The myth of Jewish privilege and intellectual superiority

Ironically, if there is indeed a secret to Jewish genius, it’s precisely that Jews don’t believe the brain is an operating system you download from your parents

Bret Stephens (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bret Stephens
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The rising myth of “Jewish privilege” deprives Jews of the right to victimhood. Now, a recent controversy in the American Jewish community – the one surrounding New York Times star columnist and arch Jewish-advocate Bret Stephens – would deprive the Jews of even feeling pride.
Last Sunday I attended the #NoHateNoFear march across New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. The march was vital as Jews in America are murdered, stabbed, verbally attacked, physically assaulted and verbally pummeled in incidents becoming almost routine. The crime each time: being a Jew.
But that wasn’t the only reason I decided to attend the march.
I went also because I wanted to validate the feelings of American Jews and tell them that they, too, can be victims of rampant, baseless and violent hatred.
It’s a point that must be made in the strongest terms, if only because so many Americans continue to believe that the Jews can’t be victims of anything at all. Jews, on the contrary, are torn from their victimhood and paraded on its opposite, the pedestal of “privilege.”
Jews are not privileged. Any material success they’ve achieved has come against often insurmountable obstacles that had to be overcome.
As a matter of fact, Jews are the smallest and most vulnerable minority in America today.
There are only five million Jews in the United States, less than 2% of the country’s total population. Still, based on 2018 FBI hate-crime index, Jews are three times more likely to experience a hate crime than African Americans, even though they number less than one-sixth of the black population.
If antisemitism is America’s most potent hatred, how could it be the most ignored?
The Bret Stephens controversy offers precious insight.
Bret is a close friend and a thoroughly moral and decent man. It pains me to see how harshly he was attacked, especially by fellow Jews who could have passionately disagreed with his thoughts while not vilifying or demonizing the man who is arguably Israel’s most eloquent defender in the English written word in the entire world.
In a recent column in the Times, “The Secrets of Jewish Genius,” Bret offers some observations and an explanation. While his explanation is agreeable – he claims “It’s about thinking different” – one of his observations was not: He quoted from a study where Jews of Ashkenazi origin scored highly on a standardized test distributed among individuals of different groups. One of the men behind that study promoted eugenics and espoused racist views.
I am personally strongly opposed to the arguments that Jews are successful because they are smarter (a claim that Bret did not make) and I’m generally opposed to arguments about IQ. When I served as rabbi at Oxford University during the ‘90s, a controversial best-selling book was published called The Bell Curve by two Jewish authors who made a similar assertion that Ashkenazi Jews have the highest IQs.
I vigorously protested the book in published essays at the time and in lectures to my Oxford students. Not only because I am half-Ashkenazi and half-Sephardi (which would make me half-smart and half-dumb, something that my wife would probably agree with), but because, as I said at the time, I believe the mind is a muscle. The more we exercise the mind, the smarter we become, like any other corporeal faculty. The less we exercise our brains the duller our minds become.
I believe passionately that education improves our mental faculty, just as good nutrition improvise our physical faculties. To the extent that we Jews are perceived as smart, it’s because of our emphasis on textual study and education. And to the extent that Jews are successful, it’s not because of any superiority in IQ but because of our unique values, like rejecting aristocracy in favor of a meritocracy, and an emphasis on spiritual struggle rather than perfection, with its accompanying acceptance of failure as a path to growth.
Studies which conclude that our genes account for our achievements contravene core Jewish values about the equality of humankind.
INDEED, BRET agreed with this argument and quoted the IQ study not to support its conclusions but only to note that Ashkenazi Jews once tested well in something academic. That’s far less impressive than earning a fifth of Nobel Prizes, but somehow it would be Jewish performance on standardized tests that stirred the scandal dragon.
Ironically, if there is indeed a secret to Jewish genius, it’s precisely that Jews don’t believe the brain is an operating system you download from your parents. Besides the situations and environments that get in the way, known as “nurture,” there are also the decisions that we make.
In fact, while other faiths sought to discern the future, Jews knew that wasn’t the point. Far more powerful than seeing the future is controlling it. And that’s what decisions allow us to do.
If you decide to value family now, your future will be one of family happiness. If you decide to work hard now, your future will be one of prosperity. If you decide to quit smoking, your future will be one of greater health. It doesn’t always work, but it’s more accurate than soothsayers or astrologers, whether in ancient Egypt or The New York Times.
But the point is that, applied to the brain, the same holds true: If you decide to invest in your mind – an area which the Jews have continually emphasized – your future might just be one of high test scores and Nobel prizes, not because of any IQ superiority but because the mind-as-muscle will have had significant exercise.
Jews know intelligence has nothing to do with the mental set they are born with. They could work their mind like a muscle in a gym called Torah – and if not that, then in physics, mathematics, economics or just plain old life.
We know Bret himself understood this from how beautifully he phrased it: “What makes Jews special is that they aren’t. They are representational.”
The fact that so many jumped to condemn Bret – especially from within the Jewish community – shows how uncomfortable Jews are made to feel for taking pride in their national achievements. It shouldn’t be troublesome to argue that 3,000 years of national journeying have taught the Jews a thing or two, but in 2020 it somehow is. It’s as if Jews as a nation are prohibited from feeling any pride at all.
Let me be clear that I disagree passionately with offensive studies that suggest that Jews, or any other ethnic group, have higher or lower IQs. I consider such studies to be bad science, offensive and an affront to Jewish values. But I believe that Bret’s entire purpose in raising that point was to reject it as an explanation for Jewish prosperity in favor of his core argument that Jews as non-conformist outsiders succeed because they think outside the box. Other nations take pride in their national achievements. So will the Jews.
In a speech delivered before a French Revolutionary Assembly in 1789, Count Stanislas de Clermont–Tonnerre argued, “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.” It was a depraved policy that deprives Jews of all communal rights. More than 230 years on, why is it being resurrected?
The Jews are no better than any other nation but we are certainly no worse. Other nations feel victimhood when they come under rampant attack. So will the Jews. It’s not something we wish to wallow in but neither is it something that should be suppressed. Jews right now are under significant attack. They are victims of senseless hatred. And we must fight back.
America and the world must accept these truths. The Jews, after all, are not just any nation. They are a nation that is very much in danger yet very much alive.
We will not cower. We will not be afraid. Am Yisrael Chai.
The writer, whom The Washington Post called “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the author of Judaism for Everyone and Renewal: The Seven Central Values of the Jewish Faith. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.