Popular Science Monthly/Volume 81/July 1912/Are the Jews a Pure Race?




DR. MAURICE FISHBERG has brought together in a book on "The Jews"[1] a great mass of valuable anthropological and sociological statistics. The work is likely to become a standard reference handbook for some time to come. For that reason it is deplorable that the author should have marred its value by over-zealousness in supporting a thesis that did not actually lie within the scope of his undertaking. He believes that the Jews are destined to be assimilated by the races among whom they live in Europe and America, and it is apparently in order to facilitate this manifest destiny that he arrays all the arguments he can muster tending to show that the Jews are not a pure race.

There are certain physical traits generally assumed by anthropologists to be distinctive of race. Dr. Fishberg finds that in these respects the Jews are not different from the races amongst whom they live. Certain other characteristics of a moral, social and vital or physiological nature, often ascribed to the Jews, are either denied existence or attributed by the author to economic and social status rather than to race.

The chief physical characteristics relied upon to distinguish races are stature, head-form and color. As to stature, Dr. Fishberg shows that the Jews rise and fall with the people in the land of their nativity, being short where the gentiles are short, and tall where they are tall, though never quite as tall. That stature is influenced by environment, is conceded by Dr. Fishberg—his own measurements on Jews in New York and those of Dr. Jacobs on the Jews in London leave no doubt on this point. A little of the Jewish variability in stature is reserved, nevertheless, to be ascribed to racial intermixture.

As to head-form Dr. Fishberg is more decided. The heads of European, Caucasian, African and Arabian Jews vary in shape. Some are long, some are broad, some are round. Only the commingling of the blood of different races could have produced these differences, argues the author.

Now, strange to say, in eastern Europe—in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Roumania—the Jews have remarkably uniform heads. These Jews constitute eighty per cent, of all the Jews in the world. Does this uniformity indicate unity of race? Not at all, according to Dr. Fishberg. The gentiles in these regions, who, we know, are of different races, also have remarkably uniform heads. It follows that the Jews acquired their uniformity of head-shape by fusion with their non-Jewish neighbors. That is to say: When Jewish heads are various in shape, it proves that the blood of various races flows in their veins, and when their heads do not vary much in shape, the same thing is proved. On one page Dr. Fishberg writes as if head-form were an unchangeable racial characteristic—on that page, since the heads of Jews in Europe, Africa, and Asia vary—the Jews are not a race. On another page, the Jews are not a race for the opposite reason, namely, because eighty per cent, of them have heads of the same shape—since it happens that the many gentile races living in the same part of the world also have similar heads!

Dr. Fishberg introduces his table showing how much alike are the heads of the Jews in eastern Europe with a remark from Professor Kipley's "Races of Europe." "The perfect monotony and uniformity of environment of the Russian people," says Ripley, "is most clearly expressed anthropologically in their head-form." If the environment is clearly expressed in the head-form of the gentiles, why is it not also expressed in the head-form of the Jews? The Jews have lived in that environment for the last ten centuries, at least. Would Dr. Fishberg suggest that Jewish heads alone are impervious to environmental influence? That environment has an effect upon head-form has been confirmed by the recently published measurements of Professor Boas on 30,000 immigrants and their descendants. These measurements show that, "The head-form undergoes far-reaching changes due to the transfer of the races of Europe to American soil. The east European Hebrew, who has a very round head, becomes more long-headed; the south Italian, who in Italy has an exceedingly long head, becomes more short-headed; so that both approach a uniform type in this country so far as roundness of the head is concerned. . . we are compelled to conclude that when these features of the body change, the whole bodily and mental make-up of the immigrants may change." Environment, it thus appears, may act directly upon Jewish heads as well as upon Russian or Italian.

Head-form has been regarded by anthropologists as the most stable of racial characteristics. If that, together with "the whole bodily and mental make-up of immigrants, may change," one need hardly be surprised to find that color of eye and hair too are modifiable by environment. Dr. Fishberg does not, however, allow such a possibility to disturb the serene course of his argument. You may mix colors by intermarriage of races, but nothing else can affect their everlasting fixedness. The usual assumption is that the Jews, originally, if they were anything, were brunettes. But Dr. Fishberg finds that hardly more than half—52 per cent, of the males, and 57 per cent, of the females—are dark. The blonds, he concludes, must be due to past intermarriages with non-Jewish races.

