Jewish Intellectuals Who Defended Ethnic Identity

Horace Kallen. Source:

I have previously argued that ethnic identity is important, that ethnically homogenous communities tend to be more cohesive, and that interethnic marriages ought to be avoided. Such matters are obviously of concern to Jews, and especially to Jewish communities threatened by intermarriage and assimilation. While writing about these issues, I drew on the works of a number of outstanding intellectuals who had written on these topics. Now I intend to flesh out the Jewish angle to this whole discussion a bit more.

In this essay, I will go over three Jewish intellectuals who offered powerful defenses of the value of ethnic identity. My previous writing contains many more examples, but it seems worthwhile to go into a few in greater detail, describing their ideas and overall intellectual profiles enough to convey a basic idea of how they approached the subject of ethnicity. Also, while I won’t belabor this point, what follows will substantiate a notion I have expressed before: intellectuals with strong Jewish identities tend to be more sympathetic to ethnic identity in general than Jewish intellectuals of a more assimilationist bent.

Without further ado, here are three prominent Jewish intellectuals who highlighted the importance of ethnic identity.

Edward Shils

One such notable figure was sociologist Edward Shils. That name may not mean much to the average reader, but Shils is remembered as a major figure in the study of nationalism, and that is the context in which I was introduced to him while studying International Relations at university. Nowadays, nationalism studies are dominated by a theory known as modernism, which claims that nations and national identity are recent constructs invented only in the modern period. To the typical modernist, the concept of a “nation” in anything like the modern sense dates back no further than the eighteenth or even nineteenth century.

Before modernism gained the ascendancy—partly due to Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book Imagined Communities—, the study of nationalism was dominated by primordialism. Primordialism, simply put, is the theory that ethnic and national attachments are a natural part of the human condition. This generally comes with the belief that nations, in something like the modern sense, have always been around.

Edward Shils was probably the single main figure in the primordialist school. Usually, when primordialism is discussed, he is mentioned in the same breath as anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Geertz and Shils being treated as equal doyens of the school. However, I gather that Shils was the more influential of the two. Geertz’s major text relating to primordialist theory is his 1973 book The Interpretation of Cultures. In that volume, the first time Geertz mentions “primordial attachments,” the phrase carries a footnote that refers the reader to Shils’s 1957 paper “Primordial, Personal, Sacred and Civil Ties.” So Geertz seems to have gotten the very concept of primordial ties between people from Shils. Wikipedia also states that Shils was the first to use it, in 1957.

So what does Shils’s 1957 journal article specifically say? Let me summarize some central points, as I understand them.

  1. At one time, Shils and one of his co-authors attempted to classify the principles by which people interacted with one another. Shils later realized that their categorization was incomplete, because it did not reflect certain factors which informed people’s relations with one another. The factors in question were “certain organic and physical properties, certain properties of the organism in relationship to the environment and unconnected with the social structure.” This included “classificatory” categories such as sex and age as well as “relational” ones, for instance, “biological relatedness and territorial location.”
  2. While studying interactions between relatives, Shils noticed that the power of relationships between members of the same family could not be explained merely as a result of shared experiences. Instead, “a certain ineffable significance is attributed to the tie of blood,” and this provides some of the relationship’s strength. Accordingly, there is a certain solidarity with one’s relatives which does not depend on actually liking them as people.
  3. Theologian Arthur Darby Nock distinguished between two different kinds of religion, one defined by “belief” and the other by “primordial membership” (Shils’s words). In Shils’s opinion, the second kind is exemplified by the religions of ancient Greece, in which shared descent and territory were highly important. Such insights from the realm of religion gave Shils a further appreciation for the decisive influence which “primordial” qualities often exercise over human relations.
  4. Loyalty to “primary groups” tends to override loyalty to the larger society. These groups can be defined by an intense belief system (e. g. cults), or by something else, like simple personal acquaintance. For instance, Shils found in his own research with German and Soviet POWs that most of the men were lukewarm about the army as a whole, or the official ideology for which they had been fighting. However, they were intensely faithful to their own little units within the larger militaries.

Put all this together, and you get some pretty interesting implications. If groups defined by personal loyalty between members are generally more cohesive than societies united only by institutions or ideological principles (e. g., Nazism or communism), and if primordial qualities including common descent produce such bonds of personal loyalty, does that not constitute an argument for some policy of keeping societies ethnically homogenous? It is certainly food for thought.

This is not the place to argue for the truth of all the ideas listed above. I think they are largely a matter of common sense anyway. Who would deny that people feel bound to their relatives by something more general than their personal feelings about any specific relative? Still, Interested readers are welcome to consult other works within the primordialist tradition which explore the causes of primordial attachments. I especially recommend Pierre van den Berghe’s The Ethnic Phenomenon.

And just to drive home what is meant by primordial connections, here is how Geertz explains the idea in that passage where he cites Shils’s paper:

By a primordial attachment is meant one that stems from […] the assumed ‘givens’ […] of social existence[.] These congruities of blood, speech, custom, and so on, are seen to have an ineffable, and at times overpowering, coerciveness in and of themselves. [F]or virtually every person, in every society, at almost all times, some attachments seem to flow more from a sense of natural—some would say spiritual—affinity than from social interaction.

