The why of Jewish accomplishments

“Anti-Semitism by Numbers” determined that, far from being privileged, Jews and Israel accomplish what they do under constant threat. Accounting for Israeli and generally Jewish accomplishments in light of the violent prejudice against them was an issue left for another day.

This is the day, and just three of the reasons suffice.

The first, ironically, is that violence, which descends into murderousness. The Nazis committed unspeakable horrors during the Holocaust, and relentless pogroms in Russia, Iran and other countries fill out the modern history of vile religious anti-Semitism.

In the ancient world, Jews were crucified, skinned alive, burned and hacked to death. Medieval Christian knights, crusading to liberate Jerusalem from its Moslem conquerors, murdered as many Jews as they could on the way. During the Inquisition, Marranos, Jewish residents who pretended to embrace Catholicism, thinking to save themselves, were tortured to death. During WWII, some few escaped the Nazi death machine by pure chance, but a significant group among them lived because they were smart enough to recognize chance moments for escape. The result was that, though the number of survivors was very small, the percent who were intelligent was large.

A version of the same situation applies to tiny Israel.  The three large Arab nations on her borders, supported by Iraq and other Muslim nations, attempted to destroy Israel many times. One ignominious attack was mounted on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when religious Jews deny themselves food and water and pray all day. Many lives were lost, but the invaders were defeated.

Israel had an advantage in motivation: the nation and its people faced absolute destruction if it lost the war. Its warriors knew that, and with everything to lose, they fought courageously and dangerously.

In contrast, Arab soldiers faced potential death with nothing personal to gain if they won. If they lost, they would return to their everyday lives unharmed.

Many Israeli soldiers died. Among those who survived, intelligence in fighting played a large role. Therefore the percentage of smart fighters among the victorious Israelis who lived was high.

The high percentage of surviving warriors who were bright produced intelligent civilians who later accomplished impressive things–becoming artists, doctors, business owners, writers, lawyers, engineers, physicists, some of them gifted enough to win Nobel and other distinguished prizes. Other groups, including Arabs, won such prizes too, but the populations from which they came were large, and consequently their percentage was small.

The second reason for the high percentage of accomplished Jews is that bright Jewish civilians and soldiers passed on their intelligence to bright offspring, many of whom went on to live distinguished lives.

The third reason is that Jews are born into a culture in which they are encouraged to study. Early on they discussed and debated that profound ancient book, the Hebrew Bible. The most advanced among them then studied the Talmud, of which the Mishnah, the first part, consists of debates among great ancient scholars about the significance and contemporary application of elements in the Hebrew Bible; and the Gemara, the second part, consists of considerations of the Mishnah. When young people in the tiny Jewish community, having devoted themselves to those texts, turned their attention to the secular world, many of them proved outstanding, producing a high percentage of accomplished and distinguished figures in secular realms of learning.

The Arab world meanwhile gave birth to Algebra and the European Renaissance, but, again, the populations from which those developments arose were much larger.

In sum, murderous hate accounts for both the small number of Jews and the high percentage of bright ones. Their intelligence, like eye color, is passed down to following generations. And their tradition of learning encourages their young to embrace professions that are intellectually challenging. Thus, neither privilege nor mystery accounts for the small number of Jews and their high percentage of accomplishments.

Three considerations provide the definitive answer to those who take offense at Jewish accomplishments. Vicious prejudice explains both why the population of Jews is so small and why many of them are accomplished. The price of their merits is very high.

About the Author
Albert Wachtel , a professor at Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges in Southern California, and writes essays on politics, social and literary situations and short stories, often concerning Jews and Israel.
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