In last weekend’s New York Times, Bret Stephens wrote about a new book that explores how in the 20th Century a disproportionate number of Jewish thinkers — among them Freud, Herzl and Einstein — changed how we “see the world.” In the column, Mr. Stephens quoted statistics from a 2005 paper that advanced a genetic hypothesis for the basis of intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews.
The reaction has been mixed. On the one hand, the feeling is that, sure, Jews are smart, but do we have to advertise it? Critics instantly excoriated Stephens for so nonchalantly claiming Jewish intellectual superiority, and many said that by making these statements he is marginalizing the inherent brainpower of other cultures, perhaps even religions and people.
Stephens, in his year-end column, states his case quite succinctly. He says, “How is it that a people who never amounted to even one-third of one percent of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its pathbreaking ideas and innovations?”
Though Mr. Stephens does not spell it out, some of the more than 1,000 letter writers on the Times website on last Sunday alone made reference to the Siyum HaShas that was celebrated this week. One letter writer who identified himself as a non-Jew wrote that considering his own cursory perusal of the Talmud, he now has better insight and understanding of Jewish accomplishments throughout the millennia.
Bret Stephens is a thoughtful essayist who once wrote for the The Wall Street Journal and the Jerusalem Post. He is a conservative, but the election of Donald Trump, who he believes is wholly unworthy of the presidency, has pushed him in the other direction. Over the last three years he has written some awful and condescending things about the president. Stephens is what we call a “Never-Trumper” — he just cannot reconcile himself with Mr. Trump’s election in 2016.
With the “Jewish Genius” piece in last weekend’s Times, I suppose Stephens wanted to articulate what so many others may be thinking. He attributes these Jewish intellectual accomplishments to our past history. As an example, he cites the late financier Felix Rohatyn, who recalled escaping with his family from the Nazis as a child during World War II. Rohatyn said that his family managed to leave with a few gold coins, but everything else was left behind. “Ever since, I’ve had the feeling that the only permanent wealth is what you carry around in your head,” he said.
Stephens expounds on that thought by saying of Jews that “Everything that seems solid and valuable is ultimately perishable, while everything that is intangible — knowledge most of all — is potentially everlasting.”
Now that Stephens has stated his controversial position, it’s worthwhile to peruse readers’ comments on the piece on the Times website. One person writes that he is a non-Jew but that his wife is Jewish and her family is not only not smart but in complete disarray. Stephens didn’t say that because of this genius factor everyone across the board is guaranteed success and harmony in families.
Another person writes that if Jews are so smart, why can’t they come up with a workable solution to the Israeli–Palestinian problem, which has festered and caused all kinds of problems for all involved for generations? That might be a good question but on closer analysis perhaps it is the genius factor that has directed Israel to the temporary conclusion that there is no solution to this so-called problem that especially bothers so many American Jews.
It seems that the most pervasive complaint from readers is that Stephens writes “anti-Zionism has taken the place of antisemitism as a political program directed against Jews.” President Trump took a leap in that direction two weeks ago when he signed an executive order addressing the increasing volume of antisemitism on college campuses, attaching the tolerance of this type of activity to a university’s eligibility for federal funding.
Mr. Stephens, though a serious Trump critic, should have been pleased with that declaration. But equating being anti-Israel with being anti-Jewish was the matter picked apart by an inordinate number of readers, many of whom could be Jewish. The primary point of contention for many of these folks was that criticism, even severe criticism, of the state of Israel, should not be mistaken with being anti-Jewish or antisemitic in any way, shape, or form.
There is a place where one can find a bit of space where critique of the Israeli government is not an expression of disdain for Jews, but that distinction has been so greatly blurred that it might be too late to identify that subtlety.
We are unfortunately dealing with a segment of the population that includes some members of the U.S. Congress who have made their hostility for Jews very clear and their denigration of Israel as a smokescreen for what they feel is acceptable Jew hatred, as well as an independent anti-Jewish state agenda, an important part of what they represent.
Aside from criticism of Israel, many other comments claimed that Mr. Stephens, through his comments, might be a cause of an increase in antisemitism. Mr. Stephens did not mean that every Jew is brilliant or that we even qualify as being smart. There are always exceptions to every rule, but, historically, just look around and you will see that it is not that difficult to figure out. On the other hand, this might be one of those things that we do not have to spend time excessively debating.