines, and intermarriage with a converted Jew was entirely permissible in the best social and political circles. The behaviour of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is an example of this attitude. Far from trying to play down his Jewish ethnicity, Disraeli, the shrewdest of politicians emphasized it by turning up in Parliament in a hairdo and clothes that fit the racial stereotype of a Mediterranean Jew.

According to Cantor, Darwinian race theory only lost Jewish support when Jews felt threatened by the emergence of a variant “of hierarchic Social Darwinism, which had wide acceptance as a legitimate sociology between 1880 and 1920. Darwin’s population biology was regarded in the late nineteenth century as scientifically verifiable. … It was popular in Britain as sustaining [what Cantor regards as] the myth of the white man’s burdensome privilege of ruling over the coloured races” The key rationale for the emergence of Boasian anthropology as a Jewish intellectual movement was the fact that: “In the 1890s Social Darwinists, including some in universities, began to turn out hierarchic tables in which Jews were placed near the bottom of the list of races, just above blacks.” Cantor notes that “If universalist multiculturalist equality rather than Social Darwinism had been fashionable,” then this “polemic against the Jews would not have been possible, of course.”

Norman Cantor

It is hardly surprising in this intellectual milieu that Jews would resort to embracing “a cultural pluralism that removed the claim for the superiority of one culture over another” and which protected Jews from anti-Jewish claims that Jews were an inferior race. Jewish support among for Boasian anthropology — an explicitly antiracist “science” — grew as the expanding and prosperous Jewish communities in the West “suffered a severe check in the 1920s and 1930s from anti-Semitic discrimination and the closing of opportunity, particularly with regard to open access to the learned professions.” With this and the rise of the National Socialists in Germany, it became clear that White ethnocentrism and group cohesion was bolstered by hierarchic social-Darwinian race theory, and that this was antithetic to Jewish ethnic interests. The overthrow of this theory (and the resultant diminution of white ethnocentrism and group cohesion) was, as Kevin MacDonald points out, an ethno-political campaign that had nothing to do with real science. The “shift away from Darwinism as the fundamental paradigm of the social sciences” resulted from “an ideological shift rather than the emergence of any new empirical data” (CofC, p. 21).

Franz Boas

The Boasian revolution in anthropology represented such a dramatic departure from preceding Jewish thinking about race, that an examination of Jewish racial writing from 1880 to 1940 forces us, notes Hart, “to reorient the way we think about the normative narrative of the Jewish past” according to which historians have “told the story of the relationship between Jews and race largely within the framework of victimhood,” whereby “racial science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was one of the chief weapons used against Jews.” The abandonment of Darwinian race theory by Jewish anthropologists from the 1920s and 1930s necessitated that they obscure the inherently racial nature of Judaism, in order to forestall charges of hypocrisy. Yet Hart admits that race is still “one of the building blocks of contemporary Jewish identity construction” and that “biological and genetic arguments possess a power for many Jews as they seek to explain to themselves and others just what it is that constitutes Jewishness.” He acknowledges that “even though such thinking may have been submerged or made invisible for fifty years, many Jews still “think with blood” about Jewish belonging. He cites Susan Glenn who noted how “Throughout all the de-racializing stages of twentieth century social thought, Jews have continued to invoke blood logic as a way of defining and maintaining group identity.”

With the steady accumulation of population genetic studies demonstrating just how threadbare the Boasian assumptions really are (Boas was known for his antipathy to genetics), Hart is forced, despite his leftist politics, to concede that “race” is a meaningful concept after all:

The assertion that the Jews are not a race would appear at present to be fairly unproblematic, at least if we look at science as our guide to such matters. Since many biologists have told us that races in general do not exist in any “real” or natural way — that they are, rather, a cultural or social construct — then it seems patently absurd to consider the Jews a race. As Steven Kaplan has asked, if there are no races how can Jews be a race? Yet, it turns out that things are not that simple. Science, it seems, has not made up its mind on the issue of race. Some researchers in genetics now insist, as the philosopher Ian Hacking has written, “that stereotypical features of race are associated with ancestral geographic origin and, to some extent, with genetic markers.” In other words, “race” might not be just a social construct after all, though it certainly is that. Race no longer exists in the older version of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but modern genetic research may be in the process of redefining notions of identity that reanimate the “racial.”

