Yesterday’s Times had an op-ed by Bret Stephens titled “The Secrets of Jewish Genius.” He’s taking a lot of heat for it from Jewish Americans, not for touting Ashkenazi exceptionalism, but for mentioning a 2005 study of IQs that placed them at the highest level among all ethnic groups. Seems that any genetic superiority smacks of racism.
Otherwise, Stephens ran the gamut of Jewish brilliance from Nobel Prizes to making life beautiful.
Did I mention that the 46-year old Stephens is Ashkenazi on both sides? (Family name Ehrlich.) Or that he is a Zionist who, even though American, was once editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post? Or that he is a neo-con who urged our nation to invade Iraq in 2003, and still defends that insane war. If there were a poster boy for the misnomer ‘The Chosen People,’ Stephens would be it.
Jews and Italians are often considered a matched set. The humor, the family, the traditions, and the lack of formality make us very compatible. Working in Manhattan for them, and with them, for thirty years taught me much. Studying them in history and observing them in current events has given me a deep respect for their amazing resilience and talents. I have concluded that their keys to success are unlimited ambition and deep pockets.
The Old Testament, their ultimate source of inspiration, is familiar to all of us. It came into Europe with Christianity. Hollywood has saved us the trouble of reading it and lent it a glory beyond its provincial reality. We often give our children Hebrew names – think Abraham Lincoln. Its miraculous stories comforted Christian explorers, colonists, and pioneers who dared the unknown over centuries inspired by Biblical miracles. I would assume that Old Testament stories fed the dreams of many a Jewish child – they took them as “family” history. Drowning the pharaoh’s chariots, receiving marching orders from Jehovah on Sinai, vanquishing the Canaanites, reliving David’s showdown with Goliath, and the righteous justice of Solomon would certainly make anyone feel part of a chosen people. Clearly, this wasn’t Roman mythology.
But, while rabbis now play down the concept of the Chosen People, believers such as Bret Stephens slip every now and then. So, it’s not surprising that his biggest critics are fellow Jews who fear his article will feed anti-Semitism. One, Aliza Worthington (another nice Anglo name), urges Stephens to follow the new Jewish protocol of Tikkun Olam, or “repairing the world.” (As if it works at all in the Middle East!)
In fact, Jewish secular genius – in medicine and astronomy – sprouted within the Islamic world, but it expanded during the European Enlightenment with Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677), a Portuguese Jew and lens maker living in Amsterdam. He not only embraced Western philosophy and science, but he rejected the Old Testament as a man-made narrative. For that, he was excommunicated by his synagogue.
Jewish genius flourished in a gentile Europe. Even in the ghettos of Venice and Rome, the Renaissance and Enlightenment wafted over the walls to lure the Jewish people from business and religion to the arts and sciences. Napoleon eventually freed the Jews from many European ghettos.
I have always used the Jewish community’s self-pride as a yardstick for ours. In terms of genius, though, our credentials are second to none, and for 2,500 years, yet! From Pythagoras and Augustus to Leonardo and Fermi. Our genius covers more fields than theirs except one: self-promotion. On that score, we are in the self-debasing league – think mafia and guido movies.
The real genius of the Jewish community begins in youth with religious instruction and Hebrew lessons. By their teens, Judaism further inculcates unity via summer camps and with trips to Israel – over 750,000 kids got free trips since 1999 through Birthright Israel. Jewish non-profits have mastered the art of government grants, locally and nationally (Israel still receives $4 billion in annual aid from us). Thanks to a tradition of internal investment, they bankroll each other’s ventures – think of establishing Hollywood studios and Las Vegas. They wisely fund and participate in our political universe – with 29 members of Congress.
A high IQ may help to become a scientist, but street smarts wins the pot. Italian Americans may have the stuff of genius, but we don’t have the unity or will to show it. -JLM