Stephens says ‘Jews are smart’ (they are not)

In my travels to nearly 50 countries, I have often heard non-Jews say: “Jews are smart.” This statement I’ve never heard Jews say until I read the article by Bret Stephens. In his article Stephens tries to explain Jewish “exceptionalism” and also warn Jews of anti-Semitism. In that attempt, he falls in the pitfalls of a man who speaks about things that he has little expertise, which is understandable of non-Jews who make that statement, but not for a writer of New York Times.

Had Bret Stephens spent any time outside his circle, he would know that far from all Jews are smart. He would know that far from all Ashkenazi Jews are smart. In fact, if he spent time living in Israel, he would know that Jews are just as smart and as fallible as all other humans. Bret Stephens who is not a biologist, or a psychologist, or a historian, writes on a topic for which he has no credentials and little expertise. In doing so he makes two major logical mistakes. He confuses correlation for causation and he confuses accomplishment with intellect.

I’ll start with the second fallacy: it is true, considering the amount of Jews there are in the world, Ashkenazi Jews are fairly accomplished. However, so are Iraqi Jews with David Sassoon, so are the Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) and Libyan  and Sefardi Jews like the Safras. There are many accomplished writers and philosophers like Spinoza and Maimonides who were not Ashkenazi. However, as a whole, Ashkenazi do tend to be more accomplished. Not because they are predisposed to accomplishment, but  because those Jews living in Europe who did not accomplish in their profession, were killed, creating a very large incentive to accomplish. Because Europe was far less forgiving and much more repressive of Jews than India or the Middle East, Jews who could not prove themselves deserving of being given refuge, were often forced to live in small villages where many were slaughtered through regular pogroms. Only Jews of means were able to find their way towards safety, like Einstein or Rebbe Schneerson, who were given special visas while millions of other Jews were denied refuge and died in concentration camps.

America as we know, put a quick cap on Jews arriving who in the words of the current administration “don’t contribute”. Hard quotas were set on Jews from East Europe in 1924, and so only those with means could come to America. Thus it is a correlation that Jews in America are smart, correlation with the immigration policy, not the causation of their intellect. This applies to Bret Stephens, who did not end up in America because he was Jewish, but because his family was successful and wealthy in Mexico. Stephens being Jewish was a coincidence, not the cause. Thus it is not evolution that created “intelligent” Jews in America, it is the policy of the government that allowed only intelligent Jews to emigrate, just as it was American policy that only allowed the strongest Africans to come to the US during the slavery period as explained by comedian Chris Rock.

However, American Jewish exceptionalism does not end with the immigration policy. In America, it is common knowledge that Jews are not afforded the same freedoms as the White Anglo-Saxon men. This goes beyond the pre-Civil rights era when Jews were redlined from living in white neighborhoods, barred from attending top colleges and not allowed in top firms. Even today, after the lifting of those past racist restrictions, Jews understand that their place in American society is not conditioned on them being American Citizens, but on their success in the marketplace and in their “reputable” profession. Jews have no choice but to become engineers, lawyers, doctors. No choice because failure to do so would bring the anger of society for being “lazy” and “ungrateful” and “undeserving” of life in the US. Such demands are never placed on white counterparts who are free to succeed or fail without having their citizenship or worthiness as Americans questioned. Jewish loyalty to America is forever questioned, while at the loyalty of Irish or Italian Americans is never questioned in spite of their love and pride for their heritage. As a result, the Jews who are the descendants of Jews who were smarter and more successful than other Jews when they arrived, have had  to continuously strive and work hard and succeed if they are to hope to have a pass at being accepted by American society.

However, they never get a pass, because avoiding failure is not enough; success for Jews in the eyes of society cannot be too great. In spite of the number of Jews in politics, there never has been and never will be a Jewish president or vice-president (sorry Bernie). This is because while Jews can succeed in the middle-class when Jews succeed too much above the middle class, they are accused of a conspiracy to control the country. Even though it was Jewish actors who created Hollywood at a time when acting on film was derided by the arts community of United States, when Jews created a whole new art form, their success was seen sinister and as an assault on America through phrases like “Jews control Hollywood.” Jews giving black people a platform in music through Jazz and Rap recordings when no one else would give them air time, came to be seen as “Jews controlling” the music industry. Jewish lawyers who were barred from jobs at reputable law firms who created successful mergers and acquisitions  firms were later accused of “controlling” the legal professions.

