Workshop — "Jewish Genes": The Study of Population ‘Isolates’ between Eugenics and Human Population Genetics

November 27, 2018
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Corrado Gini in Palestine: ‘Human Isolates’ in perspective, between Italy and Israel / Luc Berlivet and Francesco Cassata

On Monday, 12 of November, SICSA  held a workshop titled “Jewish Genes”: The Study of Population ‘Isolates’ between Eugenics and Human Population Genetics.

The initial impulse for the organization of this workshop came from our need to discuss our ongoing research on Corrado Gini, ‘Latin eugenics’, and – especially – the field expeditions undertaken by the Italian Committee for the Scientific Study of Population (CISP) in the 1930s and early 1940s. Two of them, first and foremost: the expedition to Palestine, that aimed at studying the Samaritans; and the field trip to Lithuania and Poland in order to investigate the situation of the Karaites.

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The architect in chief of this rather ambitious scientific enterprise was Corrado Gini, the most prominent Italian statistician of the time, and one of the most important statisticians at the world level, in the interwar period. A highly multi-positional actor, Gini presided over the Italian Society of Genetics and Eugenics from 1924 onwards; headed the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) from 1926 to 1931, and was the president of CISP from its inception, in 1928, to his death, in 1965. This made him a key figure in fascist statistics, as much as in Latin eugenics and the emerging international field of population sciences.

His adhesion to nationalism, initially, and to fascism afterwards, was significantly grounded in an idiosyncratic scientific, allegedly neutral, theory, which he called ‘the cyclical theory of nations’. This sort of demographic grand theory on the rise, maturation, and fall of human civilizations rested on the hypothesis that although the social metabolism of human populations was gradually impeded by the biological decline of reproductive powers, it could still be regenerated thanks to the power or “racial hybridization”, a by-product of migrations.

First elaborated between 1909 and 1912, this neo-organismic vision progressively expounded into a full-fledged eugenic, demographic and sociological framework that legitimized not only fascist authoritarianism, but also colonial imperialism and State racism. In Gini’s view, therefore, Fascism was justified by the ‘cyclical theory’, and could be explained in scientific, hence neutral and apolitical, terms. As Anna Treves vividly put it, in one of her pioneer books on Italian population politics: “He was a fascist, and a heartfelt fascist, inasmuch as he could see fascism as ‘Ginian’.”

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Headed by Gini himself since his foundation in 1928 and benefitting from Mussolini’s patronage, at least until 1932–1933, CISP was conceived from the very beginning as a scientific institution with a political agenda, whose aim was to empirically verify the “cyclical theory of nations”, namely the role played by “isolation”, on one hand, and “racial hybridization”, on the other, in the formation, maturation, and degeneration of human races.

From this perspective, the historical and biological dynamics of “Jewish demography”, as they called it, represented an important case-study. In Gini’s scientific activity, this issue emerged in different moments and assumed different facets:

Firstly, under the institutional umbrellas of ISTAT and CISP, Gini collaborated with Jewish scholars on the very topic of “Jewish demography”. The organization of a specific session on “Jewish Demography” at the International Congress for Population Research, held in Rome in 1931, is particularly telling. Supported by the Italian fascist government and by the International Federation of Eugenic Organizations (IFEO), this Congress was a fundamental step in the international configuration of eugenic studies. The session dedicated to “Jewish Demography” was dominated by the figure of Roberto Bachi, and saw the participation of the most outstanding researchers in the field, such as Jacob Lestschinsky and Liebman Hersch.

Secondly, CISP undertook two scientific expeditions in direct link with the issues regarding this “Jewish demography”. The first expedition, in May–June 1933, aimed at investigating the situation of the Samaritans, in Palestine. The endogamous isolation allegedly maintained by this community since Biblical times, the dramatic demographic shrinking that resulted, and the recent decisions taken by some community leaders to condone (at least in some cases) marriages between Samaritans and Palestinian Jews made it a perfect case study on the dangers of interbreeding. The second population studied by CISP, who also maintained a strict demographic isolation for religious and cultural reasons were the “Karaite Jews”, from Poland and Lithuania. Different groups of this community whose origin had long been debated, but who were usually regarded as a kind of Jewish sect, were studied between August and October 1934.

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Thirdly, CISP funded and/or publicized research programs elaborated by Jewish scholars along the lines of Gini’s demographic and eugenic theories: in particular, Henry Haskel Sonnabend’s study on the demographic “expansion” of Slavs; Reuben Katznelson’s research on Jewish immigration to Palestine in modern times; Yitzhak Ben-Zvi’s research on the history and demography of Samaritans.

Finally, a specific theoretical continuity exists between Roberto Bachi’s scientific training and academic career in Italy in the 1920s and 1930s, favoured by his relationship with Gini, and the eugenic and pronatalist approach he adopted to population problems in Yishuv and the State of Israel.

Drawing on these suggestions, we have decided to organize this small-scale workshop in order to put Gini’s scientific activities in a comparative perspective, and explore little known connections and networks, by focusing in particular on the recurrence of the concept of population ‘isolates’, a concept which not only was at the center of CISP expeditions, but has also been crucial in the study of ‘human variation’ and ‘human diversity’ from mid-nineteenth century to the present.

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