Imaginary Vampires, Imagined Jews

By Allan Nadler
Monday, July 11, 2011

1897 was a watershed year in Jewish history. The first Zionist Congress convened in a grand hotel in Basel, Switzerland. With much less pomp and circumstance, the Yiddisher Arbeter Bund, the Jewish Labor Movement, was clandestinely founded in a Vilna basement (socialist movements being illegal under Tsarist rule).  In New York, Der Forverts, the world's largest-circulation and longest-running Yiddish newspaper, began publication.  Meanwhile, in Odessa, the Hebrew-language Ha-Shahar, the first and most influential Zionist journal, was founded under the initial editorship of Ahad Ha'am. And now, thanks to Blood Will Tell, an engaging and insightful new study by Sara Libby Robinson, Jewish historians may consider adding a surprising entry to this list of 1897 events that proved so repercussive in Jewish history: the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

While never explicitly identified as a Jew, the figure of Dracula—and vampires more generallyencompassed an array of anti-Semitic stereotypes: rootless, of East European origin, dark-complected, and lustful for the money and blood of others. Assessing a wide range of themes in which blood and vampirism were evoked in late-19th-century European "scientific" thought (Social Darwinism and criminology in particular), Robinson argues that Stoker's depiction of Dracula exploited widespread anxieties about the dangers posed by the flood (and the blood) of Yiddish-speaking immigrants to Great Britain.

Dracula's features are "stereotypically Jewish . . . [his] nose is hooked, he has bushy eyebrows, pointed ears, and sharp, ugly fingers."  As for his behavior, Robinson situates Dracula in the realm of fin-de-siècle national chauvinism, which viewed non-Anglo-Saxonsand Jews in particularas dangerous interlopers loyal only to their alien tribe.  "Like many immigrants, Dracula has made great efforts to acculturate himself to his new country and to blend in with the rest of the population, through studying its language and customs . . . [his] greatest concern is whether his mastery of English and his pronunciation would brand him as a foreigner."  Likewise, Stoker mines anxieties over Jewish dual loyalty.  "The one identified person whose aid Dracula enlists in escaping Britain is a German Jew named Hildesheim, 'a Hebrew of rather the Adelphi Theatre type, with a nose like a sheep,' who must be bribed in order to aid Stoker's heroes."

Robinson asserts that the purpose of her study is to widen the focus away from Dracula.  She calls attention, often brilliantly, to the frequent appearance of vampiric metaphors and blood-related anxieties beginning some two decades before Stoker's work appeared, up through the First World War.  She marshals evidence from dozens of German, French, and British authors (many now obscure) for allusions to perceived political and social threats evoking the fear of blood-letting and vampirism. Additionally, she casts a fine eye on some 30 illustrations culled from the satirical journals of the period, such as the German Kladderadatsch, the English Punch, and the American Puck and Harper's Weekly. Nevertheless, Dracula makes an appearance in every chapter, and is cited more often than any other single work of literature.  The only author who receives more attention than Stoker is Émile Zolafor good reason, given his work's sharply critical commentaries on the political and social trends of his day.

Robinson's approach to her sources is thematic and synthetic.  This is to say that she mines texts for their appropriation of blood and vampire metaphors, engaging neither in literary analysis of her sources nor in biographical studies of their authors. Robinson's wide range shows precisely how malleableand not infrequently contradictorythe accusation of vampirism had become by the early 20th century.  On the economic front, Jews were vilified as frequently for being capitalist blood-suckers as they were for being socialist and anarchist revolutionaries feeding on the social vitality of Old World Europe.  The mythology about Jews and blood was protean enough to fit the contours of the political, nationalist-racist, pseudo-scientific, and religious theories of the day.  In that last realm, medieval Christian mythology about Jews and blood was most infamously manifest in the notorious blood libel

The synthetic approach is mostly suited.  But its perils are nowhere more evident than in Robinson's references to Max Nordau, and his controversial work Degeneration, in the context of a discussion of Social Darwinist anti-Semitism.  Robinson oddly introduces Nordau as a "German intellectual," making him sound much more deracinated than the knowledgeable and committed Jew that he was.  Readers unfamiliar with the man called "Herzl's 'rabbi'" will almost certainly come away with the notion that Nordau was some German, anti-Semitic Social Darwinist.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Since his first, stirring address to the Zionist Congress in that momentous year 1897, Nordau was the most influential exponent of practical Zionism until his death in 1923.  Robinson never even alludes to Nordau's status as a founding father of Zionism, an omission rendered doubly bizarre given her subsequent extended treatment of the Zionist aim of strengthening the Jewish body.  Using Herzl's utopian novel Altneuland as her main source, she ignores Nordau's more salient classic essay, "Muskeljudentum" (Muscular Judaism).

Notwithstanding this certainly inadvertent distortion of Nordau's legacy, Robinson has written a provocative book that will heighten our awareness of the nefariousness of blood-metaphors. As is proper, she reserves her observations about the contemporary relevance of her research to a brief mention, in the book's conclusion, of recent depictions of Jews as vampires.  (Most chillingly, one cartoon casts former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon as "Sharoncula," about to sink his canine teeth into the neck of an innocent Arab girl.)

But too many discussions in this fine book eerily echo distressing recent news stories.  Most are all too obvious, as anyone following the demonized depiction of Jews in the Arab press well knows.  Late last month, UN High Commissioner for the Middle East Richard Falk posted on his website a vile cartoon of a rapacious Jewish dog.

Still, numerous themes examined by Robinson elicit more surprising analogies to events of our own day.  I will mention just one: Robinson's fascinating discussion of the link between blood libels and shohtim, Jewish ritual slaughterers. In the 1880's, under the influence of Darwinism, cruelty to animals became a major concern in liberal European circles, and laws were enacted to regulate animal slaughter.

These judicial acts coincided, in Konitz, Germany, with a notorious blood libel directed at two local shohtim, along with rhetoric characterizing Jews as bloodthirsty beasts. This resulted in widespread pressure to forbid any animal slaughter not preceded by electrical stunning. Robinson observes that:

In Germany especially, this campaign veered towards anti-Semitic slander.  According to some advocates of stunning, Jews supposedly took pleasure in their method of slaughtering, which strengthened their insensitivity and brutality. Propaganda depicted them as a "blood-drinking people," erroneously positing that Jews drank the blood of their slaughtered animals.

One hears a disturbing echo of this episode in Holland's introduction, two weeks ago, of legislation banning both Jewish and Islamic ritual slaughter.  The ostensible motive for this legislation is the "humanitarian" concern for animal rightsa "humanitarianism" greatly clarified by Robinson's study.  Just as blood is hidden from sight until the skin is pierced, the metaphors of blood and vampirism examined by Robinson all too often hide deep racial hatreds and fears, unpierced below the skin of polite public discourse.

Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.


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