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Those Tubercular Jews

Is anyone else enjoying the historical oddity of tuberculosis patient Andrew Speaker being treated at the Infectious Disease Division at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, with the name of the hospital showing up behind the speakers … Read More

By / July 3, 2007
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

Is anyone else enjoying the historical oddity of tuberculosis patient Andrew Speaker being treated at the Infectious Disease Division at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, with the name of the hospital showing up behind the speakers at today's press conference? Anyone?

Well I'm enjoying it. The obsessively fraught connection of Jews and tuberculosis — and, more specifically, of Jews and tuberculosis in the minds of turn-of-the-20th-century "scholars" and "scientists" — is too complicated to go into fully here, especially when I've felt a gnawing scratch in my throat/chest all day, but suffice it to say that Jews were considered both especially susceptive to and especially immune to the disease. I'll whet your lungs with words by the Master himself, historian Sander Gilman. The following is from his hypochondriacally amazing Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient. The passage starts by referencing French historian Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu (1842 – 1912):

Leroy-Beaulieu uses tuberculosis as a means of distinguishing between two classes of Jews — the "healthy" and the "sick." And being a tubercular Jewish male is being doubly feminized — for if circumcision is the first act that "unmans" the Jewish male, acquiring tuberculosis is the second:

Let us take tuberculosis, the disease that creates most havoc in Europe. Although in London, even in the most squalid dens of Whitechapel, consumption is, according to medical testimony, less frequent among the Jews than the Christians, it has been proved that in Poland and Russia the Jews are often subject to consumption as well as to scrofulous diseases. Indeed, they seem predisposed to these evils. The Jews of Lithuania, Poland, and Little-Russia are frequently characterized by narrow chests. This alone would suffice to render them liable to consumption. The Russian councils of revision are well aware of this. They are obliged yearly to reject as invalids, or to put off for future examination, a number of Jewish conscripts whose chests are not sufficiently developed. The narrowness of chest must not be ascribed to the origin of the race or to its Semitic blood. … The "healthy" are those males who can serve in the military; the "sick" cannot, and thus are feminized. [Israel Among the Nations: A Study of the Jews and Anti-Semitism, p. 162]

Now there is a basic contradiction in Leroy-Beaulieu's argument typical of the discourse about the Jewish body in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On the one hand, Jews have an immunity to certain diseases, such as tuberculosis, though an affinity for others, such as neurasthenia and hysteria. On the other hand, the male Jew's body is depicted in terms of the habitus phthisicus, the tubercular patient, especially the female tubercular patient. How can the Jew be both immune to and defined by tuberculosis? Here the stereotype's peculiar power to accommodate antitheses comes into play. At the turn of the century, Jews are both the arch-bankers and the arch-revolutionaries, both the false nobility of Paris and the Wandering Eastern Jews of Warsaw, all things to all groups who need to define outsiders. Thus their supposed immunity, whether racial or acquired, is a sign of their "nature," as is the assumption that the Jew, because of his body form, is predisposed to tuberculosis. Both point to a close association between the body of the Jew and the Jew's character. This difference from an established norm of "beauty/health" comes to be inscribed on every part of the Jew's anatomy, especially the chest.

A Happy Fourth of July to all, but remember, whether you're an arch-banker or an arch-revolutionary, you're still a narrow-chested Jew. So do like me and take your Airborne.

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