Two issues ought to trouble anyone concerned with Jewish and Israeli history.

 
One is the development of a stable democracy in Israel, against the background of little or no experience among the country's founders with the politics or government of democratic regimes.
 
Another is the great disproportion, relative to population, of Jews in just about every field of importance, against a history of being marginal in every society in which they have lived, during much of the biblical period and throughout almost all of the two millennia since then.
 
We can already hear objection to the first issue, from ideological Know Nothings who insist that Israel is not a democracy. 
 
"Horse sh*t," as my beloved mother occasionally said when provoked.
 
The country's democracy is no more imperfect than any other. The Arab minority doesn't measure up to the Jewish majority in many ways, but there is no clear metric to compare it with the minorities of other democracies. On measures of health, Israel's Arabs score better than the American majority, and far better than American minorities.
 
Moreover, Israel's democracy has withstood challenges of poverty and warfare used elsewhere as excusing departures from orderly and open elections. Since its founding, there have been several waves of mass migration from non-democratic societies, whose individuals have been integrated into the society without upsetting its political stability, 
 
With that, the rantings of extremists that Israel is not a democracy can go straight to the intellectual garbage, along with other indications of anti-Semitism that may be expressed by the same critics.
 
The second issue, i.e., Jewish excellence here and overseas, finds its justification in the incidence of Nobel Prize winners, as well as Jewish prominence in commerce, finance, government, the arts, mass communication, and entertainment, with the possible exception of professional sports.
 
Jewish excellence began to be apparent in the 19th century. Two of the curious examples were Karl Marx and Benjamin Disraeli, arguably not Jews but the sons of families that had been Jewish. The 20th century was arguably the time of Jewish awakening, associated with mass migration from less free to more free societies, and then the crumbling in western societies of limitations against Jewish access to prestige universities, corporate positions, neighborhoods, and social clubs.
 
Associated with Jewish prominence has been Israel's success in a number of fields. From a severely strapped economy until sometime in the 1970s the country now appears on the World Bank's list of wealthiest countries. On key indicators of resources per capita, it scores below the median of that list, but along with (some years above and some below) Italy, Spain, the UK, and New Zealand, and well above Greece and Portugal. 
 
There is no certain or obvious explanation of either Israel's democracy or Jewish prominence. However, it is useful to look at elements that have long marked Jewish culture as bringing us at least partly along the way of an explanation.
 
One is Jewish education, and another is Jewish openness to dispute.
 
There are rabbinical stories of Jewish education from the time of Solomon, when the community would support the education of bright boys who were spotted by community leaders in poor families.
 
Everything dated to Solomon may be more mythical than historical, but the pattern seems to have been well established in diaspora communities after the destruction of the Second Temple. One hears not only about bright boys from poor families given an education, but then married to the daughters of rabbis or wealthy merchants. To the extent that it happened, it seemed likely to increase the probability of good genes in subsequent generations. The comparison is to the bright kids of Catholic families, who were trained for the Church where they spent their lives, at least ideally, with no genetic production.
 
One can quarrel with the history portrayed in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, as well as the Judaic sources of both collections. Those who wrote the Bibles were individuals who had direct or indirect contact with people of numerous other cultures. Jews learned, borrowed, and in some cases modified the stories taken from others. Authors of the New Testament were Jews who rebelled against the establishment and created something new, but whose norms came directly from what had been included centuries earlier in the books attributed to the prophets. 
 
What is historical truth or fable is less important than the quality of the literature produced by one or another group of Jews between two and three millennia ago. They formed no small part of the culture that goes by the name of western civilization, and influenced at least some of what became subsequent history. 
 
Jewish proclivity to dispute appears strongly in the Talmud, whose tractates (volumes) can be summarized as a series of rabbinical arguments about the meaning of language in the Torah establishing laws, or patterns of acceptable behavior. Among the rabbinical sayings is one expressing the view that God prefers decision-making after argument, or that individuals who argue about proper activities are more likely to reach what God desires than individuals who take upon themselves to dictate to others. 
 
Jews proclivity to dispute, or the related tendency to see yet another way of looking at things,appears early on as one of the roots of anti-Semitism. Nit-picking, or endless dispute about what others see as small points, are among the behaviors that have disturbed or infuriated individuals having to deal with Jews.
 
Yet the positive side of that trait is its contribution both to government by discussion rather than dictates (i.e., a key component of democracy), as well as a pursuit of refined thinking (i.e., a component of skill or excellence in one or another intellectual, commercial, or artistic activity).
 
Quarreling about influences is part of the Jewish tradition, along with expressing one's views with an elegance of language acquired in years of education, reading, and expressing thoughts. Note the lack of an inclination to impose one's wishes on others with force, and you have at least part of what it has taken to make the Jewish State democratic, as well as lead Jews to the economic, political, and cultural heights of several countries.
 
As suggested above, quarrels welcome



-- 
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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