Implicit here is an admission that the vast post-WWII literature spawned by the Boasians denying the reality of race — which has profoundly influenced Western politics and culture — is based on a series of false assumptions that are increasingly hard to sustain in the face of population genetic research confirming the reality of race and racial differences. Likewise, the idea that Judaism is not a group evolutionary strategy (implicit in claims Judaism is just a religion) cannot be credibly sustained in the light of studies like that of Atzmon et al. (2010) which confirm that Jews are a distinct genetic community. This study examined genetic markers spread across the entire genome, and showed that the Jewish groups (Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi) share large swaths of DNA, indicating close genetic relationships. Although each Jewish group in the study (Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Italian, Turkish, Greek and Ashkenazi) had its own genetic signature, each was more closely related to the other Jewish groups than to their non-Jewish countrymen. Atzmon and colleagues found that the SNP markers in genetic segments of 3 million DNA letters or longer were 10 times more likely to be identical among Jews than non-Jews, and that any two Ashkenazi Jewish participants in the study shared about as much DNA as fourth or fifth cousins.


Of course, Judaism could still be a group evolutionary strategy even if Jews were not a genetically separate group, providing that Jews believed that they were and behaved accordingly — which is exactly what they did believe and behave like for millennia before recent population genetic studies confirmed what they had always assumed. Hart includes an essay by the Zionist writer Robert Weltsch who neatly summed up this longstanding hyper-ethnocentric Jewish mentality when he noted in 1913 that: “When it comes to the unity of the Jews, there is one irrefutable proof: the consciousness of this unity, which is an inner experience that every individual Jew possesses.”


Hart, who is professor of Jewish History at the University of Florida, concedes that Jewish texts dealing with race have always been “unavoidably political,” and notes that “racial narratives written and disseminated by Jews about Jews [during the 1880–1940 period] were intended in part as a direct polemical response to anti-Semites. Jewish racial thinkers believed that they could use racial science as an intellectual weapon against their enemies.” This tendency is clearly evident in a review by writer and Zionist activist Moritz Goldstein’s of Ignaz Zollschan’s book The Racial Problem, with Particular Attention Paid to the Theoretical Foundations of the Jewish Racial Question (1909), where Goldstein was less concerned with the validity of Zollschan’s arguments than with their potential for providing a “scientific justification of all that we, as modern Jews, believe and must believe if we wish to retain our self-esteem in the face of those who despise us, and if we are supposed to have trust in the future of our Volk.” Goldstein admired how “This author [Zollschan] permits himself no emotional expressions, no mysticism, and no hypotheticals,” and yet he could “sense a passionate temperament and an enthusiastic partiality pulsating beneath that cool façade.” Goldstein aptly defined the Jewish culture of critique in his review, pointing out that: “What would be essential here [in utilizing Zollschan’s ideas] would be to reply to those value judgments that are so hostile to us with our own counter judgments.”

Indeed, in reading the essays and articles that make up this volume, one is struck by the continuity between the pre- and post-Boasian Jewish discourses on race in the way that Jewish ethnic politics is embedded into purportedly “academic” writing. We find early versions of arguments that have become ubiquitous in the post-WWII anti-White cultural and political context. For example, we find the proposition that the Western nation state is, of moral necessity, based solely on a set of abstract ideas (democracy, legal equality etc.) and not on racial or ethnic kinship. For instance, in his article entitled Reflections on the Jews (1891), the French-Jewish rabbi and scholar Isidore Loeb declared that “it is certain that race does not enter into the idea of a nation as an indispensable factor.” Instead, he insisted that “all scholars agree that the unity of a nation is not founded on the unity of race,” but rather on “a group of people united by the same allegiances, the same historical memories, the same aspirations for the future, attaching all these feelings to a common homeland, real if not ideal, and having a defined political existence.” Anticipating the neoconservatives, with their cynical invocation of the kind of moral universalistic arguments they know appeal to White people, Loeb maintained that

it is absolutely impossible to find any reason to justify exceptional laws for a group of people, in particular, for the Jews. The principle of human brotherhood, of equal rights for all men, is the foundation of every modern state. Outside this principle, there can only be arbitrariness and injustice, and a state that is not founded on justice cannot even be conceived of.

Presumably, the modern ethno-nationalist state of Israel would have been inconceivable to Loeb — though I strongly doubt it. Also prominent in pre-Boasian Jewish writing on race are attempts to depict the different European ethnic groups as being already so intermixed as to render the distinctive European ethnic identifications virtually meaningless. This argument was ostensibly deployed to suggest that efforts to exclude Jews as racial/ethnic outsiders, with incompatible group interests, are somehow senseless given that the various European nations have no cohesive racial/ethnic basis to begin with. Why, then, should the various European ethnic groups care if an alien people, like the Jews, live within their borders and add another ethnic element to the existing mix? In an early call for multiculturalism, Loeb in his Reflections on the Jews (1893) argued that European nation states, which “are formed of an amalgam of diverse races,” had a moral obligation to accept Jews and other non-assimilating groups:

Between a French or German Jew and a French or German Christian there is assuredly less of a difference, if there is one at all, than between a Frenchman and a German, a German and a Slav. But even if this difference were more obvious, there would be no reason to drive Jews out of a country and to refuse them civil and political rights. Every nation is composed of different races, and therein the Jewish race can find a legitimate place.

