Geneticism, Nation, and Jewish Identity

AHA Session 260
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 1 (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Nathaniel Deutsch, University of California, Santa Cruz

Session Abstract

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Jews found themselves at the heart of debates concerning both race theory and the nation state. Indeed, the so-called Jewish Question was predicated on the understanding that Jews constituted a nation in their own right and, more specifically, that they were an originally “Asiatic” people that had been transplanted onto European soil or, as Herder put it, “parasitical plants, having fixed themselves on almost all the nations of Europe.” If Jews were already a nation “from Asia and differ[ed] from others by beard, circumcision, and a special way—transmitted to them from their ancient forefathers,” as Christian Wilhelm von Dohm described them, then how, many critics asked, could they become citizens of another nation? Yet many Jews and their liberal allies who supported emancipation argued that contemporary Jewish identity was primarily or even exclusively religious in character, even if at one time Jews had constituted a discrete cultural or national group, and therefore they were fully capable of being Germans or Frenchmen of the “Hebraic faith,” as the saying went. Ultimately, views about Jewish difference would harden as they became increasingly grounded in theories of race, in which, to quote Theodore Fritsch’s notorious Antisemiten-Katechismus, “Jewish blood [was] everlasting, putting the Jewish stamp on body and soul unto the farthest generations.” This roundtable will explore the historical and conceptual roots of the national and racial understandings of Jewish identity that took shape in the modern period. But it will also look at the ways in which non-Jews and Jews, themselves, conceived of Jewish identity in the early modern period and on the very eve of the major political, cultural, and scientific shifts that characterized the long 19th century. Rather than limiting the discussion to Western and Central Europe, where much of the scholarly literature on race, emancipation, nationality, and the Jews, has tended to focus, the roundtable will expand the geographical and cultural frame to include formations that spanned Europe and Asia (i.e., the Ottoman Empire) or Europe and North Africa (i.e., the French Empire), as well as those that connected zones within Europe itself, such as the “diaspora” of Portuguese ex-conversos in the Netherlands. In this way, the roundtable will also incorporate phenomena, such as the effects of colonialism; the place of Jews within Islamic or, even more specifically, Ottoman, legal traditions; or the impact of Iberian “purity of blood” laws, that are often ignored in studies of how Jewish identity was constituted in the modern period.
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