PUBLIC BOOKS | Go to current issue

Public Culture

An interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies

You are viewing an article. Access the full version or browse recent articles .

Jews, Lice, and History

Hugh Raffles

Antisemitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology. It is a matter of cleanliness. In just the same way, antisemitism, for us, has not been a question of ideology, but a matter of cleanliness, which now will soon have been dealt with. We shall soon be deloused. We have only 20,000 lice left, and then the matter is finished within the whole of Germany.

— Heinrich Himmler, April 1943

The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., exhumes the bodies with minimum ceremony, forcing acknowledgment of the facticity, specificity, and proximity of genocide. Always in the air is the fraught question of exceptionalism; but pressing as that is, resolving it is not the task the curators have assumed. With politicians invoking appeasement to justify militarism, with the Middle East rent by war and occupation, and with the specter of populist fascism again stalking Europe, the museum made me face something I already sensed but only half admitted: Jews are still struggling with the identifications bequeathed by the Nazis, damned to judge and be judged in terms of loss, guilt, trauma, and redemption. Hunted in the past, haunted in the present.

“Antisemitism is exactly the same as delousing,” says the Schutzstaffel (SS) Reichsführer.1 And though at times he could strain for the apposite euphemism, Himmler was famous for choosing his words with precision. Antisemitism is not like delousing; nor is it merely a form of delousing. It is exactly the same as delousing. Does he mean that Jews actually are lice? Or only that the same measures should be taken to eradicate both evils?

The SS commander is a constant presence at the Holocaust Museum. Controlled and confident among his famous colleagues — Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, and the Führer himself, Adolf Hitler. The calm within the storm. Downstairs, when I visited in summer 2002, the museum had hung a show by the painter and propagandist Arthur Szyk, student of medieval illumination, savage caricaturist, and activist for the Revisionists, the ascendant militarist wing of the Zionist movement.2 Szyk captured Himmler’s clinical impassivity well. In late 1943, just a few months after the U.S. State Department had, for the first time, officially confirmed conservative reports of 2 million Jews killed by the Nazis, Szyk, exiled in New York and aggressively campaigning for an interventionist rescue policy, produced a drawing of characteristic clarity.3 Himmler, Göring, Goebbels, and Hitler complain: “We’re Running Short of Jews!” On the table, the Gestapo report: “2,000,000 Jews Executed.” In the upper-right-hand corner: “To the memory of my darling Mother, murdered by the Germans, somewhere in the Ghetto of Poland. . . . Arthur Szyk.” He was only guessing this last part, but he was right: his mother had already been herded onto the transport from Lodz to Chelmno.

A year later, at the end of 1944, with Majdanek already liberated, Szyk again drew his Nazi gang, this time for the cover of the Revisionist journal the Answer. The dead are all present in skulls, bones, and tombstones etched with the names of the camps. The Nazi leaders, towering over the ruined landscape, are tattered and facing defeat, Goebbels at the front, throws up his hands in disbelief and a kind of surrender as Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, passes through, grimly grasping the Torah, the emblem of collective survival. Where we see one, many lurk in the shadows. An eternal people, as the caption says.

The Answer was the house organ of the Bergsonites, Revisionist militants in the United States who had thrown themselves into publicizing the plight of the European Jews. Szyk’s drawing — used prominently in the group’s materials — displays his gift for distilling programmatic politics into complex, yet visceral, imagery. The Wandering Jew, that enduring and ambivalent antisemitic icon — he who mocked Christ on his progress to the cross and was condemned to roam the earth until the Second Coming — had already been reclaimed by Jewish artists, and Szyk drew from at least two prominent versions. One, a turn-of-thecentury image by Shmuel Hirszenberg in which a stripped Ahasuerus, victimized to derangement, flees the grisly horrors of the 1881 pogroms, circulated throughout Jewish Europe on postcards and posters. Another, a sculpture, is by Alfred Nossig, whose life occupies the center of this essay. Nossig’s statue transforms Hirszenberg’s traumatized vision with a radically assertive response to suffering, one that — in a profoundly awkward irony that will shortly become apparent — fit well with Szyk’s taste for the heroic.4

Lice are parasites (as are Jews). They suck our blood (as do Jews). They carry disease (as do Jews). They enter our most intimate parts (as do Jews). They cause us harm without our knowing it (as do Jews). They signify filth (as do Jews). They are everywhere (as are Jews). They are disgusting. There is no reason they should live.

