As we watch the Olympians running, jumping and swimming, it bears recalling that these fantastic events do not really measure what separates most humans from one another, and certainly from other animals: greatness of mind.
Domesticated dogs run three times faster than the average domesticated man, and house cats easily out-jump us. But can they do a crossword puzzle or play chess? On the global stage, mental skills are what really counts, but not at the Olympics.
Since the renewal of the Olympics in 1896, Jews have occasionally been great boxers (Samuel Berger, 1900), triple-jumpers (Meyer Prinstein, 1900 and 1904), wrestlers and weightlifters. They rarely dominate a field (except for the uncommon Mark Spitz swimming into the horizon with seven gold medals in 1972).
Fortunately, Jews do well at mental competitions.
This fact comforts Jews whose sprint and marathon talents come to the fore when trying to outrun Nazis and hurdle Cossacks – events that are not regularly scheduled every four years.
Still we have those tests of the mind.
Indeed, just before the Olympics, chess held its world championship – a sports competition that challenged imagination, memory and other mental skills. A Russian-born Israeli, Boris Gelfand, narrowly lost to the reigning world champ from India, Viswanathan Anand. You may have missed it, and you probably did not see video highlights.
Chess, of course, is not the only competition based on brains, but in many parts of the world, it is considered a sport, and its champions are idolized no less than great sprinters like Usain Bolt and basketball players like Kobe Bryant.
This is especially important to Jews and Israelis because there have always been Jews (or those from Jewish background) excelling at the brainiest sport: Gary Kasparov and Bobby Fischer, for example, dominated the field.
In the real world, however, great achievements of the mind are usually found not at the chessboard, but at the blackboard, the library and the laboratory. Think of Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, Sigmund Freud and his insights, Albert Einstein and his great theories.
Counting gold, silver and bronze medals is fun, but getting a gold medal for skeet shooting is not as important as finding the magic bullet for polio or a strain of cancer.
Of the 850 or so people who have won Nobel prizes in the past century – in medicine, physics, Chemistry, economics (sometimes math is hidden in this category) and peace – about 170 were Jews. That is one in five. When you consider that Jews comprise less than 1 percent of the world’s population, that is amazing.
“Jews are a famously accomplished group,” observed David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. “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.”
So enjoy those Olympic events, and teach your kids to run, jump, wrestle and even to shoot, because these can be important traits and skills for survival in a world where humans are not always friendly to humans, especially if they are Jewish. But don’t stop there.
Some may call it ironic or serendipitous that as thousands filled Britain’s Olympic stadiums (millions more watching on television), 20,000 Jews went to a stadium in Jerusalem and another 100,000 to Giants Stadium in New Jersey to mark completion of the seven-year- cycle of daily Talmud study known as Daf Yomi – the “Daily Page.”
The Olympian challenge of the Jewish people is to make sure that those Jews who know Torah and Talmud also employ their brains in the lab, the library and at the computer, while Jews with sparse knowledge of their Torah- Talmud heritage develop literacy and aptitude in these fields.
That is what we need if Jews are not only to survive but to thrive.
The writer, an expert on Arab politics and communications, is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He was strategic affairs adviser in the Public Security Ministry and teaches at Bar-Ilan University.
This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.