As we watch the Olympians running, jumping and swimming, it bears recalling that
these fantastic events do not really measure what separates most humans from one
another, and certainly from other animals: greatness of
Domesticated dogs run three times faster than the average
domesticated man, and house cats easily out-jump us. But can they do a crossword
puzzle or play chess? On the global stage, mental skills are what really counts,
but not at the Olympics.
Since the renewal of the Olympics in 1896, Jews
have occasionally been great boxers (Samuel Berger, 1900), triple-jumpers (Meyer
Prinstein, 1900 and 1904), wrestlers and weightlifters. They rarely dominate a
field (except for the uncommon Mark Spitz swimming into the horizon with seven
gold medals in 1972).
Fortunately, Jews do well at mental
This fact comforts Jews whose sprint and marathon talents
come to the fore when trying to outrun Nazis and hurdle Cossacks – events that
are not regularly scheduled every four years.
Still we have those tests
of the mind.
Indeed, just before the Olympics, chess held its world
championship – a sports competition that challenged imagination, memory and
other mental skills. A Russian-born Israeli, Boris Gelfand, narrowly lost to the
reigning world champ from India, Viswanathan Anand. You may have missed it, and
you probably did not see video highlights.
Chess, of course, is not the
only competition based on brains, but in many parts of the world, it is
considered a sport, and its champions are idolized no less than great sprinters
like Usain Bolt and basketball players like Kobe Bryant.
especially important to Jews and Israelis because there have always been Jews
(or those from Jewish background) excelling at the brainiest sport: Gary
Kasparov and Bobby Fischer, for example, dominated the field.
In the real
world, however, great achievements of the mind are usually found not at the
chessboard, but at the blackboard, the library and the laboratory. Think of
Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, Sigmund Freud and his insights, Albert
Einstein and his great theories.
Counting gold, silver and bronze medals
is fun, but getting a gold medal for skeet shooting is not as important as
finding the magic bullet for polio or a strain of cancer.
Of the 850 or
so people who have won Nobel prizes in the past century – in medicine, physics,
Chemistry, economics (sometimes math is hidden in this category) and peace –
about 170 were Jews. That is one in five. When you consider that Jews comprise
less than 1 percent of the world’s population, that is amazing.
a famously accomplished group,” observed David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for
The New York Times. “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.”
So enjoy those Olympic events,
and teach your kids to run, jump, wrestle and even to shoot, because these can
be important traits and skills for survival in a world where humans are not
always friendly to humans, especially if they are Jewish. But don’t stop
Some may call it ironic or serendipitous that as thousands filled
Britain’s Olympic stadiums (millions more watching on television), 20,000 Jews
went to a stadium in Jerusalem and another 100,000 to Giants Stadium in New
Jersey to mark completion of the seven-year- cycle of daily Talmud study known as
Daf Yomi – the “Daily Page.”
The Olympian challenge of the Jewish people
is to make sure that those Jews who know Torah and Talmud also employ their
brains in the lab, the library and at the computer, while Jews with sparse
knowledge of their Torah- Talmud heritage develop literacy and aptitude in these
That is what we need if Jews are not only to survive but to
The writer, an expert on Arab politics and communications, is the
author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat published
by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He was strategic affairs adviser in the Public
Security Ministry and teaches at Bar-Ilan University.