THE JEWS by Debbie Jones Thornton written May 10, 2020
The last paper I wrote for Proteus was about words, which is a topic that I actually know something about. My topic today is more risky, since it is about Jews, and I am not Jewish. (Full disclosure: my sister married a Jewish man and became a convert, but I’m pretty sure you can’t be considered Jewish via sibling.)
This paper had its genesis at Drew Rosenberg’s bar mitzvah in 2003. When I walked in to Tifereth Israel Synagogue, I was immediately struck by Andy Warhol’s series of silkscreen prints and paintings entitled, “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” (1980).
The ten individuals depicted are;
1. Golda Meir (one of the founders of Israel and its fourth Prime Minister)
2. Albert Einstein (German theoretical physicist and father of the theory of relativity)
3. Franz Kafka (Czech-born author best known for his short story, “The Metamorphosis”)
4. The Marx brothers (American stars of vaudeville, stage, film and TV)
5. Martin Buber (German-born religious philosopher),
6. Gertrude Stein (American writer, poet and playwright),
7. Sarah Bernhardt (French actress),
8. Louis Brandeis (American litigator and Supreme Court Justice)
9. Sigmund Freud (Austrian neurologist and co-founder of the psychoanalytic branch of psychology)
10. George Gershwin (American composer)
Seeing these images, I was struck by the immense impact these cultural and intellectual icons – all Jews from diverse fields – have made in the world.
Shortly thereafter, my friend Stanley Engman happened to send me an article about Jewish contributions to society. It described how, considering that Jewish people constitute less than one-half of one percent of the world’s population, their contributions to religion, science, art, literature, music, medicine, finance, philosophy, entertainment, etc., are simply staggering.
Not only was I awe-struck; I was intrigued. Why should this be so? I was determined to see if I could find out! I worried that the Jewish members of Proteus might find it presumptuous of me, a non-Jew, to attempt to tackle this complex subject. I actually stewed about this quite a bit. But finally I decided to forge ahead on the basis of the old Proteus protocol that encourages you to write about anything that interests you. And this topic really interests me. So here goes …
I’ll begin by highlighting just a few of many Jewish contributions to society. You may or may not be familiar with their names, but for sure, your life has been impacted by their work.
§ Isaac Singer – invented the sewing machine
§ Simon and Garfunkel — musicians
§ Levi Strauss – largest manufacturer of denim jeans
§ Kirk Douglas – actor (changed his name from Isadore Demsky)
§ Gabriel Lipmann – discovered colorphotography
§ Joan Rivers – comedian (changed her name from Joan Molinsky)
§ Martin “Marty” Cooper – invented the cell phone
§ Walter Annenberg — philanthropist
In the field of medicine alone, Jewish contributions have been phenomenal.
It was a Jew who created the first polio vaccine, who discovered insulin, Novocain, penicillin and the measles vaccine, who found that aspirin dealt with pain, who introduced chlorination of drinking water, who discovered the origin and spread of infectious diseases, who invented the test for diagnosis of syphilis, who identified the first cancer virus, who invented the mammogram and introduced the birth control pill, who founded the Heimlich Maneuver and who added to our knowledge about yellow fever, typhoid, tetanus, diphtheria, meningitis and influenza.
It is estimated that the lifesaving medical and scientific advances made by Jews throughout history account for an estimated 2.8 billion lives saved.
Consider also that Jews constitute:
§ 51% of Pulitzer Prize winners for non-fiction
§ 50% of Ivy League presidents
§ Nearly 50% of chess grandmasters
§ 37% of Academy Award directors
§ 33% of symphony conductors
§ Three of our nine Supreme Court Justices ([In 2020,] Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan … all the rest are Catholic, by the way)
Clearly, Jews are the world’s most disproportionate high achievers. But to me, the most astonishing statistics deal with the number and percentage of Jewish Nobel Prize winners. More on that later, but first some background on the Nobel Prize itself.
The Nobel Prizes were established in 1895 by Alfred Nobel, a Swedish industrialist and chemist who invented dynamite, among many other inventions. He left his entire immense fortune to fund the prizes. Nobel died in 1896 and five years later – in 1901 – the first Nobel Prizes were awarded.
The Nobel Prizes are administered by the Nobel Foundation and awarded annually by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Swedish Academy, the Karolinska Institute, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee to individuals and organizations who make outstanding contributions in the fields of chemistry, physics, literature, peace and physiology or medicine. The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was established in 1968 by the Sveriges Rikesbank, the central bank of Sweden, in memory of Alfred Nobel.
