Martin Kramer, Harvard and the Eugenics of Zion

People were outraged when Martin Kramer’s support for measures to limit the births of “superfluous young men” among Palestinians in Gaza was circulated in the US recently.  Kramer, Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and lately a Visiting Scholar at Harvard, had made the remarks in a presentation at the annual Herzliya Conference in Israel in January.  Pro-Palestinian activists and human rights supporters called his proposal an incitement for genocide; students at Harvard argued that such racist ideas had no place at their University.

Readers may judge for themselves whether Kramer’s proposal was “genocidal in effect, if not intent” – to paraphrase the words of former Harvard President Lawrence Summers in another context.  However, few commentators have taken note of just how commonplace it is to encounter a discourse of eugenics in contemporary Israel.  Kramer’s proposal is not some aberration of current right-wing Israeli politics:  “Demographic struggle” is a theme which pervades the whole history of the Zionist project.  Such a peculiar obsession is perhaps not surprising, given the movement’s adoption of a 19th century European racialized concept of Jewish identity, joined with the religious/tribal definition of Jewishness by matrilineal descent. It is an outlook embedded in the very DNA of modern Zionism.

From the start, Zionists were committed to demographic victory over the Arab population of Palestine. Ideologists like Israel Zangwill could repeat the old catchphrase about “a land without a people”, but more practical Zionist leaders were aware that Palestine was already densely populated by indigenous Arabs.  Until 1948 the hope was to achieve a majority in the territory of the British Mandate through Jewish immigration.  Among other things, this was why Zionists showed so little interest in saving European Jewry — unless it facilitated their immigration to Palestine.  David Ben-Gurion famously said “If I knew that it was possible to save all the children of Germany by transporting them to England, and only half by transferring them to the Land of Israel, I would choose the latter, for before us lies not only the numbers of these children but the historical reckoning of the people of Israel.”   Following the defeat of Nazism, the Zionists colluded with the victorious Allies – who had little interest in accepting large-scale Jewish immigration – in coercing the Holocaust survivors to settle in Israel, even though the overwhelming majority expressed a preference to make new lives for themselves in England or the United States.

Of course, an alternative way to realize a Jewish Palestine was through conquest and the expulsion of the Arab natives. This the Zionists proceeded to accomplish in 1947-49 and partially again in 1967 when, under cover of war, as many as 1 million Arabs were forced from their homes and never allowed to return.  Still, the demographic anxiety persisted.  In the words of a formerly liberal Zionist historian, this was “because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948.  Because he left a large and volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself.”

A remnant of the Palestinian population had avoided expulsion — and they showed a disturbing tendency to procreate.  Meanwhile, voluntary  immigration from Western Europe and the Americas never grew to more than a trickle. Thus, despite the forced in-gathering of Jews from the Muslim lands of the Middle East and the obsessive search for new “lost tribes” around the world, there remained a permanent – and growing — Arab minority within the Jewish State.  The Zionist response was a dual strategy of enlisting “the Jewish womb” into the demographic struggle, while adopting and experimenting with methods to keep Arab births down.

As early as 1949 Ben-Gurion announced a prize for every “heroine mother” who bore ten or more children; in language redolent of Europe’s nightmare in prior decades, he stated that any Jewish woman who did not bear at least four children was “shirking her duty to the nation.”  The state also established child allowance and welfare systems that explicitly gave preference to Jewish families and discriminated against Arab citizens.  Government planning policy allocated resources for new Jewish communities and housing, while zoning to restrict living space and deny building permits for its Arab citizens – at least in part to put pressure on Arab family size.  The program of incentives for Jewish settlement in the heavily Arab populated north of the country was called, literally, “Judaization of the Galilee” in bureaucratic planning documents.

Despite every effort, however, by the early 21st century the Arab population of Israel had topped one million, while another 250,000 Palestinians acquired residence but not political rights (Green Card holders, effectively) in conquered and illegally annexed East Jerusalem.  With the Jewish immigration surge from the former Soviet Union petering out by 2000, Zionist leaders began once more to renew their demographic alarms. The Arab population of Israel was seen as “a ticking time bomb” or “an existential threat.”  Itzhak Ravid, retired Air force officer and security advisor to Labor governments during the 1990’s, suggested that the government must “implement a stringent policy of family planning in relation to its Muslim population.”  Israeli Army Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon was more blunt, calling the Palestinians under Israeli rule “a cancer” and adding: “There are all kinds of solutions to cancerous manifestations. Some will say it is necessary to amputate organs. But at the moment, I am applying chemotherapy. “

And Palestinians were not the only demographic threat to the Jewish State.  An influx of foreign workers, both legal and illegal, arrived  to replace Palestinians excluded from the Israeli labor force after Oslo.  Put to work mainly in the construction and agricultural sectors, contract laborers from impoverished Asian and Eastern European countries were sometimes housed as virtual prisoners at their job sites while demographic concerns ensured a policy to block any road to Israeli citizenship, no matter how many decades they remained in the country legally.  Labor contracts have stipulated that foreign workers were forbidden to have sex with Jewish women; if they had children among themselves, their offspring, who were educated in Israeli schools and spoke Hebrew as their first language, were supposed to be deported from Israel when they reached the age of 18 years.