A classic example of the widespread pattern of Jews espousing patently insincere and ethno-politically motivated views for greater benefit of the Jews was the infamous testimony of the American Jewish Committee and Union of American Hebrew Congregations before the United States Immigration Committee in 1910. Here the judge and cofounder of the American Jewish Committee, Julian Mack, together with the lawyer and Jewish community leader, Simon Wolf, asserted under oath that there is no such thing as “Jewish race,” and that the practice of classifying Jews as a race on US immigration forms should therefore cease. The patent mendacity of this testimony embarrassed some Jews at the time, including the American Zionist newspaper The Maccabaean, which condemned Mack and Wolf in an editorial for having

attempted to have their interpretation of the facts of Jewish history fastened upon the entire Jewish citizenship of this country not for personal reasons, but in order to retard the growing anti-Jewish feeling which, they declare, will result in immigration restriction should the American people become aware of the number of Jews who come to this country. Though their motives are prompted by interest in the welfare of the Jewish people, we cannot permit them to utilize arguments, and to misinterpret facts, in a manner to bring the Jewish people of this country into contempt with the legislators who are now considering the immigration situation. Without entering into the merits of [the] argument, which was advanced by them not as matters of conviction, but primarily as matters of policy, we desire to dissociate ourselves from their point of view, from their logic, and from their policy. … We believe that if anything could stimulate prejudice against the Jews it would be the shifting, unmanly, and undignified pretense of representatives of a people who, against fact and history, and against their own private convictions, disown their racial and national birthright.  …

By asserting boldly a theory that there is no Jewish race, but only a conglomeration of people professing the Jewish religion, Judge Mack and Mr. Wolf, and the organizations they represented, uttered a statement, which, if true, would exclude from among our ranks many who are devoted to the ranks of the Jewish people but who are not religionists in the accepted meaning of the term. We believe we speak in the name of the entire Jewish people when we say the Jewish people, native born and naturalized in this country, are not ashamed to have themselves or their brethren classified as racial Jews.

It was this kind of shameless ethno-political expediency from Jews like Mack and Wolf which prompted Madison Grant to characterize Jewish immigrants to the United States as “ruthlessly self-interested whereas American Nordics were committing racial suicide and allowing themselves to be ‘elbowed out’ of their own land.”


The results of recent population genetic studies like that by Atzmon et al. mentioned above essentially confirm the views of the majority of Jewish writers represented in Jews and Race. Hart notes how “questions about Jewish racial purity and mixing constitute a crucial component of many — perhaps most — of the texts in this volume.” For instance, in a 1907 article entitled The Jewish Racial Question, the physician, writer and Zionist Elias Auerbach observed that:

The Jewish race is very homogeneous around the world. It is not uniform, as no civilized race (Kulturrasse) is, but its variations do not differ fundamentally from one country to another. A different fate, a distinct environment, did not result in the blurring of a common and wholly durable type, and indeed the Jews can demonstrate more clearly than any other race how overwhelming an influence heredity has, when compared to assimilation, in the matter of a race’s fate.

The Austrian-Jewish anthropologist and physician Ignaz Zollschan, was equally convinced that the Jews had mostly retained their racial homogeneity in the Diaspora:

The Jewish nation has propagated itself in an essentially pure manner from the time of Ezra until today, and for more than two thousand years represents an ethnically peculiar race, which was not diluted by foreign blood. It is self-evident that a few drops of foreign blood must have found their way among the Jews during the long time in the Diaspora. But these admixtures were too insignificant to have any essential influence upon the ethnic character of the nation. Thus the Cohanim, who were absolutely excluded from mixed marriages, are typically the same as the other Jews. The state of affairs can best be described in one sentence: a great deal of blood was exported from Jewry, but little indeed was imported from outside. And, consequently, we can assume with certainty, that the blood that flows today in the veins of the Jews is the same as that of two thousand years ago.

The onetime Director of the Bureau of Jewish Statistics in Berlin, Arthur Ruppin, agreed with this assessment, noting that “An English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese Jew is still a Jew based on features, regardless of the nuances he presents: that is to say that they have all the same characteristics of shape and proportion — in a word, that which essentially constitutes a type.” Highlighting the fundamental nature of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy, he also made the obvious point that “Among all other Völker, religion and race have very little to do with one another; whereas, among the Jews, religion is a certain indicator of racial affiliation.”