Is the conclusion inevitable? Animals are known to change color with a change of environment—why not men? Professor Ridgeway in his presidential address to the Royal Anthropological Institute, January, 1910, refers to a bit of positive evidence that they may. Mr. J. V. Hodgson, biologist of the Scott Antarctic Expedition, reported that as a result of living under such unusual conditions, the eyes of the members of the expedition became so blue as to occasion remark on their return to New Zealand and also on their arrival home in England. "Color, therefore, like the cephalic index and stature, is also prone to change and in itself is not deserving of implicit trust."

Dr. Fishberg dilates upon the statistics of intermarriage between Jews and Christians in Europe to support his thesis that assimilation is the destiny of the Jews, as mixture has been their history. The figures for certain localities are sufficiently striking. In Prussia, during 19001907, there were 21 mixed to every 100 pure marriages. In Berlin there were, in 1905-6, 44 mixed marriages to every 100 pure Jewish marriages. In Hamburg and Copenhagen similar high rates of intermarriage are found. Dr. Fishberg argues that the Jews are bound to become even more composite as a race than they are now.

His zeal, however, seems to get the better of him. He points out that this intermarrying tendency means an appreciable loss to Judaism, and the more so since the children of mixed marriages tend to marry with Christians rather than with Jews. The children of mixed marriages are mostly brought up in the religion of the non-Jewish parent. "It is Ruppin's opinion that hardly ten per cent, of the children resulting from mixed marriages remain Jews for any considerable length of time. Of these it is doubtful whether any Jews are left after two or three generations." But a couple of pages farther on we are impressively reminded of the "new anthropological types" that are being introduced "among the children of Israel." We ask: If none of the offspring of mixed marriages are left among the Jews after two or three generations how can new anthropological types arise among them? And we ask further, whether the anthropological types that Dr. Eishberg finds now among the Jews arose in the same way!

He quotes Professor Boas's statement that if two types of equal number intermingle, there will be in the fourth generation less than one person in ten thousand of pure blood; and if one group is smaller than the other, it will, of course, lose its identity even more quickly. But Professor Boas assumes, in order to be able to make his calculation, that the intermingling proceeds by chance, that there are neither artificial accelerations nor restrictions. Admit, however, that the mingling does not go on by chance, that there is a much more powerful tendency for kind to mate with kind than for intermarriage, and admit, further, that all the children of mixed marriages are drained off into one of the groups, leaving after the second or third generation none in the other, and you have a totally different result. Your smaller group, from which the offspring of intermarriage are drained off into the larger, will remain pure for ages, and a more interesting problem than of the purity of the smaller group arises, viz., the extent to which its constant losses have leavened the larger group.

It has been suggested by Professor Ripley that the Jewish type, if not due to racial continuity, may be due to choice, or, in other words, to sexual selection. Others have pointed out that in the principle of sexual selection we have an explanation for the resemblance between the Jews and the gentiles in every country where they live together. The gentile type being the dominant one, it becomes a distinction and a social advantage for a Jew to be of the gentile type. The gentile type of manhood and of beauty, commonly bolder, freer and happier than the Jewish, excites the admiration and envy of the victims of oppression. Hence, the gentile features are prized, selected and preserved. Dr. Fishberg agrees with Professor Ripley as to the effectiveness of sexual selection, but he denies that the gentile type would be the one selected. He contends that the Ghetto Jew abhors the gentile type. On this point we have only his own unsupported opinion. When it suits his purpose, Dr. Fishberg sees nothing but the Ghetto. He seems to forget the very considerable periods of comparative freedom the Jews have enjoyed in Europe. And what becomes of his thesis at this point? How could the intermarriages that he is so sure have taken place if there had always existed an abhorrence for the gentile type?

Dr. Fishberg finds nothing racially distinctive in any of the commonly alleged vital, social or moral characteristics of the Jews. Their great "tenacity of life" has often been spoken of. Statistics from the United States Census confirm the opinion as to their lower mortality. In the census for 1900 it is shown that their death rate is astonishingly below that of other people living under the same conditions. In three of the most crowded wards of New York city the mortality of the Jews was 17 per thousand; whereas the mortality of the Germans living under the same conditions was 22, of the Irish 36, and of the native Americans 45. Dr. Fishberg remarks upon this phenomenon that what we have here is not a racial characteristic. The low death rate of the Jews is not due to "tenacity of life"; in fact, adult Jews die as soon as other adults. The figures of the census merely indicate the fact of a low infant mortality, and this is due not to any racial peculiarity but to the great care and watchfulness of Jewish mothers. There he leaves the matter. One naturally inquires why the Jewish mothers in those congested wards display a solicitude for their babes so much greater than other mothers in the same district, that half as many Jewish infants die as Irish, and two and a half times as many children of native Americans die as of Jewish! It will not do to say, as Dr. Fishberg does in one place, that fewer Jewish mothers work away from home. That is only putting the same fact in another way. Why do they not go away from home? They are just as poor as the Germans, Irish and native Americans in those wards. If a phenomenon of this sort were observed, say, among birds—such a greater affectionateness on the part of one set of mother-birds than on the part of another set, with such an astonishing difference in infant mortality—the ornithologist would unquestionably be strongly inclined to think he was dealing with different species of birds. Dr. Fishberg is studying types of humanity, whose evolution and differentiation are more along mental, moral and social lines than along physical lines; but when he comes to a phenomenon that is of a spiritual character he passes it by as a matter of small significance.

