Once seen as largely a religious, ethnic, or political group, Jews were increasingly constructed as members of a “mixed race” (a so-called “mongrel” or “bastard race”), a people who had crossed racial barriers by interbreeding with black Africans during the Jewish Diaspora. If Jews were evil, as thought by many, this evilness was genetic and could not be purged or cured. Jews converting to Christianity, therefore, could no longer solve “the Jewish question.”
The British psychologist, Francis Galton (1822-1911) – a cousin of Charles Darwin – was a founder of the eugenics movement. In fact, Galton coined the term “eugenics” in 1883 from the Greek word meaning “well born.” Eugenicists attempted to improve qualities of a so-called “race” by controlling human breeding.
Galton argued that genetic predisposition determined human behavior. He proposed that the so-called “elites” in the British Isles were the most intelligent of all the peoples throughout the planet, while “[t]he average intellectual standard of the Negro race is some two grades below our own [Anglo-Saxons]. The Australian type is at least one grade below the African Negro…” and “The Jews are specialized for a parasitical existence upon other nations.”
Galton asserted that Jews were of a lower racial form, and that they could be easily recognizable by their appearance. He also talked about a supposed cold and calculating “Jewish gaze.”
The U.S. writer, Madison Grant (1865-1937) codified this supposed “racialization” of the Jews in his influential book, The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis for European History (1916), in which he argued that Europeans comprised four distinct races: The “Nordics” of northwestern Europe sat atop his racial hierarchy, whom Grant considered as the natural rulers and administrators, which accounted for England’s “extraordinary ability to govern justly and firmly the lower races.”
Next down the racial line fell the “Alpines” whom Grant referred to as “always and everywhere a race of peasants” with a tendency toward “democracy” although submissive to authority. These he followed with the “Mediterraneans” of Southern and Eastern Europe, inferior to both the Nordics and the Alpines in “bodily stamina,” but superior in “the field of art.” Also, Grant considered the Mediterraneans superior to the Alpines in “intellectual attainments,” but far behind the Nordics “in literature and in scientific research and discovery.”
On the very bottom he placed the most inferior of all the European so-called “races”: the Jews. Referring specifically to the Polish Jew, Grant asserted that “…the Polish Jews, whose dwarf stature, peculiar mentality and ruthless concentration on self-interest…[present themselves in] swarms.”
Analogous to the notion in the United States that “one drop” of “black African blood” makes a person black, according to Grant, the mixture of any of the European races and a Jew is a Jew.
By the end of the 19th century CE, the popular image of the “Jewish type” (portrayed invariably as the Jewish male), according to Sander Gilman in his book The Jew’s Body, “consisted of a hooked nose, curling nasal folds (ali nasi), thick prominent lips, receding forehead and chin, large ears, curly black hair, dark skin, stooped shoulders, [weak flat feet, deflated rump,] and piercing, cunning eyes.” In addition, the gaze of the Jew was said to be pathological, searing, cunning, cold, and piercing.
An offshoot of eugenics was phrenology: the study of the skull emphasizing that its size and shape determined mental abilities and character. Phrenologist practitioners held that a specific section of the “Jewish” or “Hebrew” brain was “abnormally” developed causing Jews to be highly interested in money.
As we know, the Nazis contrived “racial” arguments as a philosophical cornerstone as justification for their persecutions of Jews, as well as most people of color and people with disabilities. Jews and others they considered descendants from inferior “racial stands.” Nazi leadership argued vehemently that Jews were polluting the so-called “Aryan race.” They forced Jews to wear the yellow Star of David as a signifying marker, since to the Nazis, yellow represented a sign of “race pollution.”
This sentiment extended far beyond the borders of the Third Reich. For example, in 1939, the United States Congress refused to pass the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which if enacted would have permitted entry to the United States of 20,000 children from Eastern Europe, many of whom were Jewish, over existing quotas. Laura Delano Houghteling, cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration sternly warned, “20,000 charming children would all too soon, grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”
Once constructed as the “other” in European society, Jews and “Jewishness” – while certainly not fully embraced by the ruling elite as “one of their own” – became a sort of “middle” status, “standing somewhere between the dominant position of the White majority and the marginal position of People of Color.” This change in Jewish ethnoracial assignment has occurred only within the last 70 or so years.
Race Is Not Binary
“Race” then must be seen constructed not as a binary with “white” on one side and “people of color” on the other, but rather as a continuum. Except by extremists on the racist right, Ashkenazim are primarily constructed in the U.S. today on the “white” side of the line upon this continuum, and we definitely have white privilege vis-a-vis “people of color.”
I would argue, however, that we do not have the degree and extent of white privilege in many sections of this country as white mainline Protestants. In fact, in some countries, for example, in Eastern Europe still today, we are not constructed as “white.” Obviously, so-called white supremacists and neo-Nazis believe this as well.