Research: Workshop on Jewish Scientists in German and Israeli Academia in the 20th Century: Integrity of Research

Workshop on Jewish Scientists in German and Israeli Academia in the 20th Century:
Integrity of Research

29 January 2006, Jerusalem

This was the fourth workshop held within the framework of the Leo Baeck Institute London programme in the history of German-Jewish contributions to science, and the second held jointly with the Sidney M. Edelstein Center at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The presentations offered different perspectives on integrity, encompassing the Zionist enterprise, and the careers of scientists in Europe and North America, particularly the impact of Nazi-dominated Germany.

In the opening presentation, Raphael Falk (Hebrew University) considered the history of the relationship of Zionism with scientific biology, through efforts, on the one hand, to separate out Jews from non-Jews, and on the other, to unite disparate Jewish communities. This, Falk demonstrated, provides a paradigmatic case of the utilization of biological arguments as affording “evidence” for whatever social, economic, or political notions that are needed to support a particular standpoint. In this case, the convergence of prima faciae conflicting concepts of nationalism and universal humanism allowed the gathering under the umbrella of Zionism of individuals as different as Redcliffe Nathan Salaman, who proudly endeavored to establish the biological uniqueness of his people and to promote their status within the social and political conception of his adopted British heritage; of Shneor Zalman Bychowski, who promoted grass-roots conceptions of Jewish humanism in the context of post-World War I Poland; and of the German-born Palestinian Haeckelian, Fritz Shimon Bodenheimer, who adopted a kind of monist nationalistic humanism. The wish to reestablish a Jewish entity within its ancient natural biological context in the name of universal humane values permitted the perpetuation of explicit racial and eugenic notions, in spite of, and long after, the inception of the ominous developments in Nazi Germany. These notions have persisted, though in a thinly disguised mode, right into the post-World War II State of Israel.
Oved Amitay and Nurit Kirsh (Bar-Ilan University) described the work of Baruch Padeh and Chaim Sheba, active in Israel in human genetics from the early 1960s. Both resourceful and manipulative, they attempted to implement their vision of medical research to the extent that their ethical stands became questionable. Sheba’s research on genetic traits such as G6PD, was presented as supporting the popular Zionist ethos of a common Jewish identity, through providing evidence for a shared biological origin. The reseaarch conducted by Padeh on the Askenazi genetic disease Tay-Sachs reflected the adoption of the Zionist dream of “a new Jew,” free of inherited diseases. Sheba and Padeh share a remarkably similar backgrounds: both were born in 1908, both studied medicine under a strong German influence in Vienna and Prague, respectively, and both emigrated to Mandate Palestine in the early 1930s. Their medical careers included commanding the medical corps of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), and heading the Ministry of Health. The authors suggested that their common backgrounds contributed to the paternalistic behaviour of both men. Amitay and Kirsh also posed the intriguing question of how these two medical leaders came to be engaged in scientific research that inolved issues of race and genetics, and of eugenics, with no reflection on the way in which such ideas were propagated in the Nazi policy aimed at extermination of the European Jewish population only a few decades earlier.

Ute Deichmann (Leo Baeck Institute London/University of Cologne) analysed the genetic research of Richard Goldschmidt, a renowned German-Jewish zoologist and geneticist, who in 1935 emigrated to the US. Goldschmidt is mainly remembered for his iconoclastic views. He later claimed that the lack of appreciation for his genetic work in the US was due to his following a “dynamic” or “physiological” philosophy of genetics, that differed from the “statical” or “statistical” point of view of mainstream American genetics. Deichmann demonstrated, however, that it was the lack of reliability of his experiments – not reproducible by others – and the lack of potential of his theories, among them a colloidal concept of genes, which mainly accounted for his work not being accepted by his peers. Goldschmidt’s tendency towards grand speculative theories was in conflict with the importance he himself attributed to empirical and quantitative methods; it was furthered by the strong hierarchical structures and lack of criticism towards authority in German academia; and it also fitted the image of his status of a genius that he deliberately fabricated early in his career and which he later attributed to his being a Jewish scientist.

Anthony S. Travis (Hebrew University) described the plight of I.G. Farben’s Jewish scientists, those married to Jews, and those who were anti-Nazi, particularly the transfer with help of sympathetic colleagues from Germany to plants of the General Aniline & Film Corporation in the United States. The unintended outcome was technology transfer including in AGFA photoproducts, at Binghamton, New York, and in Reppe acetylene chemistry and iron carbonyl technology at Linden, New Jersey. One expatriate German chemist, Hans Zacharias Lecher, even employed Jewish research chemists at the Calco Chemical Division of American Cyanamid at a time when this was very uncommon at the larger U.S. chemical firms.

Ruth Lewin Sime (Sacramento) focused on the postwar correspondence of Albert Einstein, Otto Meyerhof, and Lise Meitner with their former colleagues in Germany, Otto Hahn and Max von Laue. While the émigrés were calling for introspection, reform, and moral leadership in the wake of National Socialism, Laue and Hahn regarded the memory of the recent past as incompatible with their advocacy for German science and Germany overall. The result, in some respects, was that National Socialist practice extended into the postwar period. Hahn and Laue regarded their émigré colleagues as permanent outsiders; Hahn continued to unjustly deny Meitner’s part in the discovery of nuclear fission; and émigrés such as Meitner and Meyerhof, sensitive to the prevailing mentality, refused offers to return to Germany.

Ulrich Charpa (Leo Baeck Institute, London) analysed the problem of the concept of ‘Jewish scientist’ as applied to modern scientists, using Albert Einstein, popularly the most-discussed case. Charpa demonstrated how the normal usage as a simple one-place predicate leads to the dilemma of either denying any importance to Jewish factors or coming close to the bizarre idea of the Jewishness of his research work and of his metascientific views. Charpa proposed to interpret ‘Jewish scientist’ as a multi-relational predicate. This is illustrated by positioning Einstein’s emphasis on epistemic autonomy and personal beliefs, inspired by enlightenment philosophy, into the context of the views of others on science (Dühring, Billroth, Helmholtz, Dingler, Thüring), among them four put forward by anti-Semitic authors. The ‘Jewishness’ of Einstein as scientist and, respectively, metascientist, is thus mainly a contextual notion. However, there also exists a link to substantial Jewish tradition mediated by Aaron Bernstein, the author of Naturwissenschaftliche Volksbücher.

Commentator Noah Efron (Bar-Ilan) observed that several themes arose time after time throughout the workshop. One was the tight intertwine of science and identity for many German and Palestinian Jews. For instance, in very different contexts, science was enlisted by Jews to demonstrate the normalcy of the Jewish people: by Bychowski in Russia, by Salaman in England, by Bodenheimer and Sheba in Palestine. Another theme was the complicated relationship between science and mobility for German and Palestinian Jews. The great mobility of Jewish scientists spurred technology and knowledge transfer, but also left some Jews – Richard Goldschmidt is a good example – working within a research tradition unappreciated in their new, adoptive homes. A third theme was the unusual relationship between Jewish researchers and disciplinarity; Jews were drawn and driven to new, often hybrid fields (biochemistry, for example). A final theme concerned the serviceability of the adjective “Jewish” to describe 20th century scientists, many of whom themselves might have bridled at the identification. Together, these themes demonstrate the vitality and fertility of subject of the workshop, for students of 20th century Jewish history and of 20th century science alike.