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January 13, 2020 7:50 am

Defending Bret Stephens

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

Opinion

Journalist Bret Stephens. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The rising myth of “Jewish privilege” deprives Jews of the right to victimhood. Now, a recent controversy in the American Jewish community — the one surrounding New York Times star columnist and top Jewish advocate Bret Stephens — would deprive the Jews of even feeling pride.

Earlier this month, I attended the #NoHateNoFear March across New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. The march was vital as Jews in America are murdered, stabbed, verbally attacked, and physically assaulted in incidents becoming almost routine. The crime each time: being a Jew.

But that wasn’t the only reason I decided to attend the march. I went also because I wanted to validate the feelings of American Jews and tell them that they too can be victims of rampant, baseless, and violent hatred.

It’s a point that must be made in the strongest terms, if only because so many Americans continue to believe that Jews can’t be victims of anything at all. Jews, on the contrary, are torn from their victimhood and paraded on its opposite — the pedestal of “privilege.”

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Jews are not privileged. Any material success they’ve achieved has come against often insurmountable obstacles.

As a matter of fact, Jews are the smallest and most vulnerable minority in America today.

There are only five million Jews in the United States, less than 2% of the total population. Still, based on the 2018 FBI hate crime index, Jews are three times more likely to experience a reported hate crime than African-Americans.

If antisemitism is America’s most potent hatred, how could it be the most ignored?

The Bret Stephens controversy offers precious insight.

In a recent column in the Times, “The Secrets of Jewish Genius,” Bret offered some observations and an explanation for this phenomenon. While his explanation is agreeable — he claims “it’s about thinking different” — one of his observations was not: he quoted from a study where Jews of Ashkenazi origin scored highly on a standardized test distributed among individuals of different groups. One of the men behind that study promoted eugenics and espoused racist views.

I am personally and strongly opposed to the argument that Jews are successful because they are smarter (a claim that Bret did not make), and I’m generally opposed to arguments about IQ. When I served as rabbi at Oxford University during the 1990s, a controversial best-selling book was published called The Bell Curve by two authors — one of whom was Jewish — that made a similar assertion that Ashkenazi Jews have the highest IQs. I vigorously protested the book in published essays at the time not only because I am half Ashkenazi and half Sephardic, but because, as I said at the time, I believe the mind is a muscle.

The more we exercise the mind, the smarter we become, like any other corporal faculty. The less we exercise our brains, the duller our minds become. I believe passionately that education improves our mental faculty, just as good nutrition improves our physical faculties. To the extent that we Jews are perceived as smart, it’s because of our emphasis on textual study and education. And to the extent that Jews are successful, it’s not because of any superiority in IQ, but because of our unique values, like rejecting aristocracy in favor of a meritocracy, and an emphasis on spiritual struggle rather than perfection, with its accompanying acceptance of failure as a path to growth.

Studies that conclude that our genes account for our achievements contravene core Jewish values about the equality of humankind. Indeed, Bret agreed with this argument and quoted the IQ study not to support its conclusions but only to note that Ashkenazi Jews once tested well in something academic.

Ironically, if there is indeed a secret to Jewish genius, it’s precisely that Jews don’t believe the brain is an Operating System you download from your parents. Besides the situations and environments that get in the way, known as “nurture,” there are also the decisions that we make. And we also achieve things by setting values.

If you decide to value family now, your future will be one of family happiness. If you decide to work hard now, your future will be one of prosperity. If you decide to quit smoking, your future will be one of greater health. It doesn’t always work, but it’s more accurate than soothsayers or astrologers, whether in ancient Egypt or The New York Times. 

But the point is that, applied to the brain, the same holds true: if you decide to invest in your mind — an area which the Jews have continually emphasized — your future might just be one of high test scores and Nobel prizes, not because of any IQ superiority but because the mind-as-muscle will have had significant exercise.

Jews know intelligence has nothing to do with the mental set they are born with. They could work their mind like a muscle in a gym called Torah — and if not that, then in physics, mathematics, economics, or just plain old life.

We know Bret himself understood this from how beautifully he phrased it: “What makes Jews special is that they aren’t. They are representational.”

The fact that so many jumped to condemn Bret — especially from within the Jewish community — shows how uncomfortable Jews are made to feel for taking pride in their national achievements. It shouldn’t be troublesome to argue that 3,000 years of national journeying have taught the Jews a thing or two.

Let me be clear that I disagree passionately with offensive studies that suggest that Jews, or any other ethnic group, have higher or lower IQs. I consider such studies to be bad science, offensive, and an affront to Jewish values. But I believe that Bret’s entire purpose in raising that point was to reject it as an explanation for Jewish prosperity in favor of his core argument that Jews, as non-conformist outsiders, succeed because they think outside the box. Other nations take pride in their national achievements. So should the Jews.

In a speech delivered before a French Revolutionary Assembly in 1789, Count Stanislas de Clermont–Tonnerre argued that, “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.” It was a depraved policy that deprives Jews of all communal rights; 230 years on, why is it being resurrected?

The Jews are no better than any other nation, but we are certainly no worse. Other nations feel victimhood when they come under rampant attack. So will the Jews. It’s not something we wish to wallow in. But neither is it something that should be suppressed. Jews right now are under significant attack. We are victims of senseless hatred. And we must fight back.

America and the world must accept these truths. The Jews, after all, are not just any nation. They are a nation that is very much in danger yet very much alive. We will not cower. We will not be afraid. Am Yisrael Chai.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the author of Judaism for Everyone and Renewal: The Seven Central Values of the Jewish Faith. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.

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