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Endangered: Jewish Genius

January 1, 2013 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Why has there been a dramatic, recent decline in the academic performance of American Jews?

There’s no doubt that Jews are smart. And I mean really smart – smart enough as a group to be candidates for being the brightest people on earth.

And it’s not because I’m a member of the tribe that I dare to suggest such a seemingly chauvinistic and sweeping generalization. It’s something that’s been acknowledged by countless people in the past and more recently even statistically verified in a host of studies.

Before political correctness probably would have prevented him from stating it so boldly, Mark Twain wrote this about the Jews in the 19th century:

[The Jews] are peculiarly and conspicuously the world’s intellectual aristocracy… [Jewish] contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are.. way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world… and has done it with his hands tied behind him.

The 20th century list of Nobel Prize winners makes Twain’s words almost prophetic. Jews, more than any other minority, ethnic or cultural, have been recipients of the Nobel Prize, with almost one-fifth of all Nobel laureates being Jewish. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates. Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, and 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.

The Jewish IQ average is 40% higher thn the global average.

But it isn’t just geniuses who demonstrate Jewish intellectual exceptionalism. A remarkable study conducted by psychologist Richard Lynn and political scientist Tatu Vanhanen, published in 2006 in IQ and Global Inequity, calculated that a Jewish average IQ of 115 is 8 points higher than the generally accepted IQ of their closest rivals – Northeast Asians – and approximately 40% higher than the global average IQ of 79.1.

So that’s the good news. And that’s what makes a winner of this past year’s Sidney Award – the journalism award given for the most important scholarly article of 2012 – so depressing.

Writing in The American Conservative, Ron Unz highlights what he calls “the strange collapse of Jewish academic achievement.” The gist of his winning essay is the remarkable revelation that Jews no longer excel in the areas in which they previously held such scholarly preeminence. Comparing the number of Jewish prizewinners of major nationwide competitions of the past decade in a host of academic and scientific areas to those of previous years, Unz finds a dramatic and unprecedented fall-off.

In his words: “The underwhelming percentage of Jewish students who today achieve high scores on academic aptitude tests was totally unexpected, and very different from the impressions I had formed during my own high school and college years a generation or so ago. An examination of other available statistics seems to support my recollections and provides evidence for a dramatic recent decline in the academic performance of American Jews.”

If Unz’s conclusion is correct, we need to ask the obvious question: What is it we’ve lost that in the past made us so smart? What was the source of our distinctive brainpower that we’ve allowed to become dormant? If we’re starting to cede the blue ribbon for intellectual achievement to others, what is it that made us so special in the first place?

To my mind the obvious answer is the one rooted in the most famous description of the Jewish people. We are known as “the people of the book.” We were the first people to mandate literacy for every child and lifelong study for every adult. In his book, “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement,” Steven L. Pease lists some of the explanations people have given for the incredible record of Jewish achievement and gives primacy to the cultural values that have their source in the Bible and the Jewish religion. Jews didn’t get the genius from their genes; they made study a central feature of their faith and passed on their love of learning to their children.

A few years ago the South Korean ambassador to Israel, Ma Young-Sam, revealed that Talmud study is now a mandatory part of the country’s school curriculum. In fact, he said almost every home in South Korea boasts a Korean version of the Talmud and parents commonly teach from it to their children. The reason? He explained:

“We were very curious about the high academic achievements of the Jews. We try to understand, what is the secret of the Jewish people? How are they, more than any other people, able to reach those impressive accomplishments? Why are you so intelligent? The conclusion we arrived at is that one of your secrets is that you study the Talmud. We believe that if we teach our children Talmud, they will also become geniuses. This is what stands behind the rationale of introducing Talmud study to our school curriculum.” (“Why Koreans Study Talmud,

I frankly doubt that a dose of Talmudic study will turn South Korean children into scholars. But I do know that creating a climate of respect for scholarship, of reverence for study, of preferring the accumulation of wisdom over any material possessions – all of the ideals that represent the distinctive contribution of Judaism to the world – were the keys not only to the spiritual but also to the intellectual uniqueness of our people.

“The people of the book” are becoming “the people of the buck.”

That’s why I think assimilation of Jews into the broader American culture is far more than a theological concern. My fear isn’t simply that of Jews losing their faith. What troubles me is that “the people of the book” are becoming “the people of the buck.” I’m afraid we are beginning to lose sight of what for ages made us deserving of being a light unto the nations.

As long as our children emulated the heroes of the mind and spirit, we maintained our place in the forefront of the world’s achievers. But as we watch Maimonides give way to Madonna, our goals shrink to the success of the marketplace and our bank accounts.

What a shame it would be if with all of our brainpower we weren’t smart enough to hold fast to the very traditions that insured our intellectual excellence.


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