The Vagaries of Scientific Antisemitism

Shmuel Almog
Way back, in the mid-sixties, I got acquainted with the work of the nineteenth-century French luminary Ernest Renan. Among other things, he toyed with the new idea of race, regarding it as the cornerstone of civilization. A brilliant philologist, historian, and writer, Renan saw himself, in the European tradition, mainly as a man of science. His belief in science gave his theorizing an air of unshakable truth. Although the distinction between superior Aryans and inferior Semites was not always to his liking, he felt duty-bound to speak the truth, in the spirit of “value-free” science, avant la lettre. Moreover, Renan`s training for the priesthood added a strong moral note to his devotion to the gospel of science. Ironically, he was almost triumphant in his rejection of traditional Christianity in favor of an adoptive Indo-European ancestry, the imagined forefathers of European civilization.[1]
I dare not make the comparison, but Renan’s tone of moral superiority reappeared, albeit in a distorted mode, in the now famous scene as Heinrich Himmler adjured his SS to steadfastness in their unpleasant duty of exterminating the Jews.[2] It is obviously wrong to attribute to Renan any affinity to the kind of racism that the Nazis were to practice a hundred years later. He was a man of letters, a moderate conservative, while racism was still in its infancy. He even had some misgivings in later years about the idea of race. In any case, it was all a fancy of the mind in an ordered world of bourgeois respectability. Yet what struck me was the sense of self-righteousness that accompanied race thinking in two so dissimilar instances.

Perhaps this is typical of all strong feelings about ideology, any ideology whatsoever. Surely, it may happen to any extremist, or for that matter, to doctrinaires of all shades. Renan, however, was nothing of the kind. He was sophisticated and subtle, an individualist ready to reconsider things and even change his mind from time to time. He was a belated philosophe of the Enlightenment in the guise of a nineteenth-century man of science. His mixture of sweeping rhetoric and meticulous research tended to confuse the issues at times. At any rate, Renan could never have fathomed the depths of inhumanity into which race thinking would sink one day.

Having said all this, I must now explain how this subject has recently come up again. Perusing my electronic mail I have been confronted lately with a growing number of posts dealing with innovations in science and their social and moral interpretations. The competition towards the completion of the Human Genome Project no doubt contributed to the urgency of such messages dealing with genetics and the ever-recurring science wars on Nature vs. Nurture. I must admit: there is something refreshing in the torrent of discoveries, challenges, and unforeseen ramifications presented by enthusiastic contributors. Despite the polemics and recriminations, it is full of life and youth. Unlike my own professional preoccupation with the past, here speaks the present and even the future.

But not quite: take for instance the publicity given to the results of a recent study on Jewish genes. The press added a topical headline: “Jews, Palestinians and Syrians share a genetic link.”[3] Although researchers expressed a note of caution, this was hot stuff that lent itself to all sorts of implications, sanctioned, as it were, by pure science. One Israeli author drew from the popularized research results a twofold lesson — that Israelis and Palestinians share a common origin; but East-European Jews actually descend from the medieval Black Sea Khazars.[4] So we are led back into history again, though embroiled in present day politics with “scientific“ underpinnings to boot.

This is what bothers me most: the scientific aura and the cocksureness that so often goes with it. Such is some of the stuff that even pervades the H-Antisemitism discussion group on the web. This group happens to be a serious undertaking, managed on a voluntary basis by very able moderators. It is run in a spirit of generosity and openness that may sometimes be overly exploited by impetuous participants. Thus the list distributed a great amount of material by an evolutionary psychologist of Long Beach, California State University, by the name of Kevin MacDonald. He defines antisemitism as a result of Jewish “group strategy characterized by cultural and genetic segregation from gentile societies combined with resource competition and conflicts of interest with segments of gentile societies.”[5]

Behind this definition, one discovers a hard core of theoretical pronouncements that form a closed circle which cannot be challenged. Furthermore, as Jews supposedly behave according to their genetic code, they may not even be aware of their own share in the inevitable war against the “gentiles.” This is a case of guilt by association: a Jew is committed to his in-group strategy of survival; hence unable to refute the so-called scientific theory. This is somewhat akin to Marxists who claim that any critic of “scientific socialism” is by definition a bourgeois intellectual or a class traitor. It may apply to some Freudians as well: those who analyze away the hidden motives of their opponents, instead of confronting them head on.

My first encounter with scientific antisemitism on the list came as a big surprise. One hears so much about post-modernist uncertainties these days that you hardly expect anything so rigid anymore. However, despite the novelty, there was something about this “scientific” exposé that sounded rather familiar. It seemed to evoke old memories of race thinking, social Darwinism, and eugenics that had been discarded by scholars and scientists after the Second World War. I could hardly imagine that this old stuff, having been so shamefully discredited by past events, would ever resurge anew. What was most disturbing perhaps was the triumphant tone that revels in exposing “human nature” as base and evil.

Meanwhile, our list member Professor Mac Donald supported — in the name of “scientific freedom” — David Irving, the Holocaust denier, in the libel case he recently lost in a British court. Eventually Mac Donald summed up his unpleasant London experience, stoically concluding that, “even the most biased researchers may well contribute invaluable scholarship.”[6] It appears as if free speech is the one value left to these people, after discarding human dignity, equality, and the like. Nevertheless, an inescapable paradox lurks behind their line of reasoning: Irving went to court to avert his ill fame, but by the same token tried of course to muzzle his detractors. Thus free speech can never be an absolute, but only part of a differential scale.

Be that as it may, what is atstake here is first and foremost respectability, namely: to what extent is one prepared to diffuse anti-humanist notions under the guise of science. Having reached this point, though, one is bound to ask oneself, whether there is still any danger involved here. Are we not living in a world of free information? Each crazy idea on the web has innumerable counterparts, from the oddest to the most sensible. So perhaps even scientific antisemitism is no longer what it used to be, seeing that science itself has lost much of the prestige it had once enjoyed.

Yes, it is annoying to face this blunt and aggressive return to reactionary, racist, anti-feminist, and antisemitic theories. They are even more despicable when they come embellished with “scientific” trappings, particularly so if you happen to hold science in high esteem. It is disheartening to confront the haughty manner of the self-appointed spokesmen of “human nature,” misusing the goodwill of their liberal hosts. But is there any reason for concern? Having alerted the reader to this phenomenon in the first place, I must admit that its real importance still escapes me. In any case, it warrants a closer follow-up and further scrutiny.v

[1]See myThe Racial Motif in Renan`s Attitude to Jews and Judaism in : S.Almog (ed.), Antisemitism Throughthe Ages, Oxford 1988, pp.255 – 278;
[2]Raul HilbergThe Destruction of the European JewsNew York 1979, p.648;
[3]Nicholas WadeY Chromosome Bears Witness to Story of the Jewish DiasporaNew York TimesMay 9, 2000;
[4] Boas Evron, "Our Palestinian Jewish Brethreen", Haaretz 18.6.2000;
[5] and Environment, p.2;
[6]ditto, p.5;