…and he also misrepresents the Talmud, in a blog post whose earnest anti-Semitism was unintentionally hilarious. I know, anti-Semitism is no laughing matter. And Kevin MacDonald, a professor of psychology at California State University–Long Beach, is one of the most important living anti-Semitic ideologues I can think of. But his latest blog post, about Jewish hatred of “Western concepts of physical beauty,” had me chuckling out loud. More on that in a second.
First, a few words about MacDonald. MacDonald’s scholarly discipline is group evolutionary psychology, which means that he believes that different ethnic groups are locked in a competitive battle for control of society and culture, and he tries to delineate the tactics and characteristics of those groups as they try to gain an evolutionary advantage over one another. (Maybe it’s possible to be a responsible group evolutionary psychologist, but it seems to me that the entire premise of the discipline is racist and reductionist.)
Anyway, MacDonald has focused on Jews for much of his career. This means that MacDonald spends his time trying to show that Jews as a group have always employed tactics designed to subvert the interests of the majority cultures in which they live. That’s right: MacDonald proudly and confidently asserts that Jews are a subversive and deleterious force in Western society. To prove this, he accepts at face value many of the anti-Jewish claims promoted by anti-Semites throughout history.
To give a few examples of his views, take a look at one of his more important essays available online, where MacDonald writes that Jews are “hyper-ethnocentric,” “pushy,” “aggressive,” and “psychologically intense.” He accepts claims that Jews historically have attempted to “dominate the people they live among.” He thinks that early Christian anti-Semitism was a “defensive reaction against Jewish economic power and enslavement of non-Jews,” and that the Spanish Inquisition was also “a defensive reaction” of Christian society against Jewish “economic and political domination.” MacDonald writes that “hatred” toward non-Jews is “a normative aspect of Judaism,” and that Jews engage in “cold-blooded deception” to prevent their true feelings about non-Jews from being perceived publicly. He cites Henry Ford’s The International Jew as a legitimate source, and places much stock in the writings of Israel Shahak, whose hatred of Judaism was legendary. It’s no accident that MacDonald’s three-book series on Jews has attained canonical status among modern anti-Semites.
MacDonald is also a leader of American Third Position, a white nationalist group.
Getting back to MacDonald’s post on Jewish opposition to Western concepts of beauty…MacDonald is exercised by a silly op-ed piece in the New York Times (prompted by the drunken anti-Semitic ranting of fashion designer John Galliano) about the links between French fashion and fascism. MacDonald sounds the reductionist, anti-Semitic alarm: this op-ed is part of an assault “emanating from the highest reaches of the mainstream media,” promoting “Jewish hatred and revenge seeking [sic] against Whites and especially Nordic-looking Whites.” Not to put too fine a point on it, MacDonald continues, “The issue of physical beauty and health goes to the heart of the long conflict between Jews and non-Jews over the construction of culture.”
What? Jews don’t like beauty? Jews don’t like health? And we’ve been engaged in a long conflict about these things? I never knew. Here is a case where an anti-Semite’s monomaniacal focus on Jewish perfidy transcends mere hatred and enters the realm of the comedic.
You can read the rest of his piece on your own, and if you like this sort of thing you may particularly enjoy the approximately 100 comments that his supporters have left. I just have a couple of points to make about MacDonald’s understanding of Jewish history and sources.
MacDonald on the Talmud and Jewish Marriage
MacDonald cites the Talmud in support of his contention that Jews don’t value physical beauty:
“Nor was physical beauty in marriage partners valued among Jews. A passage in the Talmud says that physical appearance was not to be a critical resource for a woman: “For ‘false is grace and beauty is vain.’ Pay regard to good breeding, for the object of marriage is to have children.”"
MacDonald doesn’t say where exactly in the Talmud he found this passage, but I think he’s taking it from the Tractate Ta’anit, where the text is describing an annual matchmaking festival held in ancient Jerusalem. I’m paraphrasing a little but here’s the gist of it:
Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel said: “The fifteenth day of the month of Av was a wonderful holiday for the nation of Israel, for on that day the daughters of Jerusalem would dress in white and go out among the vineyards and try to find a match. What would the girls say? ‘Boys, cast your eyes among us! Don’t look for beauty, but for a good family,’ for the verse says, ‘False is grace and beauty is vain’ (Proverbs 31:30).” Other rabbis said: “The beautiful girls would say to the boys, ‘Look for beauty in your match!’ The girls from important families would say, ‘Look for a good family in your match, because the purpose of marriage is ultimately to have [well-bred] children!’ The plain-looking girls would say, ‘Choose a match for the sake of heaven.’”
When you read the whole thing in context it seems clear that physical beauty was an important factor in matchmaking in ancient Israel. I would also add another Talmudic text, this one from Tractate Ketubot (folio 59b): “Rabbi Hiyya said: ‘A wife should be married for her beauty, or for the children she will bring.’”
So what happened here? Did MacDonald purposely mis-cite the texts? I don’t know. Either he purposely misrepresented them, or somebody fed them to him and he didn’t take the time to corroborate and contextualize them.
MacDonald on Hannukah
MacDonald cites the story of Hannukah to support his contention that Jews are at war with non-Jews over beauty and health:
“There is a long history of Jewish hostility to Western concepts of physical beauty, going back to the war of the Macabees against the Greeks commemorated at Hanukkah. The standard Jewish interpretation is that it was a rebellion against the Greek concept of physical beauty as a value in itself, as opposed to Jewish ‘holiness’ as the ultimate virtue (which, being a bit cynical, I would parse as group commitment). Especially abhorrent to the Jews was the Greek practice of honing their bodies in gymnasia.”
I love how MacDonald writes about the “standard Jewish interpretation” of Hanukkah. As if there is such a thing. The Hannukah story can be read in any number of ways. It may be interpreted as an ancient Jewish fight against religious coercion, or foreign occupation, or forced assimilation. It may be about the rejection by ancient Jews of Hellenistic philosophy, or of other aspects of Greek cultural imperialism. Physical beauty and health vs. spirituality? Sure, that’s one reading of the story. I can find some Hebrew sources that take a negative view of the gymnasia. But that’s a really shaky foundation for a theory on millenia-old interactions between Jews and non-Jews.
It’s also funny that if you follow the link he provides, you’ll see that MacDonald finds the “standard Jewish interpretation” of Hannukah in a series of divrei torah (mini-sermons) posted on the Internet by the rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Tamarac, FL. I’m not demeaning the divrei torah or the rabbi; I just think that the very fact MacDonald can think that he has discovered the “standard Jewish interpretation” in this manner shows you how poorly equipped he is to assess Jewish beliefs and practices.