What Is "Race?"
by George Cassutto
The late twentieth century is currently seeing a rise in racial conflict in the United States as well as on the global stage in general. This upsurge of hatred based on the differences between humans includes a concept that has come to be called anti-Semitism, which is defined generally as a hatred of Jewish people and the elements of their culture. Such anti-Semitism has been marked in the newly reunified Germany, where anti-Semitism is seen as especially dangerous given the historical context in which these events take place.
It is an understanding of these events and their causes which might act as a weapon against the repetition of such global traumas as the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. Part of this understanding must include an answer to the question of the status of the Jewish people as a race, for it was Hitler's racial theories that provided the structure for Hitler's attempt at systematic elimination of the Jews as a people. The questions that this paper tries to answer are: "are the Jews a race? If so, why can they be classified as such? If not, what is it about the Jews as a people that disallows excludes their identification as a race?
To define the Jews as a racial group requires that the term "race" first be defined. Hargett defines race as a biological term used to classify members of the same species who differ in secondary characteristics (Hargett, pg. 244).
Most scholars recognize these three racial groups has having emerged early in the development of humankind (Light and Keller, pg 311). Montagu states that culture is a primary means by which man adapts to the local environment (Montagu, pg. 57). This "culture first" mechanism supports Hargett's contention that "culture does not mean race" (pg. 244). Montagu concurs when he asserts that culture is a means of or factor in adaptation. In fact, Montagu seems to support the elimination of the term race as a system of classifying human traits. In his work Man's Most Dangerous Myth, he makes a distinction between "the social idea of race" and "the biological idea of race." The social definition links physical and behavioral traits (pg. 5). This social approach also attributes the total achievements of a people to the physical and behavioral traits associated with those people. These traits lead to alleged differences between groups. The traits become connected with heredity over time, and it is this connection between the physical and the cultural that Montagu objects to. He emphatically holds this view to be erroneous and goes on to say that it is based on prejudice and can be dangerous since such) fallacious logic can be used toward demagogic political ends.
The biological definition of race also has difficulties. Biologists have determined the existence of subdivisions within the human species, and physical anthropologists have generally agreed with their conclusions. Most authorities agree that groups now identified as "races" represent adaptations to local environments (Montagu, pg. 51). Variations in human populations resulted due to migrations from parent groups, thereby causing genetic differentiation due to variables in the environment and in geographical factors (Montagu, pg. 56). As a result, there appears to be no clear biological division between human racial groups since studies reflect the notion that there seems to be as much variation within the races as there is between them (Light and Keller, pg. 311).
Do The Jews Fit Into The Definition of "Race?"
The idea that the Jews constitute a race cannot be supported by the facts since no set of physical traits can be determined to distinguish this group from another. (Simpson and Yinger, pg. 49). Even Carlton S. Coon, proponent of racial theories, states that Jewish physical characteristics are due to social and "psychological" factors since these traits appear in nonJews as well (Simpson and Yinger, pg. 49). Simpson and Yinger cite Montagu in his rejection of the Jews as a racial group. From a paradigm centered in physical anthropology, he states there can be "no such thing as a jewish physical type, and there is not, nor was there ever, anything remotely resembling a Jewish race" (Montagu, pg. 66 as cited in Simpson and Yinger, pg. 50).
For over a century, certain writers have classified the Jews as a race by using the term "Semitic." This designation does not correspond to the anthropological literature on what constitutes a race. Indeed, the Jews have received a number of nonracial designations by anthropologists. Kroeber calls them "a social quasi-caste based... on religion..." Montagu uses similar language: "a quasi-national group" (Simpson and Yinger, pg. 50). Anthropologist Franz Boas asserts racial purity in unlikely except in cases of aboriginal isolation. He is supported by a number of writers when he points out that "there is no more a Semitic race than there is an Aryan race, since both terms define view, or they reject some element of Jewish law (Kuhn, pp. 1920).