One would think that since Dr. Fishberg is so averse to attributing any of the observed peculiarities of the Jews to race, he would look for their causes in moral and religious habits that are distinctively Jewish; for if the Jews are not a race in the physical sense, they must be a religious community. But Dr. Fishberg's aversion to doing the one thing seems to be as great as his aversion to doing the other. He admits, for example, that the Jews all over the world show a remarkable freedom from alcoholism. "Many physicians state that in their professional experience they have never treated one for inebriety." Drunkards are rare among them. To what is this sobriety due? Neither to race, nor to religious or moral training, according to Dr. Fishberg, but simply to their life in Ghettos, which cut them off from the ways of the gentiles and gave them an abhorrence for their customs. The proof is that as soon as they emerge from the Ghettos inebriety increases among them. Here again we have only the author's unsupported statement as to a matter of fact.

The Jews are credited with immunity from certain diseases and greater susceptibility to others. Dr. Fishberg admits their surprising immunity from tuberculosis. Even when living in the most crowded and unsanitary quarters, their mortality from this disease is far below that of other people. What is the cause of this comparative immunity? Some say it is race; others, that it is their dietary scrupulousness. It is neither, says Dr. Fishberg. Their immunity is partly due to their freedom from alcoholism; partly to their long experience in urban life which has cut off those too weak to withstand the disease, leaving only the comparatively immune. That dietary scrupulousness has had nothing to do with lowering the mortality from tuberculosis, argues Dr. Fishberg, is proved by the fact that the Jews in Harlem, who have become more indifferent to dietary regulations, are less susceptible to the disease than the Jews on the East Side. Here we have a very palpable example of Dr. Fishberg's special pleading and his effort to support his thesis even at the expense of consistency. If it be true, as he says, that Jews become more addicted to alcoholism as they emerge from the Ghetto, and if alcoholism is one of the chief causes of susceptibility to tuberculosis, then why are not the Jews of Harlem, emancipated from the Ghetto and more alcoholic as they are, according to the author, more rather than less susceptible to tuberculosis than the Jews on the East Side?

When no other explanation than race, or habits governed by religious or moral ideas, occurs to him, Dr. Fishberg prefers to plead ignorance rather than admit the effectiveness of these causes. He grudgingly confirms, for example, the comparative immunity of Jews from cancer. The striking exemption of Jewish women, especially, from cancer of the uterus has been confirmed by many physicians and Dr. Fishberg also affirms it. As usual, race and diet have been offered as explanations. Dr. Fishberg refrains from presenting a counter explanation because of the meagerness of our knowledge of the nature of cancer, but dismisses without another word the explanations that have been suggested.

If ever one would be justified in looking to religious and moral peculiarities for causes, it would surely be when dealing with statistics of crime. The Jews, Dr. Fishberg argues, are not a racial unit. They are some sort of a unit, or Dr. Fishberg's book would be without a subject and without a title. Call them a religious community, then, although scattered over the whole world. It is hardly necessary to dwell upon the close relationship between Jewish religion and Jewish morals. The Ten Commandments, the preaching of the Prophets, the minute legislation of the Talmud, all are aimed at regulating conduct. Can we assume that the Jews have remained a religious community for so many centuries, bound together by loyalty to these moral maxims, incessantly rehearsing and teaching them, without an appreciable effect upon actual practise? Dr. Fishberg's position implies that we must make this assumption. The statistics of Jewish criminality in those countries where they have been kept are remarkable. In Hungary, for instance, in 1904, there was 10.5 times as much manslaughter, 9 times as much robbery, 7 times as much homicide, 6.3 times as much assault, 4.23 times as much arson, in proportion to their numbers by Christians as by Jews. Similar statistics are available from several other countries. On the other hand, more Jews than Christians were convicted of bankruptcy, duelling, usury, fraud, perjury and forgery.