I find there is something poetic about Edward Shils’s work, and the way in which different national cultures came together in his own thinking. In my essay “Why Jewish Ethnic Identity Is Split and Why It Matters for Others,” I write: “Being Jewish has a way of making apparent the falsity of modernism.” I still stand by that. The Jewish people’s great age and its long tradition of nationhood stand in glaring contrast to the notion that national identity is no older than the Enlightenment. But I have also noted that a lot of old-school German thought is keenly aware of the power of different national cultures. The work of scholars like Werner Sombart, through its commitment to broad, holistic analyses of the interactions between different ideas and social phenomena, is finely attuned to the various mindsets that guide the behaviors of nations.

In Shils’s scholarship, the German and Jewish intellectual currents find a confluence. According to Joseph Epstein, Shils’s work “often aimed at a high level of generality in the German social-scientific tradition of Max Weber and George Simmel.” This is, I suppose, how he came upon the idea that there existed a general human tendency to attach importance to ethnic belonging. And Shils wasn’t some totally assimilated Jew, either. Epstein credits him with “Jewish wit, Yiddishisms included.”

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss is another example. In 1971, upon invitation by UNESCO, he held a lecture entitled “Race and Culture.” Interspersed among a lot of dry academic reasoning, Lévi-Strauss’s 1971 discourse contains some daring statements. Here is one of the more provocative:

all true creation implies a certain deafness to outside values, even to the extent of rejecting or denying them. […] Integral communication with another, if fully realized, sooner or later dooms the creative originality of both. The great creative epochs in history were those in which communication had become adequate for distant individuals to stimulate each other, but not frequent or rapid enough for those obstacles, indispensable between individuals as they are between groups, to be reduced to the point at which diversity becomes leveled out and nullified by excessively facile interchange.

That, by extension, is a potent argument against the mass immigration we see today. The French ethnologist would surely caution against open borders, a mechanism for the nullification of diversity and national particularities.

Anecdotally, it is easy to find support for Lévi-Strauss’s thesis. Think of the ancient Hellenes who laid the foundations of modern science and democracy. Much ink has been spent on showing how ancient Greece’s development was spurred on by influences from the wider Mediterranean. But the Greeks were also famously haughty, deprecating outsiders as “barbarians.” They thought their own ways were obviously superior, and that included the (relative) freedom and individualism that made Greece great. Victor Davis Hanson has made this point when discussing warfare between the Greeks and Persians. Hanson writes that

Greek defenders did claim that their fight was for the survival of a free people against subjugation by the Persian Empire—that good/bad contrast in 300 comes not from the director Zack Snyder or from Miller but directly from the accounts of the Greeks themselves, who saw their society as antithetical to a monarchy that had little freedom of speech or consent of the governed.

Imagine if, say, 20% of the population of Greece, or even just Sparta, had consisted of Persian immigrants or passionate devotees of Persian culture, or simply of cosmopolitans with no sense of national pride. Would they have defended their Hellenic civilization as forcefully?

Lévi-Strauss also leaves open the possibility that gene-culture coevolution may have shaped different ethnic groups’ genetic profiles to fit their respective cultures. In his own words, he suggests that perhaps “cultural and organic evolution are inextricably linked.” His main example is polygamy. He observes that certain societies allowed their chiefs to have multiple wives. However, certain qualities were needed for a man to make it to the post of chief in the first place: “not only the necessary physical attributes, but a taste for public affairs, initiative and a sense of leadership were required.” Lévi-Strauss speculates that, in such societies, the genes responsible for such traits as were required for the chieftaincy must have been spread further than they otherwise would have through the vehicle of polygamy. Such considerations raise the possibility that different groups do not merely have different cultures, but also have subtly different genetic profiles to go with them, which would imply that a given people tends to be adapted to its culture in a very deep way.

Predictably, Lévi-Strauss’s lecture provoked some controversy. Steffan Müller-Wille covers part of the affair in an academic article. According to him, Lévi-Strauss described the brouhaha that resulted from his talk as “un assez joli scandale,” or “a rather nice scandal” in Müller-Wille’s translation. This French Jew certainly wasn’t afraid of controversy. Müller-Wille also notes that the ethnologist’s 1971 statements marked somewhat of a reversal relative to his earlier positions. But there is nothing wrong with changing one’s mind.

Still, Lévi-Strauss apparently did not change his mind on the matter again. Despite UNESCO’s frosty reception of his 1971 talk, he made a very similar case 26 years later. Müller-Wille remarks:

Finally, Lévi-Strauss, now 97 years old, was again invited by UNESCO to give a public lecture in 2005 on occasion of the Organisation’s 60th anniversary. It bore the modest title ‘Réflexion,’ and basically repeated the arguments of 1971, with an additional plea for ethno-conservation.

