The Baseler Rav on Jews and Non-Jews

Rabbi Arthur Cohn, otherwise known as the Baseler Rav, was a major figure late nineteenth and early twentieth century Orthodox Judaism. In addition to being, in effect, the Chief Rabbi of Switzerland for forty years until his death in 1926. (1) He was also involved in the Zionist cause and played a key role in the first Zionist Congress which was held in Basel in 1897. (2)

More than that Cohn was a close associate of Rabbi Avraham Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, to the point of using his influence with the British legation at Berne to get Kook an entry permit to Britain in 1917. (3) Cohn was also the founder and long-time President of Switzerland’s premier jewish organization: the ‘Zentralverein zur Forderung des gesetzestreuen Judentums’. (4)

To cap it off one of Cohn’s sons, Marcus, was a renowned expert in Talmudic law (like his father) (5) was appointed to a high position in the Israeli Ministry of Justice in 1949. (6)

Thus we can see that Cohn was a significant figure in the history of both Judaism and the Zionist movement. Therefore what he has to say on the matter of jews and non-jews is relatively authoritative and not a minority opinion.

First we should note that Cohn defined jewishness as being derived from their biology not from their religious confession.

He writes in ‘The Memory of the Egyptian Slavery’ that:

‘Nobody can deny that we are a people. We are on through descend, blood and race. We have never mingled with other nations and have kept our blood pure. All of us are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ (7)

In addition to attacking the Egyptian priest Manetho, as quoted by Josephus in his ‘Against Apion’, for asserting that the jews derive from the Egyptians. When, according to Cohn, they are two very different racial groups. (8)

He also refers to jews as a ‘tribe’ in ‘How We Bless Our Children’ (9) and tells the reader on numerous other occasions that jews who have committed apostasy are still jews. (10)

Cohn here is explicitly keeping to the dictum in Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, which declares: ‘A Jew remains a Jew even when he sins.’ (11)

This leads nicely to into Cohn’s demand for jewish racial purity (12) that in turn links back, as Marschalko and MacDonald have argued, (13) to the race-based religious laws specified in the Tanakh.

Cohn argued that while jewishness was of biological origin; it did have a very specific spiritual purpose.

In ‘What Does the Zionist Congress Teach Us’ he states that:

‘Jewish nationalism is a peculiar phenomenon which the devout Jew finds difficult to understand. Jewish nationalism resembles a knife without a blade. The Torah is the center of our existence and the soul of our people. The nation is merely the vessel which holds this precious content.’ (14)

To Cohn then the jewish race has been created as the living vessels of the spirit of the Torah, which they have a duty to educate non-jews about. (15)

This divine mission is for jews to bring about the world peace. (16) The enabling factor in this is the assertion that jews will be the leaders of those looking to make peace (i.e. ‘Repair the World’ – Tikkun Olam) (17) and that they are superior both spiritually and morally to non-jews and have been since ancient times. (18)

All this begs the question: why haven’t jews managed to achieve world place before?

Cohn answers this by asserting that jews have been insufficiently pious and too proud to do this work leading God to severely punish them. (19)

This classically jewish answer - bearing as it does a striking resemblance to the arguments made by Samuel Usque’s ‘The Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel’ among many others (20) - to this conundrum is also heavily buttressed by Cohn’s belief that it is jewry’s exile amongst the nations (i.e. the non-jews) that is the problem.

He writes in ‘The Chanuka Light as a Sign’ that:

‘God has imposed a difficult task of us. We have to live among the nations, to deal and walk with them and yet we must keep separate from them and yet we must keep separate from them in the very centre of our being, in our religion and our worship of God.’ (21)

Naturally in such a situation some racially pure jews will fail the test and slip into apostasy:

‘We must become better Jews. Every Jew who sincerely clings to the faith of his ancestors is depressed at the thought of Israel’s future. There is an increasing amount of apostasy. But surely those parents who allow their children to be educated in non-Jewish boarding-schools are themselves to blame for their children’s apostasy, since they have taught them to regard the commandments of the Jewish faith with indifference and contempt. The children are merely drawing the logical conclusion from the un-Jewish education and example set by their parents.’ (22)

Although Cohn does blame the jewish parents for providing an ‘un-Jewish education’ for this. The necessary addendum to this is the belief is that the fundamental problem of non-jewishness in the world. He alludes that in the same work using the common euphemism of ‘the Hellenisers’ (i.e. jews who aped the glory that was Greece) that non-jewish influence is poison to jews. (23)

He explains this in ‘Atonement’ as follows:

‘We are not descendants of Esau, whose principle in life can be reduced to the simple formula of: he ate and drank, got up and went away (Genesis 25:34). For him pleasure was the highest aim and he despised spiritual values. On this day we regard ourselves as descendants of Jacob. Awed by eternity, we stand prepared for the great day of judgement when sin is that which God has defined as in His Torah.’ (24)

In other words: non-jews (i.e. the descendants of Esau) are non-spiritual creatures that consume the fruits of the earth only to exist but are inherently incapable of any higher purpose. Cohn’s effective classification of non-jews as being sub-human is not an aberration as Neusner has inadvertently highlighted. (25)

While Cohn himself makes his own views even more obvious when he writes that:

