Stephanie Pokras

Whose Line is it Anyway? Rhetoric, Pathology, and the Jewish Race in Late Victorian England

April 3, 2021   /  

Name: Stephanie Pokras
Major: History
Minor: Philosophy
Advisor: Dr. Christina Welsch

Dr. Josephine Wright Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award

This thesis examines how both late Victorian Anglo-Jews and Gentiles used rhetoric of race science and Jewish pathology to encode lines of difference, as well as the relationship between these discourses. My first chapter analyzes the role of Gentile discourse of disease and disability as the foundation of late Victorian anti-Semitism. My second chapter focuses on Jewish ‘expert’ engagement with race science. In this chapter, I argue that contrary to the dominant historical narrative, not only was the Jewish community engaged with race science, but their scholarly conversations were dynamic and diverse. Ideas about race and pathology became central to how individuals in the Jewish community distinguished among themselves in an increasingly diverse body. My last chapter analyzes the way popular mediums allowed for a transformation of expert Jewish discourses on race, injecting the voices of women in the broader debate on the Jewish race within the community.

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Stephanie will be online to field comments on April 16:
noon-2pm EDT (PST 9-11am, Africa/Europe: early evening) and 4-6 pm EDT (PST 1-3pm, Africa/Europe: late evening)

75 thoughts on “Whose Line is it Anyway? Rhetoric, Pathology, and the Jewish Race in Late Victorian England”

  1. An impressive and inspiring project, Stephanie! Congratulations on this extraordinary work!

  2. Great job, Stephanie! I really enjoyed watching this project come together over the semesters. Congratulations on your accomplishment.

    1. Thank you so much Dr. Welsch, I couldn’t have done it without your excellent mentoring!

  3. Hey Stephanie great job on this project! As a Jewish person I found it to be very interesting.

  4. Hi Steph, great project! Why did you decide to focus on your second chapter and what was your favorite thing you learned when completing your IS?

    1. Thanks Maggie and good questions! To answer your first question, I wanted to focus on one of my chapters which examined Jewish voices. Of the two chapter I wrote on the topic, my third chapter requires a thorough understanding of my second chapter, so I focused on my second chapter as a matter of practicality.

      As for my favorite thing I learned, I had a blast discovering and working with the anti-Semitic trope of Jewish Vampires. I actually have three pages in my thesis analyzing the multi-faceted way vampirism, and in particular Dracula, came to embody late Victorian ideas about Jews as diseased (especially with Syphilis), criminal, and a source of sexual and societal corruption.

  5. Stephanie, you are amazing! I’m sorry we’ve not talked more, and I’ll miss seeing you around next year. I’m blown away by your IS, what a fascinating topic. Did your study abroad experience inform or inspire any of this project?

    1. Hi Cara, I’ll miss seeing you around as well! To answer your question, I actually stumbled across my project my freshman year in Professor Shaya’s History of the News Course. One of the readings we were doing on Jack-the-Ripper mentioned that there was almost an outright ‘pogrom’ in late Victorian London. As someone who studies Jewish history, this term carries a lot of weight, but I was always taught that anti-Semitism didn’t really exist in modern England, so I decided to dig deeper. I chose to study abroad in Oxford in order to access archival sources for my project which I couldn’t get to in the U.S. It was at Oxford that I gained the competencies in the history of race science and refined my project into what it ended up being.

  6. Stephanie, fascinating compilation of historical information. There are so many additional layers to the topic of anti-semitism. So important for us Gentiles to keep in mind.

    It also makes me think of a more current topic of Asian discrimination here in the US. Having recently spoken to a Taiwanese friend of mine, just like one group of Jews does not equal all groups of Jews, one group of Asians does not equal all groups of Asians.

    1. Thanks, Sanne! That is one of the main reasons I wanted to do this topic, now more than ever Jews are usually painted as a homogenous group with a purely religious identity. I wanted to challenge this notion in my work.

  7. Hi Stephanie! I thought you did an amazing job in presenting this topic! The ideas presented in your project are super applicable in today’s society which made this even more fascinating to watch.

  8. I love your poster, Stephanie! Great visual communication of a very important and engaging topic. My family and I wish you the best!

