Recently, Guilt & Pleasure’s Todd Hasak-Lowy sat down for a little Q&A with Mitchell B. Hart, associate professor of history at the University of Florida and author of the soon-to-be-released The Healthy Jew: The Symbiosis of Judaism and Modern Medicine (Cambridge University Press, August 2007).
THL: Your forthcoming book, The Healthy Jew, is interesting precisely because it’s so seemingly paradoxical. I mean, with all due respect, a book called The Healthy Gentile, OK, so fine, big surprise. Your book title can be read as literal — the single healthy Jew.
MH: As if I’m going to identify him?
THL: His name is Kyle.
MH: He’s in Kansas somewhere.
THL: He doesn’t know he’s Jewish.
MH: He was stolen at birth and raised in a convent. Yeah, hadn’t thought of that.
THL: The only healthy Jew. But seriously, you’re arguing that there is a counterdiscourse, that the Jew as healthy has its own history.
MH: Yes. The diseased Jew is pretty well known. We’ve encountered him so often, and the diseased Jew is the focus of so much scholarship connected with the end of the nineteenth century: racialism, Nazism, the Jew as the negative object of all this discourse, and then anti-Semitic acts. Even today the popular image of the Jew, especially the male Jew, is connected with certain types of illnesses, from digestive disorders to compulsive kvetching. The Healthy Jew presents the flip side of a long-standing academic discourse, mostly associated with Sander Gilman, concerning this diseased or abnormal Jewish body. Looking at the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Gilman and others have addressed the ways in which, first, the diseased Jewish body or the abnormal Jewish mind and body became the object of anti-Semitic discourse, and second, the way in which Jews themselves — Zionists in particular — but lots of different Jews as well, internalized this notion of the diseased Jewish body. The internalization of this anti-Semitic discourse then produces what Gilman calls Jewish self-hatred.
But what I’m focusing on is that the century that brings us racialized, modern anti-Semitism in its scientific guise also sees the production of a counterdiscourse, which revolves around the notion of the healthy Jewish body. My book is the study of this counterdiscourse. What I found, in fact, was that many scholars and writers used the language of Darwinism and racial science or hygiene to demonstrate that the Jews were the healthiest, most eugenically aware and committed of all peoples.
THL: What particular features of the Jews did these writers praise? What were the exact contours of this discourse?
MH: Well, one component of this discourse is that Jews are healthy, and that Judaism is largely responsible for this.
THL: Judaism? What do they say about Judaism itself?
MH: Judaism is conducive to health, so they argued. Because another component of this discourse understands Moses as the founder of what comes to be known as social hygiene or preventative medicine. Three thousand years before Louis Pasteur and other scientists discovered the role of germs in the transmission of disease, Moses was already advocating for a full-scale social hygiene.
THL: So give us an example of an argument that combines Judaism and healthy Jews.
MH: Well, let’s take kashruth, which is one of the more interesting cases. Suddenly in the 1880s, it’s discovered that tuberculosis is not inherited; it is a transmitted disease. That is, it can be “caught.” So how is it transmitted? Researchers began to focus in on the transmission from cattle to humans: the way diseased meat and milk became the vector, if you will, of tuberculosis. And tuberculosis in the nineteenth century was like cancer for us; it was the great disease that everybody feared. More people are dying of tuberculosis than anything else by the middle to late nineteenth century. So this becomes the cause of enormous public concern and fear. You can see where this is going. If the focus is on clean meat and clean milk, once research seems to indicate that Jews suffer far less than non-Jews from tuberculosis, that they enjoy a sort of immunity to the disease, then the question becomes, how do we account for this supposed immunity to tuberculosis?
Well, there could be different reasons, but the most logical seemed to many to be kashruth. So Jewish and non-Jewish writers and medical researchers focused on the inspection of the meat, the discarding of diseased meat, the way Jews have to drain the blood before eating, the way salting and draining and then inspection, etc. ensure that no diseased or impure organs can be consumed. Jewish dietary laws in general come to be seen as one of the main causes — if not the main cause — of a Jewish resistance or immunity to disease, especially to tuberculosis. So there you get this notion of Jews as healthier, and that this is linked, inextricably at times, to Jewish ritual, to Jewish law.
THL: So what did non-Jews do with this? How far did it penetrate gentile society? Was it attractive to anyone beyond these researchers?
MH: Absolutely. One of the more remarkable examples of this that I found comes from Greece. At one point in the early twentieth century, The New York Times reported that a leading physician in Greece had offered up a resolution at a medical conference on tuberculosis, asking the Greek government to mandate that the Greek populace observe the laws of kashruth, on the grounds that science had shown that the Jews were immune to tuberculosis. The resolution was passed and sent on to the Greek legislature for consideration. There were, so it was reported, lively debates and discussions in the Greek press on the issue. Unfortunately, I don’t read Greek, and The Times did not follow up on the story, so I have no idea what became of the resolution. I’m assuming that the Greeks were not ordered to keep kashruth.
THL: Where did you find all this research, and how widespread was this counterdiscourse?