Dr. Fishberg concludes that there is nothing racial, moral or religious about this phenomenon. It is all explained by the Ghetto and by the nature of the occupations in which the Jews are engaged. Their freedom from crimes of violence is due to their weakness and cowardice; their proneness to mercantile crimes is due to their rapacity in business. As they emerge from the Ghetto and become physically more robust, crimes of violence too increase among them. That the terrible struggle for existence in the restricted areas to which they are confined in Europe is the cause of much transgression against the laws of property is probable; but weakness and cowardice explain nothing. The weakest and most cowardly are often the most quarrelsome and the most cruel among themselves. Jackals fear the lion, but they have no fear of one another. Dr. Fishberg has written a book about the Jews, as a people who are not a race or a nation, in his opinion, but scattered communities unified by religion, yet their religion has had no effect upon their lives, and its only outcome has been the Ghettos that Christians have forced them to live in!

As one proceeds through the multitude of figures, assertions and arguments in Dr. Fishberg's book, one becomes doubtful as to what he is really driving at. It would seem, offhand, that he wished to convince us of the fact that the people now called Jews are not descendants of the same original stock. "Ethnologically," he says, "there are practically no differences between Jews and other Europeans. Both consist of conglomerations of various racial elements blended together in a manner that makes it. impossible to disentangle the components, or even the predominant race out of the ethnic chaos." But if his aim was to prove this, what was the use of wasting so much zeal and labor? On page 135 we are told, "One thing is certain, however, the original stock of the Jews was not made up of a single and homogeneous race, as is supposed by some." And again on the same page we read that the Bible itself records inter-marriages between Jews and gentiles and "that some of these races were not of Semitic stock has been established recently by archeological research." Why was it necessary to produce more evidence; why worry about blonds and long heads and short heads, if the Jews never were Jews?

But why should we be concerned whether the Jews are, or ever were, a "pure race"? What is a pure race? Would Dr. Fishberg know one if he saw one? If there ever was a pure race how did it come into existence? Was it born pure, or did it issue pure from the Hand of God? "Religion," says Dr. Fishberg, "the Jewish as well as the Christian and Mohammedan, with the assistance of the state, artificially created the types of the Jew at the beginning of the nineteenth century. There is nothing unusual that an isolated community should evolve peculiar characters." Does Dr. Fishberg know any other way than isolation by which races acquire peculiar characters? The Jews of remote antiquity seem to have had characters sufficiently peculiar to cause themselves to be known as Jews. How did they get those characters? Was any thing but isolation ever the cause of such peculiarities? How did the American Indians, the Anglo-Saxons, the Ethiopians get their peculiar characters? Does Dr. Fishberg imagine they inherited them in an uninterrupted line of descent from a primordial group or pair that had them since first there were men on earth?

It could easily be shown that there is as much diversity of religion among the modern Jews as of physical type. If we followed Dr. Fishberg's method we could prove that the Jews are neither a race nor a religious community. And yet what have historians been talking about when they have written about the Jews? To what have the Jews, if we may still use the term, been loyal all these centuries? And to what shall be ascribed that Hebraic influence of which writers as diverse as Matthew Arnold and Nietzsche speak with confident appreciation or reprobation?

Dr. Fishberg seems to think that in presenting evidence tending to show that the Jews are not a pure race, he has provided the most deadly possible reply against those who dream of reconstituting the Jews as a nation. If the Jews are not a race, if all their peculiarities vanish as soon as you change their economic status, then it is folly with such material to undertake any work of reconstruction. The Jews are an evanescent phenomenon, and we shall be wise if we gracefully acquiesce in their disappearance. As if men interested in the welfare of their kind ever troubled themselves about such metaphysical entities as Dr. Fishberg's "pure race"! His contention that the Jews are not a pure race has no point. It makes no difference whether they are or not, since the only so-called pure races are a few small groups like the Basques and the Esquimaux, which, through long isolation, have attained a high degree of homogeneity—at least to European eyes. "Pure races" are anthropological postulates, like the atoms of physicists, which serve a scientific purpose but never can be brought in to decide practical questions of politics or engineering. Dr. Fishberg tries to use the conception of a "pure race" in such an illegitimate manner. In his eagerness he falls repeatedly, as we have seen, into inconsistencies unbecoming, to say the least, in a scientific work. After a candid perusal of it, one has to declare in true Irish fashion that the arguments do not prove that the Jews are not a pure race, and even if they did, it would make no practical difference to any one or any thing.

  1. "The Jews, a Study in Race and Environment," by Maurice Fishberg, M.D., Contemporary Science Series, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1911.