    1. Thanks, the poster is actually due to your influence (they’re based off of my junior I.S. instagram slides). Say hi to your family for me!

  9. Awesome presentation Stephanie! Even from our many conversations about I.S, I was still able to learn more about your topic.

  10. Congratulations Stephanie. I found your topic very interesting, educational, and your delivery was impeccable.

  11. Congratulations, Stephanie! This is such an important project. I also wanted to say that your presentation slides are very pretty.

  12. This is a great presentation Stephanie! I was wondering, in the time period you described in the video, around what percent of the Jewish community was “assimilated” and what percent had recently immigrated? I ask because I wonder how you think Joseph Jacobs would have reacted if the immigrant population was a higher percentage?

    1. Hi Matthew. (sorry this posted in the wrong place the first time for some reason). In response to your question, we lack a lot of the necessary data to calculate exact percentages within the population, as census data concerning immigrants is incredibly inaccurate. However, the native Jewish population was significantly smaller than the foreign Jewish population by the late 1880s. This was one of the reasons that native Jews like Jacobs were concerned that Gentiles would assume that Jewish immigrants represent all Jews.

  13. Congratulations on the fantastic presentation and all your hard work Stephanie! It seems like you cast a really wide net with your investigation and took your research question to many different areas of Jewish and gentile discourse in that time period. Where would you like to go next with this area of inquiry?

    1. Thanks Tess! I think the most important extension of the work I’ve done would be to introduce the issue of Jewish populations which the Anglo-Jewish community was encountering in a colonial context such as the Bene-Israel in India. There is also a need for a deeper dive into the relationship between the Anglo and American Jewish communities in terms of identity formation, and a deeper analysis in the role of race science in the development of Jewish national identity.

  14. Hey Stephanie, nice job! You did an academia!

    But seriously, that was actually really well put together and I enjoyed listening to it. Congrats!

  15. Hi Matthew. In response to your question, we lack a lot of the necessary data to calculate exact percentages within the population, as census data concerning immigrants is incredibly inaccurate. However, the native Jewish population was significantly smaller than the foreign Jewish population by the late 1880s. This was one of the reasons that native Jews like Jacobs were concerned that Gentiles would assume that Jewish immigrants represent all Jews.

  16. This was a terrific presentation, Stephanie. I’ve enjoyed learning about your work. Was there something that really surprised you as you did this research?

    Congratulations on your award and on completing this important work!

    1. Thanks Professor Haely! To answer your question, there were a lot of very surprising things. One of my favorites was an article by a Jewish race-scientist which asserted that Jews were like bears because they change color in chilly climates. Another favorite of mine was a humor column called Marour and Charouseth (named after the sweet and bitter passover condiments) which revealed how race-science became culturally encoded within the Jewish community. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Jewish humor has not changed in almost 200 years, my dad still makes several of the same jokes I found in the column.

  17. Wow! Stephanie! You are so impressive, and even after our many conversations as your developed your IS, you still taught me more in your presentation (which was excellent). We are so proud of you and I will use your insights when I teach about anti-Semitism in the future. I can also see a way to apply your research to understanding racism today, as our nation struggles openly with racism against brown, black and asian people. Thank you!

  18. Steph,
    This was such huge achievement and so impressive. Your presentation was excellent and I can’t wait to read the whole thing. I’m wondering what you think of the need to assimilate and the use of eugenicist argument says about the self image of the Jew in England and their relationship to their Judaism.

    1. Hi Mom. To answer your question, I think there was significant variation within each section of the Jewish community. In my third chapter I explore how native Jewish women authors internalized eugenicist dialogue, creating a form of scientifically backed self-hatred. On the other hand, many native Jews took the same scientific discourse as proof of the Jews’ position as the “chosen” people, generating a positive self-image. Regardless, what becomes clear is that the need for assimilation stemmed from a cultural identity based in shared experiences of persecution.

  19. Truly remarkable research. Loved your presentation and how you ferreted out primary resources and were able to create a larger analytical framework from the disparate pieces. Do you have plans to continue this line of investigation?

