“God, but you Jews are a clever people!” said my classmate, Daniel van den Berg. It sounds more authentic in Afrikaans: “God, maar julle Jode is slim mense!” He was one of the few pupils attending my English medium high school in Johannesburg whose first language was Afrikaans, and I was one of the few Jews in the class. It was said admiringly, perhaps with a touch of envy, but certainly without malice. The occasion was my getting top marks in an Afrikaans examination, a subject which he regarded as his particular preserve, and for some reason his words have stayed with me, leaving me feeling strangely uneasy.
Are we Jews a clever people? I have Jewish friends, both secular and religious, who delight in drawing attention to the intellectual achievements of Jews from all walks of life. The sentiment of pride in those of our fellow Jews who distinguish themselves by attaining the pinnacle of creativity is understandable but my feelings of unease are by no means assuaged by such recitals of greatness. Celebration of Jewish talent has always been a way of expressing defiance of the people who would erase Jews altogether and we can justly celebrate the contributions to mankind of distinguished Jews in the fields of science, the arts, commerce and philosophy, but it is a perilous leap from such celebration to the conclusion that the Jews as a whole are a clever people.
The adjective ‘clever’ is ambiguous in itself. It was once intended to describe a wholly admirable quality but it has acquired, with the passage of time, the connotation of a back-handed compliment. I child who is called a ‘Clever Dick’ is thought to be in need of being taken down a peg or two. More ominously, in the Jewish context, it feeds into the antisemitic trope of ‘clever Jews’ because it carries the hint of deviousness and manipulative power deployed as instruments of success. This image of the clever (meaning ‘crafty’) Jew has been set up by antisemites as a stereotype, contrasting with the salt-of-the earth gentile labourer who may be a simpler, less educated soul but one who earns his keep by dint of hard work. The Jewish pursuit of study and education has acquired a tinge of the dark arts. Jewish success in commerce is conflated with avarice and corrupt practice.
Negative assumptions about Jews, the poisonous essence of antisemitism, are endemic in many parts of the world. But we are by no means unique in being targeted with fallacious generalisations. Similar stereotypes cluster around other peoples who value education and cultivation of the mind as a means of bettering themselves in society. Immigrant communities are particularly vulnerable to onslaughts which stand an ostensible virtue on its head by attributing it to a genetic predisposition which is then used to explain away the achievements of the individual as nothing personal. The idea is that an entire race of people can be defined by a certain quality which is distinct from every other group. It is meant to sound like a compliment but is essentially patronising and belittling. It says to the individual, in effect, “you are defined by this quality that all people like you have”. So in the case of being clever (in the original sense of the word) and doing well at an examination, the individual’s success is downgraded as a personal achievement and turned into an accident of being Jewish.
The ability to associate from the particular to the general is one of humanity’s higher functions. However, when we generalise about the attributes of groups of people, we enter a minefield in which personal bias and political expedience combine to create an explosive alloy. It is one thing for us to acknowledge, as Jews, our ability to survive in adversity, our humane teachings and our respect for education. It is another to credit this to an innate superiority of intellect. Let the Daniel van den Bergs of this world praise us collectively if they want to. It is not for us to echo such prejudiced praise or to stare admiringly at our image in the pool, like Narcissus.