Perspectives On Race
Many Jewish people maintain a strong sense of community with other Jews around the world since they are tied together by history, faith, and common values. Indeed, many Jewish people adhere to the idea that the Jewish community makes up a "race" of people when race is defined in a broad, scriptural sense. Authors Joseph Gael and Rabbi Alfred Wolf recognize in their collaborative work entitled Our Jewish Heritage that many Jews subscribe to the "Jews as race" paradigm because of their status of "chosen people" according to ancient tradition. Nevertheless, these Jewish writers state emphatically that "there is no such thing as a Jewish race" (Gael and Wolf, pg. 3). They explain that the Jews belong to a group of peoples that spoke a similar set of languages called Semitic. Moreover, even if the term "Semitic" was a reference to a specific racial constellation, the Jews have undergone considerable integration among indigenous peoples. The racial distinction falls apart especially when trying to account for black Ethiopian Jews or Chinese Jews who have come to reflect the Mongoloid traits of the surrounding population. (Gael and Wolf, pg. 3). Therefore, even the use of the term race to describe their own group by the Jews is an anthropological inaccuracy that often goes unaddressed within Jewish linguistic or cultural conventions. Cultural anthropologist Herskovits is quite explicit when he states "neither the word Aryan nor the term Jew has scientific validity as a racial designation." Again, the term Aryan refers to a linguistic designation while the term "Jew" refers to a group with a common history whose members resemble the overall population of the geographic area they inhabit. The many terms that have been applied to the Jews: "race, people, nation, cultural entity, ethnic group, historic type, and linguistic unit," all include at once cultural as well as biological traits of people in the group being considered (Herskovits, pp. 84-85). Herskovits concedes that there are physical characteristics that contribute to a stereotype used to justify anthropological classifications. He rejects such typification by pointing out that "the Jews derive historically and biologically" from Mediterranean elements of the Caucasoid race, which underwent three major dispersals during the Babylonian Exile of 586 BC., the extension of Hellenism just before the Christian Era, and the imposition of Roman rule before and after the start of the Christian Era (Herskovits, pg. 85).
Race and Anti-Semitism
The evidence within the anthropological literature seems to indicate that the Jews do not fall into any definition of the term "race" when race is defined along anthropological or biological limits. The significance of this fact does not manifest itself within religious or scriptural contexts since in those settings race implies a broader more culturally oriented framework. The historical implication of this thesis that cannot be ignored is that the classification of the Jewish people as a race with distinguishable physical characteristics has and can be used for political ends. Most historians would agree that the clearest and most devastating example of this type of racial demagoguery is the Holocaust, that period of European history from 1933 to 1945 when over 6,000,000 Jews and 5,000,000 non-Jews were systematically exterminated at the hand of the Nazi regime in Germany. Some questions that arise include: how did linguistic classifications, those of "Semitic" and "Aryan," come to describe what appeared to be racial groups? Moreover, why and how were these newly generated racial definitions used to justify genocide on a scale hitherto never seen before in human history? Samuel Sandmel, in his work entitled _We Jews And You Christians_, links the development of eighteenth and nineteenth century nationalism with the development of racial identity of peoples (Sandmel, pp. 35-36). Instead of referring to the Jews on a religious or linguistic basis, nineteenth century writers assigned the Jews and other European peoples with racial qualities alleged to have been retained by those groups. Out of these writings grew twentieth century Hitlerian anti-Semitism. At the same time, the terms "Semite" and "Aryan" grew in acceptability as racial designations, thereby losing their significance as linguistic groups (Sandmel, pg. 38). One of the most influential writers on racial theory during the nineteenth century was Arthur De Gobineau, whose Essay On _The Inequality of the Races_ (1854) would become a major component of the racial theories found in Hitler's Mein Kampf. Gobineau maintained that racial mixture would bring about the decline of superior peoples. Given the imperialistic and ethnocentric climate of European thought during this period, Gobineau meant that the Nordic and Teutonic peoples of Europe would lose their "racial superiority" if they mixed with the darker skinned peoples of the Mediterranean and Africa. Later, the British racial theorist Houston Stewart Chamberlain would build on Gobineau's ideas to expound a threat by "Semitic" peoples against the purity of the Germanic "Aryan race. (Dawidowicz, pg 32). He also characterized this struggle as an outgrowth of the battle between good and evil (Encyclopedia Judaica, Pg. 183), which placed the race war to come in moral terms. This approach would become a familiar theme in Hitler's Mein Kampf. By mid-century, the term "anti-Semitism" had come to describe a racial attitude instead of its original linguistic premise. The term is credited to Wilhelm Marr, who used it in his 1873 work The Victory of Jewry Over Germandom. Marr used Volkist statements, which appeal to a people's sense of nationalistic unity, as well as racial theories to argue that the "racial qualities" of Jews allowed them to rise to global economic and political domination over the peoples of Europe during the nineteenth century (Dawidowicz, pg 34). Progress in anthropology, ethnology, and prehistory during the second half of the nineteenth century allowed scholars to abandon the confused distinctions between Aryan and Semitic "races." Max Mueller, once a proponent of Gobineau's racial paradigm, denounced them in 1871 saying "it was absurd to speak of an Aryan race..." (Encyclopedia Judaica, pg 182).
