The Clare Spark Blog

March 9, 2015

Did racial theory take off in medieval Spain: Benzion Netanyahu’s big book

Moshe Maimon "Marranos" 1892

Moshe Maimon “Marranos” 1892

It is unbelievable to me that in the race-obsessed press and liberal academy, few have bothered to trace the origins of racial theory, let alone how such theory as racial struggle supplanted class interest or class struggle as the engine of history, to the point where “economic determinism” or “materialism” are discarded as wayward, hellish “Jewish” inventions.

During the last two weeks, I have been absorbed in reading Bibi Netanyahu’s father’s big book on the origins of the Spanish Inquisition, a tome that was subjected to furious, dismissive reviews when it was first published in 1995 , though it is obviously a masterpiece of scholarly detective work. Indeed, it was presented to Pope Francis by Bibi in 2013. See this brief account here: The author correctly states that the Inquisition was not owing to papal interference but was political and secular in its origin.

The elder Netanyahu argued that racial theory in the form of antisemitism may be said to have originated in late medieval Spain as an attempt by envious “Old Christians” to drive ‘crypto-Jews’ (i.e., the “New Christians” or conversos) out of their positions as tax farmers, tax collectors, state administrative offices, the professions, and artisan crafts. The same competitiveness and animus, drawing from the antisemitism of the Patristic Church Fathers that labeled all ‘deicide’ Jews evil by nature, would not only explain the expulsion and expropriation of the Jews from Spain in 1492, but would account for the application of racial theory in Nazi Germany.

Neo-Nazi "Hidden Heritage"

Neo-Nazi “Hidden Heritage”

It is very hard to pin down the origins of racial theory. The earliest reference I could find ended up as an endnote in my Melville book, citing John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1981): The Attic sensibility was viewed by medieval (Aristotelian) Catholics as moderate, disciplined and balanced, while its monstrous antitheses represented “emotion, redundance, and formal disorder”; monstrosity was correlated with “the enigmatic, the inflated and the grandiose.”  The hot, deserted antipodes were linked to the vaguely situated Ethiopia, and found at the most extreme distances from the Greek center of the world; its perverse inhabitants had feet turned backwards and walked upside down; i.e., they were out of reach of the Christian gospel. [my footnote ends here] This is not inconsistent with the Netanyahu thesis, though it draws upon Pliny the Elder, (see

Google race theory, and you will find references to Linnaeus and his conception of speciation, and everyone notes the popularity of “scientific racism” in the 19th century. George L. Mosse’s widely read book Toward The Final Solution is ably summarized here: (Briefly, Mosse sees racism as originating in the Enlightenment and in Pietism. He did not look for the material and ideological origins of racial theory in late Medieval Spain, though he is generally grouped with the “cultural Marxists.”)

This is what I take away from Benzion Netanyahu’s major contribution to scholarship: while advocates of “the Judeo-Christian heritage” minimize the degree of leftover antisemitism of the most virulent kind, Bibi’s father (writing from the meritocratic Right) spared no sensibilities in his search for truth. Although Netanyahu thought he was setting the stage for Hitler’s deployment of racial theory in Nazi propaganda, I draw a second lesson from his work, perhaps more relevant today.

Just as the New Christians (or Marranos) imagined themselves safe from persecution after their conversion to the dominant culture, today’s Democrats and other leftists of Jewish descent imagine that they are integrated into the political class as friends and equals. In many cases they probably are, but who can see into the heart of another?

The “assimilated” may be living in a fool’s paradise. Are the Inquisitions finished for good? What about the debate over Israel and rising antisemitism in Europe and America? Who is teaching our children about the precise content of antisemitism, past and present? Who is teaching them about the anarchy, constant warfare, and sadistic horrors of the Middle Ages, or the progress achieved by the humanitarians of modernity?

Goya, "Tribunal...." 1812-1819

Goya, “Tribunal….” 1812-1819


  1. Racial theory was and is just a strategy developed to mask envy towards Jews who defied the natural order of socioeconomic success. Medieval antisemitism accused Jews of killing the messiah who stood for love. This warranted the idea that Jews were selfish parasites who succeeded by virtue of their greed and that their very blood was soiled (pig/marano literally). Today’s secular antisemitism simply accuses Jews of being mercantile manipulators who have no consideration for the greater good. Nature is today’s god, and here we are again perpetrators of deicide. What assimilated Jews don’t understand is that absolution will not be attained by diluting their Jewishness. They would have to abandon the talents which they inherited and then maybe, just maybe, become accepted conversos.

    Comment by Maimon Chocron — March 11, 2015 @ 2:55 am | Reply

  2. This is one of your blog entries that I most appreciated. You clearly spell out the gist of Netanyahu’s theme (in his large book), but you also then adroitly apply that theme to our world today — a non-trivial task. While we all tend to look at the Inquisition as almost impossible to reproduce / return in “our” society, you properly pose the question, “The “assimilated” may be living in a fool’s paradise. Are the Inquisitions finished for good? What about the debate over Israel and rising anti-semitism in Europe and America?” Indeed! I would say “what debate?” it’s a daily reality that antisemitism is increasing in the worst way possible: by overt acts. But I realize you’re probably just being careful with your wording.

    I commend you upon your illustrating the parallel between Marranos Jews and American secular Jews (whether converted or simply not-observing and not caring) that raise the possibility of another “Inquisition.” Irrespective of whether this or that detail from the inquisition will be replicated, the point is to simply consider that its zeitgeist will resurface. And that in and of itself is scary.

    Many Lefty Jews don’t see it so clearly because “their side” is in power *and* (more importantly) the press by and large gets its cues from this president. And the president has (unfortunately) never been fond of Israel (and the public takes that to mean, by extension, the Jews).

    Comment by Daniel L Remler — March 11, 2015 @ 12:01 am | Reply

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