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Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siecle Europe is a difficult book to review. It is particularly difficult for a reviewer who is Jewish, and at a time when race science (practiced today under the name of "psycho-" rather than "anthropometry") is an object of renewed and, to put it mildly, not entirely disinterested scrutiny. The author's purpose is as politically correct as can be: The book - which is touching in its sincerity - is animated by multiculturalist zeal and takes as. its premise the immorality of nineteenth-century anthropology, that handmaiden of colonialism, the "scientific" reflection and instrument of white European domination. It aims to set the record straight, to contribute to the common multiculturalist struggle of the insulted by "the European gaze" by honoring those who were the first to reverse it (p. 3). But its heroes are white European Jews - a circumstance that might lead some to suspect an attempt to colonize anticolonialism itself - and in their "resistance to prejudice" they participate,. and therefore implicate themselves, in the white European race science. A complicated story.
It is further complicated by the fact that Defenders of the Race, intended, no doubt, primarily as a service to the good cause, is also a work of scholarship. But, as Efron demonstrates convincingly, mixing science and politics, while often beneficial to the latter, tends to invalidate the former, leading the ideologically animated scholar to conclusions unwarranted by the data and, by definition, allowing an impartial observer to doubt the scholar's sound judgment. The most fascinating aspect of Efron's book is his discussion of the confusion between scholarship and ideology in the race science of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whether practiced by open anti-Semites, trying to prove the inferiority of the Jews, or by Jews, trying to defend themselves from those charges. His inability to separate the issues in his own work and to distinguish between science and politics for the purposes of his analysis makes the book itself worth analyzing and raises questions, extending beyond its scope, about the place of science in a liberal society, questions that - in this time of general ideological anxiety - are well worth sorting out.
The term "race science" refers to the systematic empirical study of various human groups, based on the presupposition that their behavioral characteristics (expressed in history and culture) are to an extent anchored in their distinctive biological properties. According to Efron, this specific research tradition emerged toward the end of the eighteenth century and by the end of the nineteenth had become quite mainstream. It was coterminous with physical anthropology and informed much of medicine; thus, "race science," "anthropology," and "medicine" are used interchangeably in the book. The research techniques of race science evolved from general ethnographic descriptions to increasingly quantitative - anthropometric - studies, which implied a sharper focus on the biological properties of groups, among other things because the measurement of biological properties (such as skull shapes and the proportions of blonds and brunets in the population) is both more feasible and makes far greater sense than the measurement of cultural and behavioral characteristics. One could hardly run out of things to measure, and it stands to reason that the popularity of race science could at least in part be attributed to the inexhaustible research opportunities it offered young scholars. This, however, was not the only reason for its appeal.
In Germany, where it emerged, race science found the most congenial ideological environment. This affinity reflected the character of German nationalism, an illuminating connection that Efron does not address, and anthropological findings reinforced widely held notions about the biological, that is "material" or "objective," differences between nations seen as biologically distinct racial groups. These notions, it should be stressed, existed prior to and were in no way dependent on empirical observation, but the fact that the results of scientific investigation …