Insects were there in the Holocaust. And not merely as convenient rhetorical figures for what Mahmood Mamdami — drawing parallels between the genocides in Nazi Germany and Rwanda — calls race branding (“whereby it [becomes] possible not only to set a group apart as an enemy, but also to exterminate it with an easy conscience”).5

“Ordinary” dehumanization of this type — “the Tutsi ‘cockroaches’ should know what will happen, they will disappear”6 — requires two associations: the identification of a targeted group with a particular type of nonhuman, and the association of the nonhuman in question with adequately negative traits, traits that are always specific to that time and place. The rhetorical boundary that separates humans and nonhumans is notoriously labile, though it is worth making the obvious point that humans — in the generic — always (almost always?) retain their position at the top of any species hierarchy. Equally obvious, generic humans are more theoretical than lived, and in everyday practice the humanist human tends to be simultaneously universal and not universal, differentiated by all those naturalized markers of race, gender, and class with which it is so impossible not to be familiar. In these terms, genocide is a state of exaggeration rather than a state of exception, a hyperbolization of the familiar story in which universalism is restricted through the naming and instrumentalizing of biologized difference.

Although the Nazis imposed the borders with unprecedented ferocity, they did not initiate the expulsion of the Jews from the kingdom of humanity. Just as the practices of modern German antisemitism were directly connected to colonial technologies developed in Africa and Asia, the ontologies proposed by Judeophobia, a religio-cultural racism that reaches back beyond medieval Europe, were deeply tied to the logics and practices of an emergent imperial politics of race and difference.7 In early modern France, for example, “since coition with a Jewess is precisely the same as if a man should copulate with a dog,” Christians who had heterosexual sex with Jews could be prosecuted for the capital crime of sodomy (the peccatum gravissimum that encompassed both homosexual sex and intercourse with animals) and burned alive with their partners — “such persons in the eye of the law and our holy faith differ[ing] in no wise from beasts” (who were also subject to judicial execution).8 In a minor key, long-standing German identifications of Jews with dogs (mongrels) and, in some circumstances, pigs, persisted through the Nazi era.9 More destructive — and more insinuating — was the association of the Jew with the shadowy figure of the parasite, a figure that infests the individual body, the population, and, of course, the body politic, that does so in both obvious and unexpected ways, and that invites innovative interventions and controls.

There is more here than dehumanization by association. The parasite takes us closer to the making of difference, not simply to the patrolling of the borders, but to the situated emergence of the human that takes place in conjunction with the making of the animal. Giorgio Agamben usefully describes the making of two impure beings, part animal, part human, neither wholly animal nor wholly human, both of which are emergent in the historical practices with which I am concerned here. One, formed by the incorporation of the animal that lies beyond the human, brings the slave, barbarian, and foreigner to the doorstep of humanity, “figures of an animal in human form.” The other emerges as an exclusion from humanity of the animal that is always already within, “the non-man produced within the man,” the parasite, the corrosive trace of the animal inside.10

Three ideological streams converge in the Jewish parasite: modern antisemitism, populist anticapitalism, and biologistic social science. Alex Bein tracks the figure prior to its racialization — in the form of a destitute person and a stock character in Greek comedy who sparred wittily with host and guests intent on extracting humiliation in return for a meal — and its subsequent entry into European vernacular with the early modern humanist return to the classical texts.11 In this later incarnation, its comedic qualities flattened by the centuries, “parasite” reappears as an expression of contempt for persons who fawn on the rich and for people who profit without labor at the expense of those who sweat. And it is in this sharply moralistic form that the word is taken up by the eighteenth-century sciences: first botany, then zoology, and, finally, fatally, by the sciences of man.