Race and the Holocaust
The racial, nationalistic writings of the nineteenth century were used by Adolph Hitler to reinforce the anti-Semitism that he had developed during the years of his adolescence and young adulthood in Vienna before World War I. His experiences and the support they received from his reading led Hitler to perceive the Jews differently from other groups which the Nazis would eventually oppose. Their separateness was based on race as he had learned to define it, and to him these characteristics were unchangeable (Mayer, pg. 100). Hitler recognized the cohesiveness of the Jewish community, which he correctly attributed to "religious bonds." Nevertheless, Mein Kampf clearly accuses the Jews of using their religion as an excuse to "keep the blood of Jewry pure." Indeed, Hitler's attacks on the Jews were couched in social as well as racial terms in order to portray them as a single, parasitic enemy (Mayer, pg. 100). Historical evidence seems to point out that as early as 1920, before Mein Kampf was written, Hitler had developed the idea of genocide against the Jews in order to maintain racial purity among the "Aryan" peoples of Europe (Dawidowicz, pg. 15). This genocidal intent, later expounded by Hitler in Mein Kampf, was the political realization of what he saw as a necessity based on racial truth.
This anthropological question of what constitutes race has direct applications to history as well as implications for viewing contemporary events within our own society. Before World War II, the human race was divided by "scholars" into numerous racial categories, and the results of such racial designations became a dangerous system of distinctions that led to the Holocaust. As humanity approaches the start of the Twenty-first Century, the social and biological sciences have gained advantages in research techniques that were not available to the thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The human community continues to increase in communication, transportation, and economic integration, while the lines that divide nation and race become increasingly blurred. It is imperative, then, that differences between groups of human beings be celebrated as strengths in diversity rather than as a hierarchy of quality among the various groups that make up global society. It is crucial that modern thinking purge itself of antiquated perspectives on race. The human family has experienced severe upheavals and destruction due to a lack of insight and unity based specifically on physical differences. The lessons of the Holocaust must be well instilled in our children. In order to do so, we must understand the mistakes in thinking that those who were responsible for it made during that historical period. The Jews may or may not be perceived as a separate people, a race or any other designation, but when such designations become the basis for persecution, we must oppose such rationalization at every turn. This antiracial activism must be applied to all groups within a society before all groups within that society become threatened. It is this egalitarianism that I believe is embodied in the Bill of Rights of the United States, and that was so sorely lacking during the period of nationalistic violence of the Hitlerian era in Germany. Unfortunately, it is this very same race-based nationalism that is recurring in Germany, the United States, and other nations around the world. Knowledge of the past, and of the very nature of human life can be used to prevent a reliving of persecution on a mass scale.
Cohen, Norman. Warrant For Genocide. Chico, Ca.: Scholars Press. 1981.Dawidowicz, Lucy. The War Against The Jews 1933-1945. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.
Encyclopaedia Judaica. AntiSemitism. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House. 1974.
Gael, Joseph and Wolf, Alfred. Our Jewish Heritage. New York: Holt & Co. 1957.
Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews In Europe During The Second World War: The "Final Solution In History." New York: Pantheon Books. 1988.
Montagu, Ashley. Man's Most Dangerous Myth. Cleveland: The World Publishing Co. 1964.
____, The Idea of Race. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press. 1965Sandmel, Samuel. We Jews And You Christians. New York: JB Lippincott Co. 1967.
Sartre, Jean Paul. AntiSemite and Jew. New York: Schoken Books. 1948.
Simpson, George E. and Yinger, Milton J. Racial And Cultural Minorities: An Analysis of Prejudice and Discrimination. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. 1953.
Tobin, Diane, Gary A., and and Rubin, Scott, In Every Tongue,
Institute for Jewish & Community Research, 2005.
(Noted scholar Gary A. Tobin and co-authors Diane Tobin and Scott Rubin show that American Jews are a multiracial people -- perhaps the most diverse people in history). Source: http://www.jewishresearch.org/v2/2005/pressReleases/Book_9_05PR.html
Van Den Haag, The Jewish Mystique. New York: Stein and Day. 1969.
_Race, The Jews, and The Holocaust_ George H. Cassutto: North Hagerstown High
School July 19. 1993.
To What is Race?