Luckily, Israel has a National Demographic Council tasked to deal with such concerns.  Demography is also a recurrent topic at the annual Herzliya Conference for Policy and Strategy, where Martin Kramer made his modest proposal earlier this year.  At Herzliya the cream of the Zionist security elite gather to raise the alarm about Arab births and hear scholarly analyses of family size and fertility rates among Jews and Arabs as “existential” threats to the State.  Meanwhile, in the Israeli Knesset there are elaborate debates on how to define who is a Jew and who is not – along with legislating what extra privileges should be allocated to the former and denied to the latter.

It would be hard to imagine another modern country where such discussions are part of the intellectual mainstream, rather than isolated in the more shadowy fringes of racist right-wing politics.   Similar attitudes are expressed in the Zionist Diaspora, where bemoaning Jewish assimilation, promoting Jewish childbearing and financing Aliya to strengthen Israel’s Jewish demography are common themes.  Early eugenicists (and their successors) once warned against “miscegenation” and “mongrelization” as a danger to the White Aryan Race.  Today, Jewish charities like the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation announce their prime mission as education against “intermarriage.”

Israeli apologists are wont to boast about the Jewish contribution to modern culture and technology. In the dubious field of “biopolitics”, Zionism would seem to have progressed from 3000-year-old Bronze Age mythology about slaughtering Canaanites only as far as the pseudo-science of early 20th century eugenics.

Some have expressed surprise – and members of the Harvard community embarrassment – to find sentiments like Kramer’s represented at The World’s Greatest University.  However, clustered outside the venerable precincts of Harvard Yard, the University is also home to a Byzantine array of associated “Programs,” “Institutes” and “Centers” which acquire cachet from the Harvard “brand”.  Despite Harvard’s liberal reputation, among the dozen or more specialized branches and departments of the Kennedy School of Government, you are apt to encounter the likes of neocon operative Bill Kristol (Harvard ’73) or now-rehabilitated felon Elliot Abrams (Harvard ’69) — along with a host of international corporate and government bureaucrats or military men (not least from Israel), polishing their resumes with a Harvard certificate.

The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, where Kramer was a visiting scholar, is one of the semi-autonomous entities under the Harvard umbrella.  Although its affiliated researchers are generally of a liberal to progressive stamp (Gaza expert Sara Roy works there), the Weatherhead Center also houses several independently-funded programs.  Kramer’s home was the National Security Studies Program, a conservative enclave led by neocon Prof. Stephen Rosen (Harvard ’74), heavy-hitter in Republican security circles and Rudy Giuliani’s foreign policy campaign advisor in 2008.  The NSSP at Weatherhead appears to be the successor to the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at the Kennedy School, which was also headed by Rosen and boasted a lineup of mostly right-wing neocon affiliates. Harvard’s corporate motto seems to be “If you fund it, they can come.”   (A rare exception was Harvard’s refusal of $2.5million for an endowed chair in Islamic Studies, after the David Project and Israel partisans within and outside the faculty made a fuss over the donation from Abu Dhabi).

But isn’t a pseudo-scholar who espouses a program of political eugenics out of place at Harvard?  Not really. Veritas be known, racist theory and eugenics have a long and distinguished history at the University.  Eminent 19th-century naturalist Louis Agassiz once taught at Harvard that Africans were a separate and inferior species of human (unaccountably, there is still a Boston elementary school named after him).   The successors of Agassiz, notably Charles Davenport (Harvard PhD 1894), became the founders of the “scientific” eugenics movement in the US;  and it was primarily Harvard graduates who organized the Immigration Restriction League in Boston (led for many years by Prescott Hall [Harvard 1889]), which was influential in promoting changes to US immigration law on the grounds of eugenic theory.  In 1927, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (Harvard 1861) upheld a Virginia statute mandating compulsory sterilization for the “feeble-minded.” In his in Buck v. Bell opinion (the same year he refused to stay the judicial lynching of Sacco and Vanzetti) Holmes wrote:

“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives.  It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices.”

Nazis, including Hitler himself, were later frank in acknowledging their debt to the American eugenics movement.

Lest it be imagined that such ideas are a only matter of the distant past, one should note the publication in 1994 of the neo-eugenics opus, The Bell Curve, authored by Harvard Professor Richard Hernnstein (Harvard PhD 1955) with Charles Murray (Harvard ’65).  Even more recently, University President Lawrence Summers got into trouble for suggesting that the underrepresentation of women faculty in the sciences must be explained by different genetic aptitudes of the sexes.

Welcome to Harvard, Martin Kramer!

JEFF KLEIN lives in Boston and can be reached at

The author is indebted to Jonathan Cook’s Blood and Religion (Pluto Press, 2006), where many of the Israeli sources are collected.



Jeff Klein is a writer and speaker on Middle East issues who travels frequently to the region.  An earlier version of this piece, with illustrations, can be found in his occasional blog: “At a Slight Angle to the Universe.” He can be reached at