How smart are Jews?
Bret Stephens, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, was enthralled by Norman Lebrecht’s new book Genius & Anxiety discussing the intellectual achievements of Jewish thinkers, artists and entrepreneurs between 1847 and 1947. So he decided last week to devote a column to this fascinating question: How is it that people who never amounted even to one third of 1% of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most pathbreaking ideas and innovations? In short, what is the secret of Jewish genius?
And that’s when the roof caved in for Bret Stephens. As one of the lone conservatives and vocal supporters of Israel on the Times staff, Stephens is no stranger to controversy. His views have often elicited strong negative reactions. This time though his critics are calling for his head. After all, how dare Stephens suggest there is even the slightest truth to the idea that Jews are somehow intellectually superior.
Never mind the inconvenient facts: Jews, more than any other minority, ethnic or cultural, have been recipients of the Nobel Prize, with almost one-fifth of all Nobel laureates being Jewish. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates. Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, and 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction. A remarkable study conducted by psychologist Richard Lynn and political scientist Tatu Vanhanen, published in 2006 in IQ and Global Inequity, calculated that a Jewish average IQ of 115 is 8 points higher than the generally accepted IQ of their closest rivals – Northeast Asians – and approximately 40% higher than the global average IQ of 79.1.
But, Bret Stephens, you better not dare even hint at Jewish intellectual superiority because that makes you guilty of the contemporary crime of racism.
Regretfully, Stephens did make one mistake of judgment. In citing data about Jewish intellectual achievement and IQ, Stephens linked to a paper written by three anthropologists, one of whom, as it turns out, has been accused of being a racist. The Times subsequently removed the link. But guilt by association is wrong; nowhere did Stephens proceed to base Jewish genius on faulty racist doctrine.
Before political correctness would surely have prevented him from stating it so boldly, Mark Twain wrote this about the Jews in the 19th century:
[The Jews] are peculiarly and conspicuously the world’s intellectual aristocracy… [Jewish] contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are… way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world… and has done it with his hands tied behind him.
Twain wasn’t a racist; he was a realist. He chose to recognize the remarkable gifts of a people who excelled for a host of reasons – and passed on their commitment to education and to excellence to their children. And Bret Stephens, searching for the traits that have clearly allowed one people to stand out at the peak of human achievement, did nothing more than focus on possible reasons for Jewish greatness, reasons – as he himself points out – that are not genetically exclusive to Jews but potentially available to all who are willing to pursue excellence.
Why are Jews so smart? At the very same time the “fire Bret Stephens for racism” protest gained steam, Jews around the world offered a highly visible answer. A little shy of 100,000 Jews gathered in the cold at Met-Life Stadium in New Jersey; tens of thousands at Barclays center in Brooklyn; similar numbers in major cities across the country as well as around the world. Venues accustomed to serving as sites for major sports events and entertainment were filled to capacity with Jews celebrating a joyous achievement. For more than seven years, every single day – no matter the weather, their other commitments, their health or their schedules – they learned one full page of the Talmud. In a little over seven years they finished this momentous project. To have studied the Talmud is to recognize the difficulty involved. It is a curriculum which affords no degree at its conclusion. It will in no way add to anyone’s ability to achieve greater financial security. It is purely learning for the sake of learning. It is knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It is making the statement that as our bodies need food for physical sustenance, so too our souls require “soul food”, the nourishment of wisdom and understanding.
I know of no other people who have a similar universal commitment to study and to perfection of the intellect, the quality which Maimonides teaches is the meaning of being created “in the image of God.”
It is not racism to recognize that Jewish respect for scholarship has been a highly significant factor in the creation of an intellectual aristocracy. Here is Talmudic advice for acquiring a suitable mate:
“Our Rabbis teach, Let a man sell all that he has and marry the daughter of a learned man. If he cannot find the daughter of a learned man, let him marry the daughter of one of the great men of his day. If he does not find such a one, let him marry the daughter of one of the heads of the congregation, or, failing this, the daughter of a charity collector, or even the daughter of a schoolmaster; but let him not marry the daughter of an illiterate man, for the unlearned are an abomination.” (Pesachim, 49: 2).
“What makes Jews special is that they aren’t,” Stephens contends in his allegedly eugenicist column. Others might achieve the same goal if they chose to live by similar values. Stephens explains the Jewish focus on education as a consequence of roughly two millennia of exile and persecution.
And there is the understanding, born of repeated exile, that everything that seems solid and valuable is ultimately perishable, while everything that is intangible – knowledge most of all – is potentially everlasting. “We had been well off, but that was all we got out,” the late financier Felix Rohatyn recalled of his narrow escape, with a few hidden gold coins, from the Nazis as a child in World War II. “Ever since, I’ve had the feeling that the only permanent wealth is what you carry around in your head.” If the greatest Jewish minds seem to have no walls, it may be because, for Jews, the walls have so often come tumbling down.
Jews in the diaspora learned that the only possession they could truly call their own was what they accumulated in their mind. The people of the book cherished the book above all – and that is the secret Jews passed on from one generation to the next.
Poor Bret Stephens. Little did he realize that when he chose to acknowledge Jewish genius he opened the floodgates for Jew haters who found yet another way to deny Jews recognition for their achievements – by confusing racism with hard-earned excellence.