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Race Science

Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century term for physical anthropology, or the study of human difference, with scientists proceeding from the common assumption that Europeans were racially superior to non-European peoples. Jews played a central role in race science both as practitioners and objects of study. As many Jews were doctors, they were especially well placed to become race scientists and in a position to combat claims of inherent Jewish difference and/or degeneracy. The rise of antisemitism at the end of the nineteenth century provided further impetus for Jews to employ race science because antisemites used its “evidence” to justify anti-Jewish prejudice.

Race science did not merely provoke an intellectual battle between Jewish and non-Jewish practitioners. There was also an inner-Jewish dimension that compelled Jewish race scientists to seek answers to questions concerning Jewish origins, the SephardicAshkenazic split, and the physiological links between Jews from diverse communities. Jewish race scientists in Germany, for example, were more concerned with the effects of mixed marriage than were those in Russia, while in England questions of occupational distribution played a more significant role than in Poland. Racial antisemitism was of prime concern to Austrian Jewish race scientists, Vienna being a hotbed of anti-Jewish sentiment.

Russia, which had a great anthropological tradition, produced the most prolific and important of all Jewish race scientists, Shemu’el Vaysenberg (Samuel Weissenberg; 1867–1928). With this physician from Elisavetgrad, the study of the physical anthropology of the Jews was dramatically changed. Where previous work had been impressionistic, Vaysenberg’s was quantitative and where it had been Eurocentric, Vaysenberg’s was multiethnic. In addition to his studies on Russian Jews, Vaysenberg conducted comparative anthropological studies on Central Asian and Middle Eastern Jews. As was the case with the majority of Jewish anthropologists, Vaysenberg rejected the notion of racial characteristics, believing instead that any physical peculiarities of Jews were due to environmental factors alone.

Interested in Russian Jewish origins, Vaysenberg proposed two radical theories. First, he claimed that prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews had first migrated into southern Russia and that their descendants converted the Khazars to Judaism in the eighth century. Behind such claims was the attempt to establish the physical antiquity of East European Jews. More significantly in a cultural sense, Vaysenberg’s goal was to assert that Russia was the heartland of European Jewry and that Ashkenazic origins and culture first blossomed there and not, as previously thought, in isolated and small communities along the Rhine.

Vaysenberg’s implicit claim that Jewish cultural preeminence belonged to Russian and not German Jews was taken up by later race scientists and anthropologists. Before World War I, Zionist race scientists and physicians, especially psychiatrists such as Martin Engländer, Raphael Becker, and Daniel Pasmanik, were alarmed by the increase in Jewish assimilation. While maintaining that Central European Jews had attained physical superiority due to their greater affluence, these theorists also believed that East European Jews were mentally stronger because they had not been ravaged by assimilation. The psychiatrists also held that the absence of Jewish national sentiment and religious tradition were signs of mental illness and racial degeneration. The use of race science among Jews as a means of self-defense and cultural self-assertion came to an end with the discrediting of such methodologies under the Nazis and under the weight of Soviet materialist physical and cultural anthropology.

Suggested Reading

John M. Efron, Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (New Haven, 1994); Maurice Fishberg, The Jews: A Study of Race and Environment (New York, 1911).