I worry more than Bein about this moment of adoption by biology. He offers a series of definitions from natural science textbooks that strip the term of its violent social history, reducing it to bare fact, which he summarizes as follows: “The parasite exists at the expense of another living organism which is called its host. Its very existence is bound to injure the host, often to the point of death.”12 For Bein, disaster occurs as the parasite travels on into the social sciences and finds its niche in the body politic. But now — forty years after he wrote — it is so routine to locate ideology in the putatively descriptive rhetoric of the natural sciences that I will not labor the issue more than by pointing to the felicitous intersection of economic liberalism, welfarist morality, and scientific rationalist affect that continues to make the metaphorical conflation feel just right — natural, even. As will become clear, the prime characteristic of the racial hygiene embodied by Himmler’s lice was the collapse in every respect of the biological (in particular, the medical) into the political and, equally, of the political into the biological. The institutional and intellectual boundaries are not merely breached.

Bein persuasively argues that the parasite enters European political philosophy via the liberal political economy of the Physiocrats. François Quesnay’s Tableau économique of 1758 (which Karl Marx called “the most brilliant idea of which political economy had hitherto been guilty”13) slices society neatly into three: the classe productive of agriculturalists, the class of landowners, and the unproductive classe stérile made up primarily of merchants and manufacturers.

While Marx noted that by understanding agricultural labor as the basis of surplus generation the Physiocrats took the critical step that allowed value — and therefore capitalism itself — to be investigated from the standpoint of production rather than circulation, Bein makes the rather different point that it is the introduction of the “parasitic” classe stérile into political-philosophical discourse that will give racial antisemitism its populist base in anticapitalism: “The Jew, decried since the Middle Ages as a blood sucker and exploiter of his ‘host nation,’ [now] made to bear the added burden of the odium of capitalism, always and everywhere regarded as an alien and belonging according to the race theory of the antisemites, to an inferior unproductive race — who else would fit the descriptive term ‘parasite’ better?”14

Parasites drain the lifeblood from the body politic — blood figured as money from a body figured as nation.15 But in order for this commonplace to sustain political violence a decisive metamorphosis has to take place: a people must become vermin in fact as well as analogy, the naturalistic metaphor must be literalized in “the real objects of natural science.”16 Explaining this shift is at the heart of an understanding of the fate of the Jews, who, after all, will be killed like lice — literally — with the same routinized indifference and, in vast numbers, with the same technology.

End of Excerpt | access full version


My thanks to Steve Connell for sensitive and expert translation of Alfred Nossig’s works as well as for a series of highly informative conversations. I also thank Sharon Simpson for her unfailing provocation and for encouraging a difficult compulsion. Jacek Nowakowski at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., provided a detailed and authoritative introduction to the life and work of Arthur Szyk that initiated this exploration. This essay also benefited from discussions with Paul Gilroy, Susan Harding, Dan Linger, Saba Mahmood, Don Moore, Lisa Rofel, Jim Scott, Rebecca Stein, and Eric Worby and from engagement with students in my core theory course at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Particular thanks also to Claudio Lomnitz, the Public Culture Editorial Committee, and the three anonymous reviewers solicited by this journal. I have presented this material in various forms at Berkeley, Duke, Harvard, Irvine, the New School, and Stanford and have received helpful comments and critique at all these events, in particular, from Robin Blackburn, Tina Campt, Hazel Carby, Steve Caton, Lawrence Cohen, Ewa Domanska, Lousie Fortmann, Engseng Ho, Nancy Jacobs, Paul Kottman, Smita Lahiri, Thomas Laqueur, Peter Lindner, Dilip Menon, Diane Nelson, Susan O’Donovan, Jackie Orr, Charles Piot, Leander Schneider, Mary Steedley, Ann Stoler, Sylvia Yanagisako, Mayfair Yang, and Mei Zhan. My thanks also to Richard I. Cohen, Rotem Geva, David Goldberg, Susanna Hecht, Tom Mertes, Ben Orlove, Grzegorz Sokol, Laura Surwit, and Irvin Ungar. In addition, I am grateful to the Center for Jewish History, the Leo Baeck Institute, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, all in New York City, for bibliographic assistance and permission to access their collections.