MH: Well, it wasn’t a handful of eccentrics. Research of this sort appeared consistently in the leading medical journals of the day, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association in this country, as well as in The Lancet, the leading British journal. It also appeared in books on health, eugenics, and race. You even find it in German medical journals. So it’s not marginal or peripheral. It really is a true counterdiscourse. I wouldn’t want to argue that the articles are as numerous as anti-Semitic articles in certain decades, but there are enough that it can be considered a sustained intellectual tradition.
THL: Even if this was a minority discourse in comparison to “Jew as diseased,” why was it so ultimately overwhelmed?
MH: I think at a certain point the diseased Jew overwhelms the healthy Jew for all sorts of reasons — certainly the Holocaust. There became an absolute need to investigate anti-Semitism and the way the Jewish body became — and not just for the Nazis — the object of enormous fear and anxiety that in one way or another contributes to Nazism and the Holocaust. This need overwhelms everything for decades.
THL: During the time you were working on this book, did you find yourself thinking about your status as a healthy or an unhealthy Jew? Because I think we all internalize this stereotype to a certain extent, however much there’s this rational part of us that knows it has to be nonsense.
MH: Well, I’m not so sure about that.
THL: About what?
MH: That the unhealthy or neurotic Jew is a fiction. Or the gastrointestinal Jew is a fiction. I’m not so sure about that.
MH: I’m ambivalent about whether or not the gastrointestinal Jew is a total fiction.
THL: But the healthy Jew, that’s a fiction?
MH: These terms are either subjective or so fluid, what could you possibly mean by such a thing? As for me, well certainly, you’re absolutely right. There’s a deep connection between my own obsessive hypochondria and my interest in all this stuff. Even when I try to get away, I keep coming back to it.
THL: But it’s not just you. It’s me and almost every Jew — or at least every Jewish man — I know. Why do you think these stereotypes have had such a foothold in the internal Jewish self-image?
MH: Well, the people I am dealing with had already identified something that might help explain it — what they called a paradox. They were fascinated with the paradox of Jews who were, as they said, sickly and puny and weak physically, and yet possessed — again, what they called — the indomitable spirit of the Jews. The ability to survive and, in fact, thrive intellectually and culturally ....
THL: Don’t forget economically!
MH: Right! Economically. All of this is deeply problematic, because you have to disentangle what in all of this has anything to do with Jewishness and what we mean by that. But they’re taking it for granted. They’ve got a sort of holistic definition of the Jew. Everything that the Jew does is Jewish. Anyway, they identify this paradox: how have these people survived for so long, how have they thrived, how did they survive the ghetto, the persecutions, the oppression without land, without an empire, without any of these things? The Babylonians, the Romans disappear, but the Jews are still around. And they’re this miracle for people, increasingly for non-Jews as well. So even though we think of ourselves as neurotic or unhealthy, this becomes inseparable from a positive aspect of our identity. In the end, this is a strength. It’s all part of the paradox that I think Jews clearly take a certain pride in. That is, the sort of Woody Allen character who gets the beautiful woman ....
THL: Even though he’s Woody Allen.
MH: Exactly. Even though he’s neurotic. I think that’s a decent part of the explanation. All of this is working in ways to validate a Jewish sense of “specialness.” Not necessarily superiority, but distinctiveness. A continuing notion of some sort of chosen people. We’ve survived. How in the hell did that happen? How does one explain this survival? And how does one explain this ongoing sense of collective identity and distinctiveness and the contribution — because this is a big part of it — the contribution we’ve made to civilization? Way out of proportion to numbers. And all of this, I’m not saying that any of this is “true,” but that it is the narrative or the story we tell ourselves.
THL: And that would all be informed, then, by the anxiety over belonging. So what the Jews were looking for in advancing this counterdiscourse was special membership — that you belong, but that you belong as a special member, as a particularly valuable member.
MH: Particularly valuable, yes, that’s the way that I would put it. Because what’s being argued is contrary to what increasing numbers of philosophers and historians were arguing, which was that the Jews were, at best, peripheral to world history. That especially once Christianity comes on the scene, Judaism ceases to matter and should have disappeared. This is Hegel’s idea: that they’re a dinosaur people. Or the anti-Semitic notion that Jews are incapable of true culture and true civilization. Part of what this narrative does for Jews is that it places them back in the center.
THL: As integral members.
MH: Right, Moses and the law — now conceived as hygiene — were already there 3,000 years ago. And it’s not just Moses. Another significant part of this narrative is how the Jews, through the translation of books and the movement of knowledge, saved Western civilization. It’s not the Greeks. It’s not the Arabs. It was the Jews. So we’re telling you Germans, and Britons, and Americans, and French: “You think we’re marginal. We’re it. You owe us. You lapsed after the disappearance of the Roman Empire. You lapsed into barbarity. Who made it possible, centuries and centuries later, for you to rise again? We did.” And that was the argument. People like Maimonides and others saved medicine. They saved philosophy. They saved language, cosmology ....
THL: They didn’t save cuisine!
MH: They didn’t save cuisine. This is true.
THL: You call this lunch?!
MH: And so all of this, then, is one way or another due to the Jews. It moves them back into the center of the world’s historical narrative.
THL: I feel much better now.
MH: Well, that makes one of us. &