Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Quote of the Evening: Sander Gilman on the Most Assimilated Jews

Writing on the intersection of Jews and "race" at the turn of the 20th century, Sander Gilman writes something very interesting:
But the more Jews in Germany and Austria at the fin de siecle looked like their non-Jewish contemporaries, the more they sensed themselves as different and were so considered. As the Anglo-Jewish social scientist Joseph Jacobs noted, "it is some quality which stamps their features as distinctly Jewish. This is confirmed by the interesting fact that Jews who mix much with the outer world seem to lose their Jewish quality. This was the case with Karl Marx . . ." And yet, as we know, it was precisely those Jews who were most assimilated, who were passing, who feared that their visibility as Jews could come to the fore. It was they who most feared being seen as bearing that disease, Jewishness, which Heinrich Heine said the Jews brought from Egypt.
Sander L. Gilman, “Are Jews White? Or, the History of the Nose Job”, in Les Back & John Solomos, eds. Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader (London: Routledge 2000), p. 234.

There are, in short, elements at both ends here. On the one hand, there is significant historical evidence that Jewish assimilation has gone hand in hand with Jewish stress of our particularities. The more we are viewed as "like" our contemporaries, the more some of us wish to emphasize that which makes us distinct. Yet, as the latter half of the paragraph emphasizes, there are also those Jews who fear this reemergence. For them, their own Jewishness lurks in the background and threatens their status as unmarked (or -- perhaps more aptly -- marked in the ways they would like). Such persons, one would suspect, would rush to disassociate themselves from the markers of Jewishness -- to make very clear that they do not bear "that disease, Jewishness."

1 comment:

Binyamin Arazi said...

More often than not, Jews in Europe didn't look like their non-Jewish contemporaries (in terms of phenotype/ethnicity at least). They stood out like Sicilians in Sweden.