  1. Speech to SS officers, April 24, 1943, Kharkiv, Ukraine. Reprinted in U.S. Office of Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality, Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, 11 vols. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946), 4:572 – 78, 574.
  2. In exile in Britain and the United States, Szyk worked tirelessly to publicize events in Europe. A friend of Vladimir Jabotinsky and, later, Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), he put his work at the service of the Revisionists — a tendency founded on the principle of a sovereign, undivided Jewish state — campaigning first for a Jewish army, then for open immigration to Palestine, and consistently on behalf of the paramilitary Irgun. See Stephen Luckert, The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2002); and Joseph P. Ansell, “Arthur Szyk’s Depiction of the ‘New Jew’: Art as a Weapon in the Campaign for an American Response to the Holocaust,” American Jewish History 89 (2001): 123 – 34.
  3. Christopher R. Browning provides the rather remarkable statistic that over 50 percent of the people killed by the Nazis died in the eleven months between March 1942 and February 1943 (Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland [New York: HarperCollins, 1992], xv). By the time the United States acceded to the pressure to acknowledge events across the Atlantic, the fate of European Jewry was effectively settled.
  4. Both of these images are discussed in Richard I. Cohen’s fascinating and comprehensive Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 221 – 30. As Cohen points out, Nossig’s innovation was to take an image that was widely familiar at the time and imbue it with an utterly different sensibility.
  5. Mahmood Mamdami, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), 13. For this type of argument in relation to the Holocaust, see Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer, Antisemitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 2 – 3; Daniel J. Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Knopf, 1996), 71.
  6. Insectification such as this from a January 1994 article in the Hutu Power newspaper Kangura was a common feature of the Rwandan genocide. Quoted by Angeline Oyog, “Human Rights-Media: Voices of Hate Test Limits of Press Freedom,” Inter-Press Service, April 5, 1995, cited in Mamdami, When Victims Become Killers, 212.
  7. For a genealogy that takes the preoccupation with the government of difference to the fifteenth century and pays attention to the unfolding of empire within the borders of the nation, see Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). The classic reference for attitudes to Jews in medieval Europe is Jehoshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1943).
  8. E. P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals: The Lost History of Europe’s Animal Trials (1906; repr., Boston: Faber, 1987), 153, emphasis mine; quotations are from Jacob Döpler, Theatrum poenarum (Sonderhausen, 1693), and Jodocus Damhouder, Praxis rerum criminalium (Antwerp, 1562).
  9. Boria Sax, Animals in the Third Reich: Pets, Scapegoats, and the Holocaust (New York: Continuum, 2000).
  10. Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004), 37.
  11. In preparing this discussion, I have drawn extensively from Bein’s pioneering essay “The Jewish Parasite: Notes on the Semantics of the Jewish Problem with Special Reference to Germany,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 9 (1964): 1 – 40. On the parasite as a contemporary product of exclusionary state juridical regimes, see Jacques Derrida with Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000), 59 – 61.
  12. Bein, “Jewish Parasite,” 9.
  13. Quoted in Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), 238.
  14. Bein, “Jewish Parasite,” 10.
  15. Later, Bein (“Jewish Parasite,” 22) quotes Alfred Rosenberg from Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts (The Myth of the Twentieth Century) (Munich, 1933). The conception of the Jew as parasite (Schmarotzer), writes the Nazi ideologist/mythologist, “shall in the first instance not be taken as a moral judgment but as biological reality, exactly in the same way in which we speak of parasitic occurrences in the life of plants and animals. The sacullina pierces the rectum of the common crab, and gradually grows into it, it sucks away its vital forces; the same process occurs when the Jew invades society through the open wounds of the people, consuming their creative forces and hastening the doom of society” (emphasis added). As is well known, Jews often appeared as bacteria in similar biologistic narratives.
  16. Bein, “Jewish Parasite,” 12.



About the Journal

Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at

© Copyright 2006–2009 Public Culture and Duke University Press. All Rights Reserved.

Contact Info

Public Culture

20 Cooper Square, Suite 517 New York, NY 10003


212-998-8468 Fax