Are Jews born smart?

Saying that Ashkenazi genes are different calls into question the motivation behind the research.

November 29, 2005 21:58
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einstein 88. (photo credit: )


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Ashkenazi Jews are genetically intellectually superior to everyone else. This is the conclusion of a recent "scientific" study entitled Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence that triggered several articles in popular publications such as New York Magazine, The New York Times and the Economist. In this study, Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending of the University Of Utah's anthropology department suggest a genetic explanation to account for this remarkable intellectual achievement. They base their hypothesis on four observations. First, that Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic grouping. Second, Ashkenazim have a very low inward gene flow (low intermarriage). Third, historic restrictions on professions allowed to Jews, such as money-lending, banking and tax farming, in which higher intelligence strongly favored economic success, in turn led to increased reproductive success. Low intermarriage acted as a selective process genetically favoring these abilities. Fourth, genetic mutations responsible for diseases commonly found in Ashkenazi Jews, such as Tay-Sachs, are responsible for improved intelligence. My initial reaction to a theory like this is suspicion laced with a healthy dose of skepticism. Undoubtedly Ashkenazim have made a disproportionate contribution to Western intellectual and cultural life - think Freud, Einstein, Mahler, or Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld, to name but a few. But saying that Ashkenazi genes are different calls into question the motivation behind the research. SHOULD 'RACE' be dignified as a subject of scientific study? To refuse to investigate a subject, however objectionable, would in itself be unscientific. Yet the attention of the scientific community alone lends it credibility. This study is to be published in The Journal of Biosocial Science in 2006 by Cambridge University Press. The paper drew considerable criticism for both its aims and methods from geneticists, historians, social scientists and other academics as "poor science" - condemning its polemical style and the lack of usual rigor and dispassion of scientific texts. But what do we do with the conclusions of the thesis? Maybe file them with Jewish conspiracies such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Claiming we are a race genetically differentiated from the rest of humanity could provide excellent material for anti-Semites. It could share a shelf with other "scientific" works on race and intelligence such as those of Arthur Jensen or The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein - which questioned affirmative action in the US, claiming that African-Americans are genetically inferior in intellectual abilities. Is the Harpending and Cochran study any less odious for the fact that it portrays Jews in a positive light? JUDAISM HAS never advocated Jewish racial superiority. Indeed, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) explains that Adam, the biblical first man, was created singly as the common forebear of all mankind so that future families would not quarrel over claims of superiority in their respective ancestry. If racial purity was important the Jewish people would not have accepted converts, or would maybe maybe reconsider the status of their offspring. Yet we have the biblical story of Ruth, a convert who is not only accepted into the Jewish people, but whose descendents include King David and, ultimately, the Messiah. Down the centuries, reluctance to accept converts was based on concerns about the smooth transmission of family traditions, religious observances, history and culture, and not the watering-down of blood, diluting DNA, or contamination of the Jewish gene pool. Being "the chosen people" does not make Jews superior either. The idea of chosenness first appears in the book of Exodus (19:5-6) where, contingent on complying with and keeping the Divine covenant, the Jewish people is singled out to become "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." In the words of Henri Atlan: "Election does not imply superiority or inherent sanctity, since the correct reading of the Bible in fact implies conditional chosenness. The election is one of duty, not of rights or attributes." IF JEWS aren't racially superior, then, how does one account for the undeniably disproportionate achievements of Jews (numbering 0.2% of the world population) at winning Nobel prizes, for example? There is a "self-fulfilling prophecy" explanation. Nobel prizes are awarded according to a set of culturally-rooted values - extolling the virtues of Western civilization and rewarding its paradigms, we should bear in mind that Judaism made a significant contribution to that civilization. Jews have always been literate, and historically the professional restrictions on Ashkenazi Jews encouraged them to promote "exile-proof" skills. They valued and encouraged learning, hard work and achievement. These were a cultural legacy, not innate qualities. If race is the source of those achievements, where does hard work or personal endeavor enter the equation? If I am an Ashkenazi Jew, is it my destiny to achieve? And what do we do with this within the Jewish world? We really don't need another source of divisiveness along the Ashkenazi/Sephardi rift. My own view as an educator is that everyone has the same intellectual potential, regardless of lineage. Psychologists maintain that the average person uses only 5-7% of that potential. Differing levels of achievement among people are accounted for by the amount of their potential they have managed to exploit. If there is any common factor accounting for the achievement of some exceptional Ashkenazi Jews it may be their cultural legacy that has enabled them to make more of themselves. Their achievements are not predestined by an accident of birth. The writer, a member of Kibbutz Alumim, is senior educator in Melitz Centers for Jewish-Zionist Education.

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