Countries like America that allowed Jews to prosper have benefited from this Jewish drive for success. Jews by definition live differently  as a result of always being a minority. They are used to feeling different due to traditions and looks and thus when they have different ideas, they are less prone to keep their mouths shut. In my opinion, this is the real reason for the large number of Nobel prizes, and academic and artistic successes by Jews. It is not that Jews have more ideas, but are less likely to keep quiet about the idea that may buck the trend. Because Jews are used to being in the minority they are also used to being ridiculed more than anyone else, a prerequisite for all iconoclasts.

However, just as Jews are never free to fail, they are never allowed to reach the American dream and enjoy it. This is why Jews can be smart but not too smart. And Jews are not smart. While there are some geniuses, far from all are geniuses. The requirement that Jews not fail creates a culture that pushes average Jewish kids into fields where they feel no passion but must succeed to show that they are not slackers. Thus achievement should not be confused for intelligence, achievement which is a requirement for Jews in America and other places where Jews live as a diaspora.

The idea of a “smart” Jews can be destroyed with one visit Israel. In Israel, one will see plenty of average people, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi. One will quickly lose the myth of the “intelligent” Jew just by driving and experiencing the average Israeli driver. One will quickly see the Jewish designed bureaucracy, which is obviously not the work of a genius. One quickly can see a lack of Jewish genius just by witnessing the debacle that is the Israeli election, more than one year now the Jewish state is without a working government.

Furthermore, if one digs at rankings of Israel, world’s only Jewish democracy, the rankings do not fit the stereotype of a smart nation. Israel has good universities but they are not nearly where one would expect a “genius” race to be. The high school student grades and exam test scores in almost every field make it obvious that it is kids from Asians who are geniuses, not Jewish Israelis. Israel has one of the highest poverty rates in OECD, one of the lowest graduation rates, one of the highest birthrates and highest pollution rates. If one looked at rankings of Israel and Israel didn’t have the superstars that compensated for the rest of the country thanks to the strong ties to the American markets, one would think they were looking at a sad East European country.

Of course in Israel, one does tend to see more Ashkenazi Jews succeed than Mizrahi, In my opinion, this is in part due to old racist views (again, Jews aren’t smarter or better than anyone else) but also as mentioned before, success is less of an emphasis in Mizrahi and Asian Jewish homes due to historical habits. This is not a genetic reason, Jews who lived in the Middle East, India and Asia were respected by their neighbors and were free to succeed and fail. Eastern ideology prefers to learn and emulate while Western has a combative philosophy that views success as a threat and generally responds with aggression. Thus Jewish emigres from Western countries, continue to have a cultural of drive for academic success while those from non-Western countries are often less pushy of their kids to succeed in the subject areas that are traditionally valued in the West, with more emphasis on family rather than monetary and professional success.

So while there is a correlation of Jews to success, it is simply that, a correlation which is a result of years of immigration policies that only allowed the smart to enter. It is that an American culture that demanded success from Jews as a condition of their citizenship. Because of that condition, Jewish parents make their average intellect kids focus on studies and make them focused on entering college rather than play football and enjoy high school the way their non-Jewish counterparts get to. And yet, when those children reach success, that success does not give them the fruits that the American dream promises; instead it brings about antisemitism, suspicion, and derision. This culminates in what we often see as the neurotic, unhappy Jew with strained family relations and no happiness from professional or monetary success. Something I saw a lot less of  in Israel.

What I described is not singular to the US. These attitudes and requirements of Jews were the same in the Soviet Union, they are the same for Jews in France and even in Austria-Hungary where Theodore Herzl saw first hand the double standard. This fact of Jewish life is the reason why he realized that to be free people, Jewish people would need a state of their own. A state that would allow any Jew, smart or dumb, poor or rich, to emigrate. A state that would treat all Jews equally, smart or dumb, successful or a failure.

Jewish success and intelligence is not a mystery and does not happen in spite of antisemitism, Jewish success and apparent intellect are there because of antisemitism. They are there because only those with intellect survived, and only those who were successful were allowed to immigrate to safety. These are the things that I say to non-Jews when they say that “Jews are smart”, these are the things I would expect Bret Stephens so write, these are the things he would have written had he done a little more research on Jewish people like his family and their success in Diaspora.

About the Author
Sam Livin was born in Soviet Union and grew up in San Diego. In 2012, he travelled the world photographing Jewish communities publishing a book called "Your Story Our Sipur." Today he continues to write about Israel and Judaism as he lives and studies business and ecology in Tel Aviv.
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