Chosen people

Steve Pease seeks to understand why the Jewish community is made up of hopeless over-achievers.

Think big hand concept (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Think big hand concept
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
 J ews have been punching above their weight for centuries. Although Jews represent only twotenths of 1 percent of the world’s population, they have compiled an astonishing rate of achievement in a wide array of fields (including science, sports, entertainment, literature, business and philanthropy).
And the accomplishments keep on coming. Between 2008 and 2013, for example, Jews won 27% of Nobel Prizes; 31% of the Forbes 400 and 38% of BusinessWeek’s Philanthropic 50 in 2007 were Jews; in 2009, 50% of the presidents of the Ivy League were Jews.
In The Debate Over Jewish Achievement, Steven Pease, a CEO and venture capitalist specializing in turnarounds, the chairman of the US Russia Foundation for Economic Advancement and the Rule of Law, and the author of The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement (2009), tries to provide “the most complete summary and analysis” of the theories put forth to explain why Jews have been so successful.
Pease (who was born and raised as a Presbyterian) believes that genetics matter, that Ashkenazim and Sephardim originated in the Middle East, and that members of any Jewish community are much more likely to be related to one another as fourth or fifth cousins than two people chosen at random from the streets of New York. Nonetheless, he maintains that culture is the most important driver of Jewish achievement.
Pease is especially impressed by the emphasis Jews have placed on literacy, education and family values; their focus on the here and now; their belief in progress, rationality, free will, discipline and deferred gratification; and their sense of duty to each other and to the less fortunate. Adversity, Pease suggests, may also have pushed Jews to be high achievers.
The topic of this book and its thesis, of course, are not new. As Pease indicates, in Jewish Achievement (1910) Dr.
Mendel Silber identified more than 1,000 eminent Jews and made the case for culture. Intent on providing readers access to the full range of views about nature, nurture, genetics, epigenetics and the impact of culture, however, Pease has filled his book with 186 data points, i.e., chronologically sequenced abstracts of books, articles and studies.
Although his motives are admirable, the result is a hodgepodge. Neither a scientist nor a trained historian, Pease has not conducted his own research or explained the methodology he used to include or exclude a data point.
And, at times, he uses anecdotes to make dubious arguments. Like so many Jews, he tells us, organized crime figure Meyer Lansky would do almost anything to avoid disappointing his mother. The counterinsurgency strategy of Gen. David Petraeus, he claims, significantly altered an entire culture.
The career of surgeon Benjamin Carson, Pease indicates, demonstrates that providing role models for African-American children is better than affirmative action (which will “demoralize and harm them” when they learn after admission “that they cannot compete”).
Nor does Pease define race, ethnicity and nationality, discuss differences between these terms, or their applicability to Jews. He leaves us wondering about the relevance, for example, of a finding that hemochromatosis occurs in 75% of Swedes but not in Indians or Chinese and a claim that five of history’s 100 most influential people came from Scotland.
Most of his data points, moreover, are summaries of summaries of research taken from articles and op-eds in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Pease acknowledges that some of them, like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, are forgeries. And that some may well not deserve the attention he has given them. For others, his analysis consists of a reminder “that it is all germane to human achievement”; an observation about controversial findings that “some were convinced; others were skeptical. Many were extremely uncomfortable. The debate continues even now, nine years later”; and a wish for “mutually respectful dialogue to explore and explain divergent data and conclusions.”
Through all his data points, Pease struggles, with some success, to emphasize that scientists and social scientists now agree that nature and nurture interact with and influence each other, and that we know a lot more about the genetic basis of diseases than character traits.
Although he does not elaborate, Pease is concerned whether succeeding generations of Jews will have what it takes to be disproportionately high achievers. More generally, he is aware of the difficulties of learning about achievement from genetics and of “imposing” cultural norms on individuals and groups, but he remains convinced “that cultures can be nudged,” that identifying “the right values” is essential, and that leaders can play a pivotal role in promoting them.
Identifying the sources of success and changing culture are, no doubt, exceedingly difficult tasks. But Pease – and David Brooks – are right: although character development is an idiosyncratic, mysterious process, societies need “character factories.” Now, more than ever.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.