Arthur Ruppin

Ruppin traced the Jews’ racial homogeneity back to Judaism’s historical roots when “In Palestine itself, Ezra placed particular importance on keeping the pure families clear from intermixture with foreign elements, and made sure that foreign Volk elements would be purged. Therefore at the time of the Second Temple’s destruction the Jews in Palestine were racially constituted more or less as they had been at the time of the destruction of the First Temple.” Elias Auerbach likewise made the point that “throughout all the historical books of the Bible and the numerous speeches of the prophets, there occurs a constant repetition of the warning against mixing with neighboring peoples.” Given this constant repetition, Auerbach is compelled to make

the point vigorously that in general, over the course of the entire racial history of the Jews, the most rigorous opposition to racial mixing does not stem from other peoples but from the Jews themselves… It is only by knowing and taking into consideration this tendency that we are able to make anthropological use of the historical facts, for it is this tendency alone that allowed the Jews to remain unscathed [unaffected] by their long wanderings in exile, the enormity and length of which would have long since brought other races to the point of dissolution. The active reserve displayed by the Jews is, notably, taken to such lengths that it is forbidden for them to proselytize, because religious equality [between Jews as a race and other races] would do away with the most powerful barrier against physical intermixing… With the sort of racial pride that the Jewish nation, on the basis of all our sources, evinces to a high degree, we should hardly wonder that measures against the influx of foreign types into the race were put in place.”

Alfred Nossig, a Polish-Jewish writer and social scientist active in Zionist politics, posited in an article entitled The Chosenness of the Jewish in the Light of Biology (1905) that the idea of divine “chosenness” was the single greatest intellectual innovation of the early Hebrews because, though this, they hit on the key to the long-term survival of the Jewish people. The natural corollary of ‘chosenness’ was ‘endogamy’ which became the lynchpin of Judaism as a highly effective group evolutionary strategy. For Nossig, that the ancient Hebrews could devise such a brilliant idea is testament to the genius of his ancient forebears, noting: “Just like the idea of God as the highest abstraction of being, this idea [of chosenness], too, is obviously nothing more than the product of Jewish intellectual and moral ability, a result of the mental efforts of the Jewish Volk – and this despite the fact that the Bible presents it as divine revelation.”

The result of this intellectual achievement was that Jewry became “…intoxicated by the idea of its own chosenness” and the first and most striking result of this idea was “the fact of the continuing survival of the Jews, and their exceptional vitality and reproductive power. The Mosaic concept of an ‘eternal people’ appears to have been realized. This alone already demonstrates that the chosenness of the Jews is something other and deeper than the ordinary racial pride that could not prevent the decline of other, far more powerful peoples. It brought about the eternal existence of the Jewish Volk through the biological effects of its intellectual ideals and its moral law.” The German anthropologist and ethnologist Curt Michaelis dismissed Nossig’s claims, arguing that the idea of “chosenness” stemmed exclusively “from the racial pride of the Jews,” and, assessing the problems this presented for non-Jews, observed that “Emboldened by this concept, the racial pride of the Jews becomes biogenetically fatal. It brought about isolationism, strict laws of endogamy, and contempt, cruelty, and hate for all other peoples.”

Go to PART 2. 

Essays cited in this review from Mitchell Hart’s (Ed.)  Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference 1880–-1940 (Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Massachusetts, 2011).

Auerbach, E. (1907) ‘The Jewish Racial Question,’ In: Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference 1880-1940, Ed. Mitchell B. Hart, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Massachusetts. 207-218.

Goldstein, M. (1913) ‘The Jewish Racial Problem,’ In: Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference 1880-1940, Ed. Mitchell B. Hart, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Massachusetts. 317-322.

Loeb, I. (1893) ‘Reflections on the Jews,’ In: Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference 1880-1940, Ed. Mitchell B. Hart, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Massachusetts. 49-59.

Nossig, A. (1905) ‘The Chosenness of the Jews in the Light of Biology,’ In: Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference 1880-1940, Ed. Mitchell B. Hart, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Massachusetts. 259-267.

Ruppin, A. (1908) ‘The Mixed Marriage,’ In: Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference 1880-1940, Ed. Mitchell B. Hart, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Massachusetts. 219-223.

Ruppin, A. (1930) ‘On the Origins and Race of the Jews,’ In: Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference 1880-1940, Ed. Mitchell B. Hart, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Massachusetts. 71-80.

Unsigned editorial from The Maccabaean (1910) ‘”There Is No Jewish Race!” The Testimony of the American Jewish Committee  and Union of American Hebrew Congregations before the United States Immigration Committee,’ In: Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference 1880-1940, Ed. Mitchell B. Hart, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Massachusetts. 285-296.

Weltsch, R. (1913) ‘Concerning Racial Theory,’ In: Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference 1880-1940, Ed. Mitchell B. Hart, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Massachusetts. 311-316.

Zhitlowsky, C. (1939) ‘Jews and Jewishness,’ In: Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference 1880-1940, Ed. Mitchell B. Hart, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Massachusetts. 323-330.

Zollschan, I. (1914) ‘The Significance of the Mixed Marriage,’ In: Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference 1880-1940, Ed. Mitchell B. Hart, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Massachusetts. 226-237.

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