Each recipient, or “laureate,” receives a gold medal, a diploma and nine million Kronor, roughly equivalent to one million U.S. dollars. The awards are presented in Stockholm at an annual ceremony on December 10th, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death.
Between 1901 and 2017, the Nobel Prizes and the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences were awarded 585 times to 923 people and organizations. With some receiving the Nobel Prize more than once, this makes a total of 892 individuals (including 844 men and 48 women) and 24 organizations. The youngest Nobel laureate is Malala Yousafzai (Peace, 2014), age 17. The oldest is Arthur Askin (Physics, 2018), age 96.
Six laureates have received more than one prize; of the six, the International Committee of the Red Cross has received the Nobel Peace Prize three times, more than any other person or organization. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize twice. Also the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded twice to John Bardeen, and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded twice to Frederick Sanger. Two laureates have been awarded twice but not in the same field: Marie Curie (Physics and Chemistry) and Linus Pauling (Chemistry and Peace).
Now back to my fascination with Jews and the Nobel Prize. The following statistics are noteworthy. As of 2017, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 902 individuals, of whom 203 or 22.5% were Jewish, even though Jews, as I’ve indicated, comprise less than one-half of one percent of the world’s population. This means the percentage of Jewish Nobel laureates is about 112.5 times or 11,250% above average. Of organizations awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, 21% were founded principally by Jews or by people of half-Jewish descent.
Broken down by Nobel Prize category, Jews represent:
§ In Economics – 40% of the world’s total prize winners
§ In Physics, 26% of the world’s total
§ In Physiology or Medicine, 26% of the world’s total In Chemistry
§ In Literature, 20% of the world’s total
§ In Peace, 13% of the world’s total
§ In Chemistry – 8% of the world’s total
I don’t know about you, but I find this to be absolutely astounding! [Editor's Note: there have been 5 Indians that won Nobel Prizes, as of 2020, out of 1 billion people]
Many of the names of the 203 Jewish laureates are obscure, although some will be familiar to you. Among them are:
§ Paul Ehrlich of Germany (Physiology or Medicine, 1908), “in recognition of his work on immunity,” shared with Elie Metchnikoff of Russia.
§ Albert Einstein of Germany (Physics, 1921), “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of photoelectric effect.”
§ Boris Pasternak of Russia (Literature, 1958), “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.”
§ Henry Kissinger of the United States (Peace, 1973), “for the 1973 Paris agreement intended to bring about a cease-fire in the Vietnam War and a withdrawal of the American forces,” shared with Le Duc Tho of Vietnam.
§ Saul Bellow of the United States (Literature, 1976), “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.”
§ Menachem Begin of Israel (Peace, 1978), “for the Camp David Agreement, which brought about a negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel.”
§ Elie Wiesel of the United States (Peace, 1986), Chairman of The President’s Commission on the Holocaust.
§ Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres of Israel (Peace, 1994), “to honor a political act which called for great courage on both sides, and which has opened up opportunities for a new development towards fraternity in the Middle East”
§ Bob Dylan of the United States (Literature, 2016), “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
As an aside, this comment from an internet blog caught my eye and cracked me up. Participants were discussing the question, “Why are there so many Jewish Nobel laureates in comparison to other groups?”
Amy Whinston, a self-described “useless math professor” wrote:
“I’m sure I’ll offend someone, but I’ll say it anyway. I think it is selective breeding.
It is not just the Nobel Prizes. Forty percent of the top lawyers in New York and New Jersey are Jewish. A very high percent of Field’s Medal winners (the Nobel Prize equivalent in mathematics) are as well. Many estimates put the average IQ of Ashkenazi Jews at 115, while the average IQ for anyone of any age is 100.”
She goes on to say, “While other groups have worshipped sports figures, Jews have emphasized scholarship. It wasn’t the football hero who got the girls. It was the class genius. In the ghettos and shtetels of Europe, the smartest boy could have his choice of the girls. He could marry one and they could have a lot of children and pass on smart genes. So now Jews, on average, have high IQs but suck at sports.” HA!
And now to the crux of the matter. Why? Why have a group of people so small in number been able to create such a mighty body of work for the betterment of mankind – especially considering their difficult history?
