Reply to CSULB History Department Statement:
Issues in the History of Anti-Semitism
This comment is in response to a generally negative comment about my work issued by the History Department on a faculty email list at CSULB (see below). I replied that the History Department owed me and the university a bill of particulars drawn from my books that not only shows shortcomings on my part but also shows that these shortcomings are systematic and have led to important erroneous conclusions on my part.
In the following I describe how history figures in my work and review comments on it by two historians.
The historical record plays a somewhat different role in each of the three books on Judaism. A People That Shall Dwell Alone (PTSDA) presents the basic theory of group evolutionary strategies, using Judaism as the case study since its history is so well documented.
PTSDA relies almost entirely on what one might term “consensus history.” That is, it relies on well-established, uncontroversial findings about how traditional Jewish communities were organized, how they regulated relationships between Jews and non-Jews, and how they structured marriages, regulated ingroup charity, and punished cheaters and defectors. The only exception is a 15-page section on Jewish proselytism in the ancient world where there was obviously a great deal of controversy between Christian and Jewish apologists. In that instance, I presented both sides of the debate and embedded the section within a wider discussion of Jewish cultural separatism, endogamy, and concern with genealogy as a component of social status; I concluded that in fact proselytism and conversion to Judaism were not very common.
Similarly, The Culture of Critique (COC) addresses historical data in two chapters — one on the involvement of Jews and the political and cultural left, and the other on the role of Jewish activism against immigration restriction and the pro-European bias of U.S. immigration laws prior to 1965. The other chapters deal with the history of social science, including quite a bit on the history of psychology (e.g., psychoanalysis and the Frankfurt School [which produced The Authoritarian Personality]), and the eclipse of Darwinism in anthropology. Again, I relied on mainstream sources, often by highly esteemed Jewish scholars. For example, Carl Degler’s In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) was an important source on the decline of evolutionary biology in the social sciences, as was Gelya Frank’s “Jews, multiculturalism, and Boasian anthropology” (American Anthropologist 99:731–745, 1997). George Stocking’s Race, Evolution, and Culture: Essays in the History of Anthropology ( New York: Free Press, 1968) proved invaluable. Since these topics involve psychology and other issues related to ethnicity, I felt comfortable addressing them.
Regarding the role of Jewish activism in changing immigration law, the conclusions of my research have been supported and amplified by Vanderbilt University historian Hugh Davis Graham:
Most important for the content of immigration reform [i.e., anti-restrictionism], the driving force at the core of the movement, reaching back to the 1920s, were Jewish organizations long active in opposing racial and ethnic quotas. These included the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, and the American Federation of Jews from Eastern Europe. Jewish members of the Congress, particularly representatives from New York and Chicago, had maintained steady but largely ineffective pressure against the national origins quotas since the 1920s.... Following the shock of the Holocaust, Jewish leaders had been especially active in Washington in furthering immigration reform. To the public, the most visible evidence of the immigration reform drive was played by Jewish legislative leaders, such as Representative Celler and Senator Jacob Javits of New York. Less visible, but equally important, were the efforts of key advisers on presidential and agency staffs. These included senior policy advisers such as Julius Edelson and Harry Rosenfield in the Truman administration, Maxwell Rabb in the Eisenhower White House, and presidential aide Myer Feldman, assistant secretary of state Abba Schwartz, and deputy attorney general Norbert Schlei in the Kennedy-Johnson administration. (Hugh Davis Graham, Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America (New York, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 56–57).
Regarding the involvement Jews and the political and cultural left, my main sources were prominent Jewish historians, including Arthur Liebman’s Jews and the Left (New York: Wiley, 1979) and Charles Liebman’s The Ambivalent American Jew: Politics, Religion, and Family in American Jewish Life (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973). Another source was the highly regarded mainstream book by Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter, Roots of Radicalism: Jews, Christians and the New Left (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press, 1982/1996). Also important was the work of Albert S. Lindemann, a historian at UC-Santa Barbara, author of Esau’s Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997). When I used these sources, I accepted the authors’ points of view because their basic findings are uncontroversial and well-established, and they form a coherent picture.
Since Lindemann is an expert on modern Jewish history and anti-Semitism, and particularly European anti-Semitism beginning in the 19th century, his comments on my work carry some weight. He wrote the following letter to Prof. Martin Fiebert of the Psychology Department at CSULB:
Dear Professor Fiebert:
Yes, I am familiar with Kevin Macdonald’s writings (and he has favorably quoted my work in the past). I would hesitate to summarize my own reactions to his work in a brief e-mail, but in very general terms (and in terms I have conveyed to him directly) I have reservations about his theoretical approach (as I and many other historians have reservations about a great many social-scientific forays into history). On the other hand, I am impressed with his intelligence, with the breadth of his reading and the extent to which he asks some provocative questions. Even when I disagree with his conclusions, I find some of what he writes valuable. I know that some have accused him of misusing his sources, but I do not make that complaint about his use of my books, nor have I encountered any flagrant misuse of sources with which I am familiar.
I should comment, similarly, that I place myself squarely in the tradition of free inquiry — and resist the overkill that is regularly applied to those judged to be speaking “too freely” on issues having to do with Jews and Israel. If I have to err on the side of listening to disturbing viewpoints, as opposed to dismissing them facilely or curtly, I will take the chance. I have myself been wrong too often to be so supremely confident of first impressions or about things I have not studied adequately. Even flawed works sometimes make interesting contributions (and I am inclined to see all works as inevitably flawed in some ways, my own included).
