Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Totally Taboo Topic: Why Are American Jews So Successful?

There is almost no question that the American Jewish community considers off limits for public discussion, except for this: why are Jews so successful? Most Jews (mostly on the liberal side) refuse to accept that there might be something “genetic” here (there is circumstantial evidence – much higher IQ on average – but nothing scientifically conclusive). On the other hand, if it isn’t a matter of biology then it has to be something in the Jewish “religious” culture, broadly speaking (not gefilte fish). But if so, why is Jewish assimilation so rampant? Why leave such a cultural success story?

For the readers of any Jewish magazine or newspaper there is little need to “prove” that Jewish success surpasses Jewish demographic numbers by far: in science (Nobel Prizes); academics; media; politics (look at the new Biden Administration!); and so on. On the other side of the coin, assimilation rates are extremely high: percentage-wise, somewhere in the mid-70s, if not higher.

This subject is taboo for a very clear reason: fear of anti-Semitism. If some (by no means all!) Gentiles “really” knew how well Jews are doing, the fear goes, then anti-Semitism will increase. Two living US presidents have a Jewish son/daughter-in-law? Hush – it might lead to the “Elders of Zion” conspiracy mongers; not to mention the present (and soon outgoing) Secretary of the Treasury – merely the latest in a long line of financial leaders of Jewish persuasion.

But such self-effacement is counter-productive, because it not only “hides” Jewish luminaries from the anti-Semites but also from Jews themselves. And it is here that we arrive at the other side of the coin: assimilation.

American Jews are caught in the same bind that their forebears have contended with for 2000 years at the least: assimilating into the culture of local society theoretically forecloses anti-Semitism; but such assimilation enables Jewish success, leading to an upsurge of anti-Semitism!

Is there a way out of this conundrum, caught between the rock of assimilation and the hard place of anti-Semitism? Yes and no. Yes, concerning the first; no, regarding the second.

Let’s start with the “no”. No matter what Jews do, anti-Semitism will not go away, although one need not over-exaggerate its extent in countries like the US – “paradise” compared to many other major Jewish centers in the distant and recent past. Anti-Semitism, by and large, is no longer based on theology but rather on social jealousy, as well as what can best be described as “Otherphobia”. Social jealousy is a function of Jewish success, whether hidden or public. Otherphobia puts Jews in the same boat (for xenophobes) as African-Americans, homosexuals, transgenders, “Mexicans”, Communists, and any other group perceived as being outside the cultural (ethnic, racial, sexual) mainstream. Such anti-Semitism is akin to a chronic, low-grade, social fever – uncomfortable, but also not life-threatening (for the Jewish community at large), at least not in a relatively healthy democracy such as the United States.

What about the “yes” solution regarding Jewish assimilation? Precisely because there is not much to do about expunging anti-Semitism (although some things can/should be done to somewhat ameliorate it), inhibiting Jewish assimilation involves the precise, opposite approach: playing up the fact that contemporary Jewish accomplishments are based on adherence to substantive elements of the Jewish tradition. In other words, showing how Jewish success flows – in many cases through some unconscious, amorphous, familial culture, even over several generations – from certain central elements of Judaism: education that emphasizes critical thinking (the Talmud); behavior that reflects the Bible’s moral messages; political involvement entailing a “Prophetic” critical eye (and mouth/pen!) regarding the foibles, and worse, of leadership; a modicum of self-control and selflessness for the greater collective good; and viewing Judaism as a total lifestyle – not something to merely cherry pick for the easy or fun stuff (playing dreidel, eating latkes, dressing up for Purim). First generation assimilation does not necessarily eliminate the heavy influence of Jewish culture, but over time such influence ultimately wanes into “normalcy” and oblivion.

In short, by raising the taboo question “Why Are Jews So Successful?”, we can begin to understand – and convince – many assimilating Jews that by throwing out this bathwater they lose the baby as well. If the highest value for many Jews in America (or anywhere around the world) is “success in life”, they would do themselves a big favor by confronting the “taboo question” and then sincerely seeking the answers that lie squarely within the frame of their people’s history and religio-cultural heritage.

Forgive these mixed metaphors: If assimilating Jews think that their progeny can copy their cake (of success) without (Judaically) eating it, they are barking up the wrong Tree of Life. As the saying goes: use it or lose it.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see:
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