The history of the Jewish people is complicated, but allow me to make some observations. After being exiled from their homeland by the Roman Empire, the lives of the Jewish people were disrupted and the community was displaced. They migrated from one place to the next, adapting, but not really assimilating themselves in to whatever society they wandered into. What followed was a long, calamitous history of persecution and abuse by their gentile neighbors, whether Christian, Muslim or pagan.
Over the years, millions of Jews have been killed in inquisitions, pogroms, and more recently, the horror of the Holocaust. At certain times in history, Jews were banned from membership in craftsmen’s guilds; they couldn’t own land; they were heavily taxed. Even in more recent times, top universities and colleges maintained strict quotas on Jewish admissions, country clubs and patriotic organizations barred them, gentile employers limited how many Jews they hired, if any, intermarriage was severely discouraged, and Jews experienced significant anti-Semitism in their lives and careers.
And yet – from this lineage, Jews have survived and thrived against all odds.Leo Tolstoy (Russian icon, author and social reformer, 1828-1910) said, “What is a Jew? What kind of unique creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed; persecuted, burned and drowned, and who, despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish?”
Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens, American author and humorist, 1835- 1910), said, “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 the world, in all ages, and has done it with his hands tied behind him.”
So back to the central question – why – against all odds — has Jewish achievement been so significant? Is the reason due to genetics, environment, culture, history, religious tradition, education, or a unique combination of multiple factors? There are a myriad of theories out there, but I found the reasoning of Steven L. Pease to be the most compelling and frankly, the easiest for me to understand.
In his 2015 book, The Debate Over Jewish Achievement: Exploring the Nature and Nurture of Human Accomplishment, Steven L. Pease chronicles the disproportionate level of Jewish achievement in virtually every area of human endeavour, and offers a number of theories to explain this amazing phenomenon.
He says that in the end, the debate over the factors behind Jewish exceptionalism boils down to nature (genetics) and nurture (culture).
His research concludes that, yes, genetic heritage and linkages between most of the world’s Jews (the Mizrahim, Sephardim and Ashkenazim) date back thousands of years. But Judaism is not a “race,” given that anyone can freely convert, and today you will find Chinese Jews, Ethiopian Jews, etc. Rather, Pease believes culture is the most important driving influence behind Jewish achievement.
Among the cultural elements he highlights are:
The huge premium Jews have placed on literacy and education for more than 2,000 years. Every Jewish friend, colleague and family member I talked to stressed this factor. The Torah (the five books of the Jewish Bible) and the Talmud (recordings of rabbinic discussions) are intellectually complex and sophisticated. Serious practitioners of Judaism are required to study and learn the extensive, mentally rigorous laws. As noted earlier, throughout history, Jews have been expelled from many places and their belongings taken from them. Jews invested in knowledge for many reasons, among them because knowledge is portable and the only wealth that can’t be stolen.
Most Jews believe in progress. They are not passive, nor resigned. They think they have a duty to help improve things. They believe in free will and intend to exercise their minds and bodies to advance the ball in the directions they feel important.
Jews have long maintained very strong family values. They divorce less. They are mostly members of two-parent families. Most religious holiday events, even for secular Jews, are major family events, as is Shabbat (Friday night dinner). Loyalty to family and kin is highly valued.
Jewish lifestyle is generally healthy in terms of diet, and the approach to drugs and alcohol is moderate. Kosher conformance has served many purposes, but historically one of them has been to mandate healthy eating habits.
Jews typically demonstrate high levels of self-discipline (deferred gratification). We see it in their commitment to formal education, their careers, and their drive to achieve. Making the very best of your abilities is gospel to many Jews.
They encourage and develop their verbal skills and the inclination to speak up, make an argument, debate, and disagree if they feel strongly. (You’ve heard the old joke: “Two Jews; three opinions.”) Generally, reticence has not been esteemed. The Talmud, which Jews study, is a religious tract, but it is also essentially an ongoing academic debate over the evolution of Jewish law in light of changing circumstances.
Jews stand up for what they believe in. They have “grit.” They champion causes important to them. Wallflowers are rare!
Ethical behavior has been inculcated in Jews by the Torah and Talmud. God demands it.
Rationality is also embodied in the Talmud and in the lives of most Jews. One must deal with the facts on the ground and adapt. The Diaspora (the dispersion of the Jews beyond their original homeland) made anything less than this approach unfeasible. For most of 2,000 years, Jews had to exist as a small minority among other cultures, co-existing with countless other peoples, tribes, and cultures with substantially different beliefs and native languages. Staying alive demanded rationality and adaptability.
