"Defenders of the Race" by John M.              Efron

Defenders of the Race Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siècle Europe John M. Efron

Publication date:
30 Nov 1994
Yale University Press
272 pages: 235 x 156mm
10 b-w illus.
Sales territories:

By the late nineteenth century, physical anthropologists were engaged in debates about the "Jewish Racial Question," asking whether there was a biological basis for Jewish distinctiveness and social development. This fascinating book describes for the first time the response of Jewish race scientists to these debates, demonstrating that in their participation, the scientists were involved in a complex process of Jewish self-definition, one that was impelled by two factors: the external threat of antisemitism and the internal need to reassert a Jewish ethnic pride that had been battered by assimilation.

John Efron examines the racial science of Jewish anthropologists and physicians in Germany, England, Russia, and Austria, showing that their work differed from place to place because it was contingent on such historical factors as the nature of Jewish integration in a given country, the character of a nation's Jewish community or communities, and the level of antisemitism there. Efron sketches the growth of race science from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries and considers how Jews were represented in it. He then studies the image of Jews in British anthropology, discusses the first Jewish race scientist, Joseph Jacobs, an Anglo-Australian who focused on the Jews of Western Europe, and the Russian Jewish race scientist Samuel Weissenberg, who studied the Jews of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Near East. Finally he examines the link between race science and the politics of Zionism, showing how Zionist scientists used race science not to assert Jewish superiority but to bolster a political cause that was concerned with Jewish spiritual and physical regeneration.

"[Efron] has performed a great service in bringing the fact of Jewish race science out from under the rock into the light of academic research."?Steven Beller, Shofar

"This important work of political, intellectual, and scientific history breaks new ground in the study of minority resistance."?Carol Fink, Central European History

"This book gives a new dimension to our thinking about racism. No one interested in modern Jewish history or the history of racism can avoid dealing with its argument or subject matter."?George L. Mosse

"This book ably and thoughtfully traces the development of Jewish race science through two countries, Germany and Britain; the work of two scientists, Joseph Jacobs and Samuel Weissenberg; and two political movements, racial antisemitism and Zionism. . . . It effectively illustrates the social history of a discredited science, bringing to new light the efforts of Jewish physician-scientists to offer Jewish readers, in the words of the author, "comfort, dignity, and hope" against the malicious opinions of antisemitism."?Marc S. Micozzi, The New England Journal of Medicine

"A well-written and provocative book that will be of interest across disciplines."?Glenn R. Sharfman, The Historian

"[A] wonderfully informative volume on Jewish race science."?Regina Morantz-Sanchez, Bull. Hist. Med.

"The book is an important addition to our knowledge of the pervasiveness of racial theories. Especially thoughtful is the focus on the minority perspective."?Elazar Barkan, American Historical Review

"Efron's book is clear and well-written. . . . [It] gives us powerful reasons to disbelieve that the value-slope of a science is immediately discernible from its internal logic?but it also shines light on a remarkable and heretofore hidden aspect of Jewish intellectual history."?Robert N. Proctor, American Scientist

"Efron's work is a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on European racism, for he demonstrates how scientific racism shaped the discourse of Jewish anthropologists in their response to anti-Semitic scientific racism. . . . Efron's well-written work furthers our understanding of European racism, anti-Semitism, and especially the Jewish responses to anti-Semitism."?Richard Weikart, German Studies Review