Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity

By H, Keith | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity


H, Keith, Shofar


by Mitchell B. Hart. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. 340 pp. $55.00.

Given the horrific legacy of Nazi racial policy, it is not surprising that Jewish historians have been hesitant to investigate how Jews employed racial categories to advance their own ideological and political agendas. The uninformed observer might mistakenly believe that categories of "otherness" based primarily on racial constructs were the exclusive purview of antisemites. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. As a race-based scientific discourse became the normative interpretive paradigm in the late nineteenth century, Jewish intellectuals, fully acculturated within the European academic setting, utilized this model to evaluate Jewish society. Beginning in the 1880s and continuing unabated until the 1930s, Jewish social scientists actively contributed to the on-going debates about Jewry's essential characteristics and the position of Jews within European society. Mitchell Hart's book on the subject presents a richly detailed account of the "relationship between social science, Jewish scholarship, and Jewish politics".

As social scientists developed "objective statistical criteria" to define the abnormal condition of modern Jewry, Jewish social scientists constructed "their own narratives around the statistics about the Jewish present and future". Rather than completely rejecting the pathological descriptions of Jews attributed to them by their Gentile colleagues, Jewish social scientists explained their origins and offered ameliorative prescriptives. Zionists, in particular, used the tools of modern social science to reject the identification of Jews as solely a religious community and to redefine them as "Volk and nation". For both Zionist and non-Zionist Jewish social scientists, the politics of identity formation occupied center stage of their academic enterprises.

Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity begins by examining the Verein für jüdische Statistik, the institutional basis of Jewish social science. Founded in 1904, the organization was largely, but not exclusively, a Zionist enterprise. The Democratic Faction of the Zionist movement saw the Verein as a mechanism to substantiate the "essential national characteristics" of Jews. The organization's first director, Arthur Ruppin, utilized the Verein to objectify and validate the Zionist discourse.

Once the institutional basis of Jewish social science is presented, Hart turns to a thematic analysis of the debates that pre-occupied European and North American social scientists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fertility, intermarriage, medical imagery, statistics, racial anthropology, iconography, and other topics serve as grist for the social scientific mill. In each case, Jewish social scientists situated themselves within established areas of academic discourse to produce works that addressed specifically Jewish concerns. Each level of analysis reveals the extent to which Jews were completely acculturated within the intellectual environment of the era, but still in need of explaining their foreignness. …

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