    1. Hi Katharine, thank you very much! It is definitely something I’m considering. In the future I’m hoping to gear my work more towards disability history, which this thesis does engage with. Nonetheless I’ve really loved working on this, and I could easily see myself expanding upon it in the future.

  20. Hi Steph,
    So very proud of you . CONGRATULATIONS on your award! Your presentation was so clear and well thought out. Can’t wait to read the entire paper.
    Too many xxxxxxxs
    Grammy

  21. This was such an engaging presentation! Very impressive! It was interesting to learn about this part of Jewish history. Do you think your research is applicable in the modern day? If so, in what way?

    1. Hi Erica, thanks! To answer your question, my thesis sheds light on constructions of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism which definitely remain relevant today, especially in light of recent popular anti-Semitic portraits of the Jews as a white colonialist religious group. Historical study can be a form of advocacy. How are we supposed to make effective changes to issues like anti-Semitism if we don’t understand their historical development? The solution to a problem is found in its root causes. By untangling the roots of modern Jewish identity and anti-Semitism my thesis provides knowledge which will hopefully help disarm contemporary anti-Semitic rhetoric.

  22. What an amazing presentation. I learned so much and can’t wait to discuss it further with you. We are so proud of you and know you will go on to better this world.
    Love you,
    Nana and Papa

  23. Stephanie,
    Great presentation! You should be so proud of yourself for all that you have accomplished.
    I am so happy to see that you have won this award. You certainly deserve it!

    1. Thanks Denise, I really appreciate it. Thank you for being so supportive of all that I have done here at the College. I will miss you next year.

  24. Congratulations on the Dr. Josephine Wright Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award, Stephanie! Your presentation is very interesting and well done! I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Jewish perspectives during this time in history.

  25. What a complex and fascinating topic. The fact that Jews engaged in race science is very interesting, and something I had never heard about. They were working within the hegemonic structure in a way to assert their own agency. Do you see this as being something that benefitted the Jewish population long-term in terms of self-actualization or did it get bulldozed and altered by eugenics (particularly that of the Nazi Regime)?

    1. Hi Marloes, thank you! To answer your question, I think it depends on which section of the Jewish community you’re talking about. It is indisputable that rhetoric of race-science and eugenics played a major role in the development of modern Jewish identity (especially within the native Jewish population.) However, the trauma of Holocaust caused a significant reinterpretation of race-science and its value (or lack there-of). As a result there was and abrupt rejection of conceptions of the Jews as a race, especially from Gentiles . However, this also undermined Jewish self-determination as a racial minority. This is a significant factor in issues of contemporary conversations surrounding Jewish identity, because many non-Jews (especially in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict) undermine Jewish right to self determination by arguing Jews are primarily a religious group with no national or racial identity. While many Jews identify as having a primarily religious Jewish identity today, the vestiges of Jewish racial identity remain strong within the Jewish community, and it is not unheard of to hear the phrase Jewish race. Many of the current difficulties concerning Jewish identity today stem from the fact that Judaism is not merely a religion or a race, but traverses all of the traditional categories which we use to describe diversity today.

  26. Excellent work, Stephanie! Sophisticated research, insightful thinking, and timely questions. And you present your work so well. I’m impressed. And appreciative that I’ve had the chance to watch your work over four years at Wooster. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you so much! And thank you for introducing me to this topic as well!

  27. Congratulations, Stephanie, on completing this fascinating project! Very impressive, well-researched and relevant. I learned a lot from your very clear presentation.

    I wish you every success in your future endeavors post-Wooster. –Prof. P.

  28. Great job Steph! It’s been amazing seeing this project develop over the last two years. I know all the work you put into it, and it really shows! I know you have an incredibly bright future.

  29. Stephanie, Great presentation. The depth of your research shows even in this brief video. Thank you for all the great conversations you have contributed to classes in the History department.

    1. Thank you Professor Hettinger! And thank you for being such a wonderful guiding force in my education, I’ve learned so much about who I am as a historian through your courses and our work together.

  30. Well done Stephanie! I’ve always loved hearing you speak on topics that you are passionate about, and this is clearly the case for your research! Congrats on the DEI award as well!

  31. Stephanie you are amazing! Congrats on your IS, I know how hard you’ve worked! 🙂

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