Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

A Life (Un)Worthy of Living: Reproductive Genetics in Israel and Germany

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

A Life (Un)Worthy of Living: Reproductive Genetics in Israel and Germany

Article excerpt

A Life (Un)Worthy of Living: Reproductive Genetics in Israel and Germany Yael Hashiloni-Dolev Springer, 2007

This is a book by an Israeli scholar contrasting the attitude toward eugenics in contemporary Germany with that prevalent in Israel. It is of interest chiefly as a chapter in the greater history of Jewish eugenics, with the author focusing almost exclusively on her narrowly defined topic and not delving into either the grand Hebraic tradition or the psychology and politics of the massive assault on the eugenics movement. Currently defined in the public consciousness by the Holocaust Memorial movement as an ideological engine of National Socialist genocide rather than as a convenient afterthought, eugenics in today's Germany finds itself under even more severe censure than in the United States. In stark contrast, Israel stands out as the sole unabashedly pro-eugenics nation in the Western World.

One cannot help sympathizing with the author, who as a loyal Israeli finds herself immersed in the intense emotions generated by the holocaust-results-from-eugenics claim, but at the same time opts to be the bearer of a classic the-king-is-naked message. Her terminological dilemma is comparable to that of an author of a book on horses who is afraid to use the word "horse." Accordingly, she writes that she has opted to largely eschew the term "eugenics" as an emotionally laden "buzzword," replacing it with "reproductive genetics," even though the latter phraseology is far broader than the former: patently all eugenics does indeed fit under the reproductive-genetics rubric, but reproductive genetics encompasses far more than eugenics. For that matter, "reproductive genetics" is a redundancy; there is no such thing as non-reproductive genetics. Feebly, she concedes that "while writing about the past, the term 'eugenics' is obviously more appropriate."

Before discussing her book, I would like to provide a nutshell summary of the historical context largely (but not entirely) absent in her narrowly defined study: Judaism as a religion is fundamentally consonant with the basic tenets of eugenics, and Jews were accepted members of the eugenics movement. Contrary to politically motivated claims, the eugenics movement was not dismissed as "unscientific" by geneticists in the 1930s (indeed, how could they possible have rejected the topic of selection in human populations?), nor was it discarded as either science or worldview in the wake of Jewish genocide during World War II. The assault on eugenics was a product of the Holocaust and of the Holocaust Memorial movement, which was not launched until the late 1960s - a full quartercentury after the end of that war.

It is no secret that the State of Israel would never have been created, and it is questionable that it could survive even today, without the cohesiveness, activism, financing, and vast media holdings of American Jewry. But prior to 1948 a majority of American Jews were opposed to Zionism, considering that it would engender ill will toward Jewry. Once, however, the Israeli state was achieved, America's Jewish community became more favorable, but there still could be little confidence in the survival chances of a tiny state surrounded by a sea of embittered neighbors. Was this embryo state not likely to become the site of a new Holocaust? Then came 1967, when an American-armed David slew a phalanx of Goliaths. Armed with a new selfconfidence and pride, the determination to defend Israel received greater impetus. It was then that the Holocaust Memorial movement gained momentum, a movement that both honored the dead and created emotional sympathy for Israel.

The campaign required an image of the enemy. Hitler had believed in eugenics, and some German geneticists had indeed allowed themselves to be co-opted to his political goals. No matter that other German eugenicists had emigrated, no matter that diverse Anglo-American eugenicists had publicly decried Hitler's politics, eugenics was massively attacked, eugenicists fled for cover, reclassifying themselves as specialists in demography, genetics, family planning, and educational testing. …

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