Jews almost never adopt the mentality of victims deserving of entitlement. God knows they have more right than most to adopt that view, but they do not. They do not believe they are entitled. Jews traditionally have fought for equal opportunity and they help those who are downtrodden.
In the same vein, Jews have traditionally felt a strong sense of duty to each other and to those less fortunate. Jews are among the most charitable and philanthropic of people. I can attest to this through my own personal experience during my career at United Way.
Yes, these are generalizations, but Pease says there is really nothing unique about any of these cultural attributes. In fact, most of them are consistent with the cultures of other high performing groups of people around the globe.
Yet the combination and intensity make for a uniquely Jewish experience, one that has undeniably produced more “good” far beyond expected norms.
Quite frankly, I simply do not have the expertise to either corroborate or refute any of these theories. I present them for your thoughtful consideration and encourage you to draw your own ultimate conclusions.
Be assured though that I am not alone in being awe-struck by the stunning accomplishments of the Jewish people. John Adams (second President of the United States, 1735-1826) said, “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews.”
Winston Churchill said, “No thoughtful man can deny the fact that the Jews are, beyond any question, the most formidable and most remarkable people who have appeared in the world.”
I even found this quote from a rabbi who said, “I saw a remarkable study of the five most influential people of all time: Moses, Jesus, Marx, Freud and Einstein. All Jewish!”
And the beat goes on. Many of the products and services we enjoy today are provided to us by companies with Jewish founders and executives, including
§ Intel (Grove and Vadasz),
§ Google (Brin and Page),
§ Oracle (Ellison),
§ Microsoft (Balmer),
§ Dell (Dell), Qualcom (Jacobs) and
§ Facebook (Zuckerberg and Sandberg).
In finance, the names are legion: Rothschild, Warburg, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and many more.
My Jewish brother-in-law cautioned me not to make sweeping generalizations and most certainly not to say that Jews are just smarter than everyone else.
He worried that such a statement could play in to typical antisemitic stereotypes. Now I’m not worried about antisemitism within this group. But I won’t make the claim that Jews are smarter than everyone else for the simple reason that I could not find definitive, empirical evidence to support it.
What I do conclude unequivocally and with complete confidence is this: throughout history and continuing in to modern times, the Jewish people have made unparalleled contributions to the betterment of mankind, far disproportionate to their numeric representation in the world’s population. That fact, in my opinion, is irrefutable!
If I had more time (and you more patience), I would have liked to explore two other areas in which I believe Jews excel disproportionately to their numbers. The first is in philanthropy. Giving back to their communities is proscribed in Judaism. I observed this phenomenon time after time during my 17-year career at United Way. Simply put, the relatively small Jewish population of Des Moines contributes disproportionately to local philanthropic causes. I have some great quotes from and about Maddie Levitt which I’m itching to share, but alas, no time this time.
And second, the incredible contributions of the tiny nation of Israel. Of course not all Israelis are Jews, but most are. So consider this: according to the book, Start-Up Nation, Israel, an embattled sliver of a country only 70 years old, home to eight million people, or 1/1000th of the world’s population, has in proportion to its population, the largest number of startup companies in the world, the highest production of scientific publications per capita in the world, the highest ratio of university degrees, the highest percentage of home computers per capita, the most museums per capita, and I could go on and on.
All of the above while engaged in regular wars with implacable enemies that seek Israel’s destruction, and an economy continuously under strain by having to spend more per capita on its own protection than any other country on earth.
But since I don’t have time to explore these other issues, there may have to be another Proteus paper in the offing: “Jews: Who Knew? Part Two.”
Finally, I want to thank my friends, Shari and Stanley Engman, who encouraged me to pursue this topic; my brother-in-law and sister, Dr. David and Abbie Nash, who listened and offered feedback and helpful insights; and especially my friend and former neighbor, the late Sheldon Rabinowitz, grandson, nephew and brother of rabbis, and a student of history, whose advice and wise counsel were invaluable.
But wait – just when I thought I’d put this paper to bed, I got on the elevator in my building with Sheldon and his daughter, Elyse. She said to me, “I read your paper. If I hadn’t already been raised in the faith, it would have made me want to be Jewish.”
It made my day