That said, I would be interested to see the exposé you mention, which I have not seen (though I have read others). If you can send it as an e-mail attachment, that would be fine (or perhaps you have an URL where it can be found). If you have only hard copy, you can send it to me at:
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
Clearly, the tone of Prof. Lindemann's letter is quite different from the comments of the History Department. I have not misused sources. While there may well be some mistakes (as there are in virtually all works), they were not systematic, nor do they reflect malfeasance on my part. Intellectual honesty demands that the History Department document my malfeasance so that I can respond to their comments.
To my knowledge, the only review of a book of mine to date by a professional historian is the review by Robert Pois of Separation and Its Discontents (SAID). A historian at the University of Colorado, Pois reviewed the book quite negatively. His review caused me considerable concern because of my three books on Judaism, Separation and Its Discontents is by far the most deeply concerned with contentious issues in Jewish history. Since it is mainly concerned with the history of anti-Semitism (e.g., it cites Lindemann’s work more than 20 times), SAID inevitably deals with critical, often difficult topics that lie at the heart of any evolutionary analysis. While the review is negative, it lies within the range of proper academic discourse and debate, quite unlike the comment by the History Department: “As a department, we find his historical methodologies to be fatally flawed, his understanding of bias and perspective in sources to be vastly underdeveloped, his conclusions marred by a lack of theoretical sophistication, and his work, as a whole, to be neither grounded in nor current with present trends of research and analysis within the historical profession.”
Reviewing a book with over 750 references, Pois comments negatively:
“For all of his mining, at times, rather selectively, of a number of sources, e.g., the Talmud and Maimonides ….”
“Professor MacDonald seems to have brought to bear wide-ranging knowledge. To put it mildly, though, there are more obvious problems. Mention has been made of Professor MacDonald’s selective mining of Talmudic sources.”
“Professor MacDonald’s treatment of some very crucial figures is brief and glib enough to border on caricatures. Here, the very profound, often anguished, concerns of Heinrich Heine, Berthold Auerbach, and Moses Hess must be mentioned. Also, his notion of the significance of the word “chosen” is skewed.”
“MacDonald misrepresents [Sigmund Freud] with regard to his overall position on Zionism)”
The basic tenor of my reply is to point out that, even if true (which I dispute), these points are minor and do not damage the main conclusions of the book:
In this regard, as Pois notes, my book reflects several themes found in Albert S. Lindemann’s Esau’s Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews. In general, Pois does not seriously critique my main proposals for conceptualizing anti-Semitism, my summaries of the content of 2000 years of anti-Semitic writings, my portrayal of major Western anti-Semitic movements fundamentally as collectivist responses to real conflicts of interests with Jews, my characterization of Jewish strategies for self-defense, my descriptions of the rationalizations, apologia and self-deceptions so central to maintaining ingroup pride and presenting Judaism to outgroups, or my characterization of the present state of Diaspora Judaism. His review contains a series of isolated criticisms of my scholarship, and there is an ad hominem tendency in Pois’s remarks that finally cannot be contained. Many of his criticisms represent failures to distinguish my analysis from that of the anti-Semitic ideologies I describe—a discreditable project at best.
I then examine and argue against each of Pois’s criticisms as well as his complaints about some of my conclusions. For example, it is certainly the case that statements found in the Talmud have commonly been used by anti-Semites, often to show negative attitudes of Jews toward non-Jews. However, my description of these disputes did not imply that I agreed with these anti-Jewish writers or that I believed that their quotations from the Talmud were representative of Jewish religious writings generally. The only point was that such writings have been a recurrent theme of anti-Semitism.
The point here is that before their complaints can be given credibility, the History Department must do likewise. That is, they must read each of my books and then specify in detail where my statements of fact or conclusions are incorrect or that they result from inadequate, naïve, or malicious scholarship rather than being simply a matter of good old-fashioned scholarly debate. If the department meets this criterion, I will welcome the opportunity to intelligently debate both the application of evolutionary theory to history and its application to Judaism in particular. In this regard, I submit that it is also incumbent upon my critics in the History Department to read the preface to the paperback edition of A People That Shall Dwell Alone on “Diaspora Peoples” so that they can see the full scope of my methodology and its applicability to different groups.
One comment by the History Department faculty is particularly unjustified. They assert that my “understanding of bias and perspective in sources [is] vastly underdeveloped.” The fact is that I am acutely aware of bias in historical sources. I devoted an entire chapter of Separation and Its Discontents (Ch. 7: Rationalization and Apologia: The Intellectual Construction of Judaism) and much of another chapter (Ch. 8.: Self-Deception as an Aspect of Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy) to precisely this topic. It would be impossible to read any substantial amount of Jewish history without being aware of the question of bias — on all sides. For example, Chapter 7 includes an 11-page section titled “Historiography as Rationalization and Apologetics: The Construction of Jewish History” plus a 14-page appendix titled “History and Apologia in the Construction of the Events Surrounding the Iberian Inquisitions.” In Chapter 7 I make the following point—a point that is entirely germane to the present discussion, since it pertains to the comments on my work by the Jewish Studies Program: “In the contemporary world, [Israeli historian Jacob] Katz finds that academic departments of Jewish studies are often linked to Jewish nationalism: ‘The inhibitions of traditionalism, on the one hand, and a tendency toward apologetics, on the other, can function as deterrents to scholarly objectivity’ (p. 84). The work of Jewish historians exhibits ‘a defensiveness that continues to haunt so much of contemporary Jewish activity’ (1986b, 85).” I go on to note that “A central theme of Katz’s analysis—massively corroborated by Albert Lindemann’s (1997) recent work—is that historians of Judaism have often falsely portrayed the beliefs of gentiles as irrational fantasies while portraying the behavior of Jews as irrelevant to anti-Semitism.”
Katz, J. (1986b). Jewish Emancipation and Self-Emancipation. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.
Lindemann, A. S. (1997). Esau’s Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews. New York: Cambridge University Press.