The Makings of History Revisiting Arthur Ruppin

Arthur Ruppin believed that the realization of Zionism demanded "racial purity" among the Jews.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

Arthur Ruppin, a German-born lawyer and sociologist, is considered the father of the Zionist national settlement in the Land of Israel, beginning in 1908. Among other things, he was involved in the establishment of Kibbutz Degania and in the early development of Tel Aviv, he was among the founders of Bank Hapoalim and until his death in 1943, he was one of the leaders of the Zionist enterprise. He was also one of the fathers of Hebrew education and Hebrew culture in general; indeed, his outlook influenced the worldview of Moshe Dayan and other notables.

All of this is widely known. What is less known is Ruppin's belief that the realization of Zionism demanded "racial purity" among the Jews. In part, his views were inspired by the works of anti-Semitic thinkers, including some of the original Nazi ideologists.

After the Holocaust, Israeli historiography tended to play down this embarrassing information as much as possible - or even ignore it totally. However, a few weeks ago, Tel Aviv University accepted a doctoral thesis by a researcher named Etan Bloom, who found, inter alia, that not only was Ruppin influenced by the theories that engendered Nazi racism, he also had an impact on their formulation.

Bloom discovered that Ruppin had a "definitive influence" on the German view of the Jews as a race. For example, Ruppin's own research, some of it carried out at the Hebrew University, offered an explanation for Jews' supposed avarice: He posited that the Jews who originally lived in the Land of Israel before the destruction of the First Temple, and engaged in agriculture, actually belonged to non-Semitic tribes. At a certain stage they began mixing with Semitic tribes, something that compromised their racial purity and weakened them. As the Semitic element began to become dominant, it prompted the Jews to leave agriculture and to develop commercial instincts, a heightened lust for money and uncontrollable greed.

Ruppin believed these were correctable flaws, and the first task he demanded of the Zionist enterprise was, therefore, to identify remnants of the "original" or "authentic" group of Jews - those with a direct, biological connection with the ancient, racially pure Israelites. He believed they would be found among the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.

At that time, Western Jews were already in the midst of a process of assimilation while, in Ruppin's opinion, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews (from Middle Eastern and North African countries) were experiencing biological atrophy, which cast the fact of their identity as part of the Jewish race in doubt. Therefore, it was only after long hesitation that he authorized bringing Jewish laborers over from Yemen; furthermore, he declared that there were no black Jews.

This, according to Bloom, is how discrimination against Mizrahim took root in the Land of Israel back then. Contrary to accepted beliefs, he posits, this phenomenon was not born of "cultural misunderstanding," but rather of cultural planning based on racial theories. In Bloom's opinion, this was a case of intra-Jewish racism, of an anti-Semitic dimension of modern Hebrew culture. Some of Ruppin's ideas fit into the intellectual discourse that prevailed in his day, which praised racial purity and dealt extensively with eugenics, the movement toward improving human genetic quality. Belief in the theory that Ashkenazim were the definitive Jewish type in the modern era enabled Ruppin to accept German racial theory, and effectively remove the majority of Jews from the Semitic category. Indeed, in his view, the original, "healthy" Jews who were responsible for the virtuous aspects of the culture belonged, in racial terms, to the Indo-Germans.

A few months after the Nazis came to power, in 1933, Ruppin met for a friendly conversation with Hans Guenther, one of the main disseminators of Nazi racial theory. The meeting was intended, among other things, to advance negotiations between the Zionist movement and Nazi German authorities toward an agreement that would enable the Jews of Germany to immigrate to Palestine and transfer some of their assets there.

Ruppin comes across in Bloom's findings as an intellectually and mentally complex individual, who in later years, apparently behaved quite oddly. He photographed "Jewish types," measured skulls, compared fingerprints and believed it was possible to categorize Ashkenazi Jews in various racial subclasses, according to nasal structure. Shortly before his death, he finished a comparative study on the latter subject, comparing a number of outstanding figures in the Zionist movement - beginning with Theodor Herzl himself, whose nose Ruppin defined as "Assyrian-Bukharan." He defined the nose of a Jew named Jacob Feitlowitz, who was born in Poland and studied the history of the Jews in Ethiopia, as "Ashkenazi-Negroid." According to Bloom, Ruppin apparently believed that Feitlowitz's affinity for Ethiopians testified to his attraction to his "own kind."

The doctorate in question is fascinating and eloquent. It was written in English, under the supervision of Tel Aviv University's Itamar Even-Zohar and American historian Sander Gilman. Bloom says he is not particularly happy that he is also a part of this story. He is concerned about the reactions his research is liable to elicit, but will defend what he has written. Indeed, he said this week, "It is the truth."



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