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The Secret Behind Jewish Genius


For centuries, the question of Jewish intellectual superiority has been quietly discussed and debated. How could such a tiny, numerically insignificant group produce so many of the world’s smartest, most accomplished, most influential people?

Many of history’s most important figures have been Jews. In the religious realm, of course, there was the Patriarch Abraham, whose life and teachings are considered sacred by Jews, Christians, and Muslims; Moses, the lawgiver to Jews and Christians; and Jesus and the apostle Paul, who founded and spread Christianity.

Jews have also played a key role in shaping the modern world (if not always for the best): Albert Einstein…Sigmund Freud…Karl Marx…Jonas Salk…Albert Sabin.

And Jews were heavily overrepresented among those who, inspired by Einstein’s theories, developed the first atomic bomb: Felix Bloch, Niels Bohr, Otto Frisch, Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Edward Teller. Indeed, Jews were so dominant in nuclear physics in Europe in the 1930’s that the field was often referred to as “Jewish physics.”

No other group has come close to matching, proportionally, Jewish abilities and accomplishments. Combined with other common Jewish traits – ambition, curiosity, energy, imagination, and persistence – Jewish intelligence has elevated an incredible number of Jews to the top ranks of various fields.

Consider the following:

● The proportion of Jews with IQ’s of 140 or more is estimated to be about six times the number found in other ethnic groups.

● Although Jews constitute about two-tenths of one percent of the world’s population, they won 29 percent of the Nobel Prizes in literature, medicine, physics and chemistry in the second half of the 20th century. So far this century, the figure is 32 percent. And all this was accomplished almost exclusively by male Jews primarily of western European ancestry (less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s population), despite pervasive discrimination, numerous legal barriers, frequent persecution, and the Holocaust.

● From 1870 to 1950, Jewish leadership in such fields as literature, music, visual arts, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and philosophy was from four to fourteen times the Jewish proportion of the population in Europe and North America.

● In 1954, 28 children in the New York City public school system were found to have IQ’s of 170 or higher – 24 of these were Jewish.

And, of course, the extraordinarily high proportion of Jews in such fields as medicine, law, finance, literature, science, creative arts and the media is as obvious as it is astonishing. To some, these facts are awkward and even embarrassing, feeding stereotypes of “crafty” and “clever” Jews good at making money and flaunting their superiority to non-Jews. In fact, the subject – the fact, if you will – of Jewish intellectual superiority is rarely if ever discussed in Jewish publications.

Now to explain all this comes a self-described “Scots-Irish gentile from Iowa,” Charles Murray, of the American Enterprise Institute. Murray is the author of the controversial but heavily documented book The Bell Curve, which in 1994 discussed “differences in intellectual capacity among people and groups.”

Murray has a brilliant and convincing essay in the April issue of Commentary magazine, titled “Jewish Genius,” in which he cites many of the facts mentioned above. He observes that the two most influential works of literature ever were written by and about Jews: the Hebrew and the Christian bibles, the so-called Old and New Testaments, and he goes on to cite numerous other examples of what can only be called Jewish intellectual supremacy.

Murray argues persuasively that rather than environmental factors, “elevated Jewish intelligence is grounded in genetics,” and that it is “substantially heritable.” Jews, especially the Ashkenazim of central and western Europe, have been engaging for centuries in what basically amounts to selecting mates and merging genes to produce children of high intelligence.

The Talmud (Pesachim 49a) says that “A man should sell all he possesses in order to marry the daughter of a scholar, as well as marry his daughter to a scholar.” In the Jewish community of the Middle Ages, the smartest men often became rabbis, and these learned men of high status were able to marry the daughters of successful merchants, thus “selecting” in favor of intelligence.

At the same time, Christians were doing just the opposite: the best and the brightest were encouraged to become priests and monks in the dominant Roman Catholic Church; those who did were prohibited from marrying, thus removing countless intellectually superior men from the gene pool.

Murray also observes that “Sephardi Jews rose to distinction in many of the countries where they settled. Some economic historians have traced the decline of Spain after 1500 [following the expulsion of the Jews], and the subsequent rise of the Netherlands, in part to the Sephardi commercial talent that was transferred from one to the other.”

Murray’s scholarly and extensively documented article cites other reasons for Jewish intellectual superiority in verbal and reasoning skills. One is a decree issued in 64 C.E. by the martyred sage Joshua ben Gamla, high priest in the last years of the Second Temple, requiring that all males be enrolled in school by age six.

“Within about a century,” Murray notes, “the Jews, uniquely among the peoples of the world, had effectively established universal male literacy and numeracy.”

Moreover, throughout the centuries, Jewish males have had to study and learn the law, a process one never completes, and to read – often aloud in public – in order to practice their faith and teach it to their children. Murray speculates that many Jews of low intelligence, who could not read well and fulfill the intellectual demands of their religion, tended to drift away from it.

Murray also cites a thesis of the geneticist Cyril Darlington and argues that Jews were “decisively shaped much earlier,” during the period of the fall of Jerusalem and captivity under Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. According to the Bible (2 Kings 24:10-14), only the elite among the Israelites were taken to Babylon, leaving behind the unskilled and presumably less intelligent. The king “carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valour… and all the craftsmen and the smiths; none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land.”

By the time the Israelites returned more than a century later, many of those remaining had been killed off or had married foreign spouses and been absorbed by other peoples. The returned exiles reconstituted a Jewish community comprised largely of descendants of its most intelligent members. Until recently, the vast majority of Jews continued to try to marry within their own group and resisted assimilation with their neighbors.

Still Murray wonders: “Why should one particular tribe at the time of Moses, living in the same environment as other nomadic and agricultural peoples of the Middle East, have already evolved elevated intelligence when others did not?”

The answer, he speculates, may be his “happily irrefutable” hypothesis, drawn from the Jews’ earliest and most famous literary work:

“The Jews are God’s chosen people.”

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