(December 31, 2019 / JNS) Anyone who has, as I have, spent his professional life covering the Jewish world as a journalist is not likely to spend much time wondering why Jews are so smart. I don’t think that “genius” is the best word to describe those in the organized Jewish world or how most Jews interact with that world, let alone defend their interests. From my perspective, Jews are both collectively and individually just as likely to believe in all sorts of idiotic notions as the members of any other ethnic or religious group.
And yet, there is the scoreboard some of us like to point to with that disproportionately high number of Nobel Prizes (Jews have won more than 20 percent of all Nobels that have been awarded) and the incontrovertible fact that, despite their tiny numbers, Jews have risen to the top of just about every conceivable field of endeavor except those from which they were excluded.
As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens noted, we inevitably are confronted with the following question: “How is it that a people who never amounted even to one-third of 1 percent of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most pathbreaking ideas and innovations?”
But as Stephens soon discovered, in today’s “woke” world in which any discussion about the achievements of any group, but especially the Jews, is forbidden, to even ask such a question is to call down upon oneself an avalanche of abuse.
The starting point for his rumination on the subject was a new book titled Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947 by British Jewish historian and critic Norman Lebrecht. The book focuses on the way exceptional Jewish thinkers impacted how science, politics, philosophy, literature and music are viewed. Without them, the history of the 20th century and the world we live in today would be unimaginable.
The Jewish “genius” these extraordinary people demonstrated was in rethinking existing paradigms and coming up with original concepts. That was true when Jewish monotheism came into conflict with the pagan world, as it was when Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud re-ordered the understanding of both the universe and our minds.
None of the theories that have been put forward to answer Stephens’s question—and which discuss the impact of persecution or the way Jewish faith and culture places such high value on education and critical thinking—are definitive. Such discussions are also prone to simplifications not rooted in science. Stephens disdained such explanations, while also correctly noting that the special nature of Jewish achievements has also made this minority a target for hatred from bigots of every religious and ideological variety.
Yet the columnist’s citation of a 2005 academic study that attempted to probe why “Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ for which there are reliable data” was enough to subject him to charges of supporting eugenics and being a racist.
The ostensible reason for this dubious outrage was that one of the three authors of the study proposed theories about the reasons for the advancement of human civilization that have been embraced by white supremacists. That caused editors at the Times to issue a correction apologizing for mentioning the study, even though he had not endorsed its findings or the authors’ views. The editor’s note went on to say that his column had left “an impression with many readers that Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior,” an assertion that is not backed up by a fair reading of the piece.
In doing so, the Times held a conservative (albeit one who is opposed to President Donald Trump) and the sole defender of Israel among its regular columnists to a standard it does not apply to its writers, who validate the liberal biases of its readership with pieces that regularly offend logic and even endorse anti-Semitic BDS schemes.
What is especially interesting about this controversy is that any discussion of Jewish achievements makes a lot of people (including many Jews) deeply uncomfortable. The only conclusion to be drawn from this debate is that the only acceptable approach is “don’t go there,” so as to avoid offending the sensibilities of those who believe that saying some people have done extraordinary things is an insult to everyone else. Indeed, many Jews fear that any mention of their achievements will be used to justify anti-Semitic conspiracy theories or vile racist concepts about other’s supposed inferiority.
No one other than those who, like the late paleontologist Stephen Gould, think there is no such thing as a measurable IQ disputes the fact that Ashkenazi Jews have a high average, let alone that Jews as a whole have overachieved out of proportion to their small population. Yet the Twittersphere’s explosion of vituperation directed at Stephens for “going there” speaks volumes about the way “woke” culture and the fear of offending others stifles intellectual discussions.
Even more important is that the particular sensitivity about the discussion of Jewish achievements helps us understand why the virus of anti-Semitism is so persistent and successful at grafting itself on to every new ideology or intellectual fashion that comes along.
The Jews are a people that can be joined and not a race. And not every Jew is smart, let alone dripping with genius.
Still, for some there is something profoundly unsettling about the realization that the Jews have not only refused to allow themselves to be erased from the planet (as many of their enemies have plotted), but that they have also done so while doing remarkable things that changed the world for the better. However this came to be, it’s not a function of so-called “white privilege” or something the Jews should be forced to ignore or deny, or for which they should be ashamed.
Rather than calling out as racists those who recognize the reality of a certain genius that Jewish civilization has produced, it is those who find this notion insufferable who should be asked what it is about the reality of Jewish success that makes them so angry.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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