Give me your bright, your noble…

If you followed the headlines in Israeli media in the last two weeks, you could have come under the impression that this ‘Nobel year’ is an extraordinarily good year for ‘the’ Jews.

Just like anti-Semites enjoy ‘proving’ how Jews control the world or large chunks of it, some of us love to glory in ‘our’ contributions to mankind. On the website you can see lists like “Jews in chess”, “Jews in sociology”, and of course also “Jewish Nobel Prize winners”. According to the website, of all the Nobel Prize winners between 1901 and 2013 23 % are Jewish, or of “half- or three quarters-Jewish ancestry” (this Neurenbergish terminology is‘s, not mine), while we make up only approximately 0.2 % of the world population.

What is more interesting than such ethnic-religious statistics, though, is the fact that so many of the Nobel Prize winners, Jewish ánd non-Jewish, come from emigrant families or are emigrants themselves. The (auto)biographies of the winners of this prize of prizes, which can be found on, are fascinating reading material. A total of 875 individuals and organizations has won the prize since 1901. For this article I took into account only the 640 winners of the prizes for chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, and economic sciences. The choice of winners for the peace and literature prizes is less objective and has often been controversial.

In many of the life stories we read that the scientists, their (grand)parents or ancestors moved to a foreign country (mostly the United States, but also Great Britain, France, Israel and other countries) in search of a better or safer life. I found almost 170 winners who themselves – for one reason or another – left their native country for good, more than sixty whose parents were emigrants, and at least thirty whose grandparents emigrated. Americans, who all are or somehow descend from emigrants, make up the majority of scientists whose biography does not specifically mention some sort of emigration.

Several Nobel laureates are Holocaust survivors. Some of them fled or were sent to the United States or England before World War II broke out –  for instance Martin Karplus (Chemistry 2013), Robert Aumann (Economic Sciences 2005), and Walter Kohn (Chemistry 1998) – while others survived the war in occupied Europe, e.g. François Englert (Chemistry 2013), Daniel Kahneman (Economic Sciences 2002) and Rita Levi-Montalcini z”l (Medicine 1986). Not only Jews appear as refugees in the biographies, though. For example, the ancestors of at least three laureates were Huguenots who arrived in America after having fled religious persecution in France. Also, not all migrants in the biographies are refugees. Often a scientist simply went abroad – again, mostly to the US – because of his research or a job offer.

Clearly the work that turned these 640 scientists into Nobel Prize winners constitutes only a small part of outstanding human endeavors and achievements in the last century or so. Also, not all immigrations have been a blessing for the immigrants themselves and/or for the countries that received them. Still, the biographies of the Nobelists suggest that there is a certain connection between on the one hand ‘intellectual mobility’, freedom, religious-political tolerance ánd hospitality, and a country’s prosperity, its scientific achievements and cultural bloom on the other. That more than 300 out of the 640 are Americans can hardly be a coincidence. It not only says something about American institutes of higher learning and research, but also might be linked to the US being a country of immigrants. In the Golden Age the Dutch economy and cultural life thrived partly because of the country’s colonial enterprises but also as a result of its reputed tolerance, which attracted many Jewish and Protestant refugees. Something similar is true for the Muslim world: it basically reached its zenith when in some respects its tolerance outdid that of Europe.

These days many Westerners tend to see immigrants – and particularly the Muslims among them – as a burden and a threat rather than as a source of ‘fresh blood’ that can help to invigorate our societies. An economic recession but also Islam’s apparent lack of adaptability and a post-historical search for identity by many of the world’s citizens are among the factors that can be blamed for this. Nevertheless, the US and other Western countries should not give in to Islamist and other forms of terror, to economic hardships and mismanagement, and to xenophobia and isolationism, by turning themselves into inaccessible fortresses. Obviously we cannot afford to let terrorists, unkosher types of fortune seekers, and others abuse the openness and tolerance of our societies, yet we have to remember that these remain two of our most powerful assets which should be cherished and defended, not sacrificed in our war against terror and other fears, whether those fears are irrational or based on reason. Allowing the fanaticism and criminal nature of some (o.k., quite a few) to erode our own tolerance and hospitality weakens us and lets the bullies and the bad guys have their way.

As for us Jews, it is clear that as immigrants who have contributed to the countries that received them we form part of a larger entity. For good reason some immigrant groups in Europe, the US and elsewhere look at the local Jewish communities to learn about their own integration and advancement.  If we could help Muslims and other minorities integrate more successfully into Western societies, and thus strengthen those societies, that could be one of our most significant contributions to mankind in the modern age.


This is an expanded and completely updated version of an op-ed article that appeared in the Jerusalem Report in November/December 2005.

About the Author
Yonathan Bar-On (Bert de Bruin) is a historian and an EAL teacher. He teaches English at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, and occasionally writes op-ed articles and analyses for Dutch newspapers. In 1995 Yonathan immigrated to Israel from the Netherlands.