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.