‘Nowhere is the difference between the mentality of Jews and non-Jews shown more clearly than in our manner of celebrating the New Year. With a joke on his lips and a drink in his hand our non-Jewish neighbour begins the new year, as if to obey the words of the classical poet: Carpe diem! Enjoy life! We Jews are different. For us the turn of the year gives rise to profound contemplation. In our Houses of Prayer we wear the Sargenes, the gown of the dead, which stirs our emotions with its quiet and insist language. The sounds of the Shofar resemble a call from our divine Father. They remind us of duties so frequently neglected and implore us to make good use of our short span of earthy existence , since it is He who has granted us life, strength and health.’ (26)

This is further demonstrated by Cohn’s assertion that: ‘We Jews are supposed to a kingdom of priests, an example of moral purity and a model of uprightness for all peoples.’ (27)

The mission of this specially chosen people, who are held to higher standards than all other inferior peoples, (28) is to keep itself racially and religiously pure. (29)

When the jews err then God uses the inferior non-jewish peoples to wreak a terrible vengeance on the perfidy of his priestly nation. To wit:

‘In the same way God in His mercy guides us. If we fall in our old errors and forget Him in our good fortune, then He sets enemies upon us, and our adversaries surround us on all sides. These enemies make the Jew aware of his own identity. Israel is the most obstinate of nations. When they attack the Jew, even the Jew who was no longer Jewish and did not wish to be a Jew, desires to be a Jew again – first a national Jew and, we hope soon, a sincerely religious Jew.’ (30)

Cohn is careful to qualify however that the jews have only offended God: they have not actually done anything wrong to non-jews.

He states:

‘We know that anti-Semitism is on the increase. It is not our faults that cause it, for we are no worse than other people. Anti-Semitism originates from envy and jealously on the part of the other nations, among whom we live. If only we could reduce and remove this envy and jealousy, the animosity against Israel would also be reduced.’ (31)

In addition to:

‘In our own age we stand especially in need of this confronting thought, since hatred of the Jews seems to be on the increase in all countries. We Jews have always been considered as responsible for every misfortune. When pestilence was rife in Europe and a quarter of all the inhabitants of European lands fell victim to that horrible disease, they claimed that the Jews had poisoned the wells. When the stock-exchange is castigated as a “poisonous tree,” the Jews are accused of having founded it. When a war is lost and a whole people suffers, the Jews are the scape-goat on whom the burden of guilt can be loaded. If the price of food reaches fantastic heights, he Jews must be the instigators, and if Bolshevism appears like a mental disease among the peoples, the Jews are held responsible for that as well.’ (32)

From the above we can therefore conclude that Cohn really believed that jews had never significantly impacted non-jews in a negative way, which therefore renders historic non-jewish retaliation against jews irrational, derived from various ‘prejudices’ and based ‘jealousy’ of the manifest superiority of the jewish people .

This belief formed the basis for Cohn’s ardent support of Zionism. He argued that if the jews were removed from non-jewish influence: it would both strengthen jewishness (33) and allow them to fulfil their destiny as an important civilising influence on non-jews around the world. (34)

Cohn’s Zionist thought will be the subject of another article, but what we can draw from the foregoing discussion is that he believed that jews were superior beings to non-jews, that he based this claim on their being a racially-pure nation as well as that no jew had ever done evil to any non-jew.


(1) Arthur Cohn, 1972, ‘Of Israel’s Teachings and Destiny: Sermons, Studies and Essays’, 1st Edition, Ahron Press: New York, pp. xii-xiv
(2) Ibid, p. xvii
(3) Ibid, pp. xix-xx
(4) Ibid, p. xii; Rudolf Vierhaus, 2005, ‘Deutsche Biographische Enzyklopaedie’, Vol. II, 2nd Edition, K.G. Saur: Munich, p. 379
(5) Cohn, Op. Cit., p. xiii
(6) Ibid, p. xxiii
(7) Ibid, p. 79
(8) Ibid, p. 66
(9) Ibid, p. 111
(10) Ibid, p. 20; 46; 135; 137
(11) Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, 44a (Schottenstein Edition); Cohn, Op. Cit., p. 137
(12) Cohn, Op. Cit., p. 58
(13) Louis Marschalko, 1958, ‘The World Conquerors: The Real War Criminals’, 1st Edition, Britons: London, pp. 6-26 ; Cf. Kevin MacDonald, 2002, ‘A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy, with Diaspora Peoples’, 1st Edition, Writers Club Press: San Jose
(14) Cohn, Op. Cit, p. 111
(15) Ibid, p. 78
(16) Ibid, pp. 57-58
(17) Ibid, p. 134
(18) Ibid, pp. 26; 68
(19) Ibid, pp. 52-53; 118
(20) Cf. Samuel Usque, Martin Cohen (Trans.), 1964 ,‘The Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel’, 1st Edition, The Jewish Publication Society of America: Philadelphia
(21) Cohn, Op. Cit., p. 58
(22) Ibid, p. 45
(23) Ibid, pp. 57; 73
(24) Ibid, p. 43
(25) Jacob Neusner, 2004, ‘Making God’s Word Work: A Guide to the Mishnah’, 1st Edition, Continuum: New York, p. 74
(26) Cohn, Op. Cit., p. 8
(27) Ibid, p. 40
(28) Ibid, pp. 52-53
(29) Ibid, pp. 58-59
(30) Ibid, p. 118
(31) Ibid, p. 35
(32) Ibid, p. 56
(33) Ibid, pp. 88; 117
(34) Ibid, p. 76