Horace Kallen

Philosopher Horace Kallen is famous for defending “cultural pluralism,” or the notion that different ethnic groups ought to maintain their differences within the United States. Thus, he found cooperation between ethnicities devoted to the broader American ideal preferable to outright assimilation and the erasure of ethnic differences. Possibly the key text in this regard is his first published work, the long essay “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot,” which came out in 1915. Here is a fairly decent online version of it. A few years ago, Helena Miller gave the essay a glowing review in the Orthodox Jewish journal Tradition. Miller wrote that Kallen argued for

cultural pluralism: when smaller groups within society keep their unique cultural identities, their values, and practices and are nevertheless accepted by the dominant culture, providing they are consistent with the laws and values of the dominant culture.

That is a fairly accurate description. Kallen has some nice things to say about his fellow Jews, but the essay is not mainly about them. In part, Kallen’s argument is similar to Shils’s. He maintains that there is a unique potency about what Shils would call “primordial” ties, though Kallen is specifically talking about ethnic ties. Here is a representative, and poetic, passage:

The fact is that similarity of class rests upon no inevitable external condition, while similarity of nationality is inevitably intrinsic. Hence the poor of two different peoples tend to be less like-minded than the poor and the rich of the same peoples. At his core no human being, even in a ‘state of nature,’ is a mere mathematical unit of action like the ‘economic man.’ Behind him in time and tremendously in him in quality are his ancestors; around him in space are his relatives and kin, looking back with him to a remoter common ancestry.

Fittingly for a text published in 1915, Kallen cites the Great War as an example: “The history of the ‘International’ in recent years, the present debacle in Europe, are indications of how little ‘class-consciousness’ modifies national consciousness.” Say what you will, but I think that judgment still looks sound over a century later.

Ultimately, however, “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot” does not easily lend itself to summary. Many of the points Kallen makes are highly nuanced, specific, or contextual. The best approach is to read the essay oneself.

Kallen has recently come up during philosopher Nathan Cofnas’s debate with the antisemitic retired psychology professor Kevin Macdonald. In a nutshell, Macdonald asserts that Jewish intellectuals tend to undermine white gentiles’ ethnic/racial identity while simultaneously working to bolster Jewish identity. In a series of academic articles and other texts, Cofnas has shown Macdonald’s thesis to be utterly specious and based on distorted and unrepresentative examples. Notably, Macdonald points to anthropologist Franz Boas as having prompted the social sciences’ downplaying of biological differences between human beings. But as both Cofnas and Substack writer Will Vivare have documented, Boas was a radically assimilated Jew. He thought of himself as German, married a gentile woman, was not particularly bothered by antisemitism, and so forth. Moreover, he got his ideas on race from his own gentile teachers.

The whole discussion is fascinating, but I digress. Cofnas’s mention of Kallen comes in his academic article “Still No Evidence for a Jewish Group Evolutionary Strategy.” In the relevant section, Cofnas draws on Eric Kaufmann’s work:

What about the prevailing view that only nonwhites should be allowed to celebrate their identity? In this case the key figure, according to Kaufmann, was a gentile named Randolph Bourne. […] Bourne was influenced by Horace Kallen—a Jewish philosopher who advocated multiculturalism. Kallen argued that America is a ‘federation for international colonies’ (quoted in loc. cit.) in which all ethnic groups ought to be preserved as distinct entities. For Kallen, that included Anglo-Protestants. Kaufmann notes that ‘[t]here are many problems with Kallen’s model, but there can be no doubt that he treated all groups consistently’ (ibid., pp. 71–72).

It was only with Bourne that these two notions were coupled: that, on the one hand, minorities’ ethnic identities were precious and should be preserved and, on the other, WASPs’ (or, later, simply white people’s) identity should be dissolved. Kallen had been perfectly consistent, had advocated for the preservation of all ethnic identities. I would add that this is readily apparent in “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot,” where, if anything, Kallen concentrates on WASP identity and essentially says that America was built on it.

This point takes us back to what I briefly mentioned at the outset: in my opinion, the stronger an intellectual’s Jewish identity, the more sympathetic that intellectual tends to be to ethnic identity overall. Once again, I refer to my previous essay on Jewish ethnic identity, where I cite examples of this connection.


This overview has profiled three Jewish intellectuals who, roughly speaking, took the position that ethnic identities are valuable and should be safeguarded. I hope I have given the reader some idea of the deep underpinnings which this position has in Jewish history and culture, as exemplified by Kallen, Shils, and, to repeat myself, the figures cited in my earlier essay. Maybe Lévi-Strauss exemplifies this, too, but I know less about his intellectual biography.

As I have written before, the general mood in American society, which is so hostile to ethnic particularism, has not left the Jewish community untouched. Thus, many Jews of a “liberal” mindset now consider it unacceptably narrow-minded to oppose intermarriage, or to see any ethnic aspect in Jewishness at all. Hopefully, revisiting classic texts like the ones cited in this post can stave off such politically correct mind-viruses. Here are the texts again, for good measure:
“Primordial, Personal, Sacred and Civil Ties,”
“Race and Culture,” and
“Democracy Versus the Melting Pot.”

About the Author
My writings about politics and literature have appeared in a dozen online publications. These include Providence, the Cleveland Review of Books, Merion West, VoegelinView, Redaction Report, and Cultural Revue. I occasionally publish poetry and have written a book about nationalism and ethnic identity. My academic background is in International Relations.
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