Monday, August 8th | 12 Av 5782

October 15, 2020 3:12 pm

Five Nobels in 2020 — A Last Gasp for Declining Jewish Genius?

avatar by Ira Stoll


A Nobel Peace Prize medal. Photo: ProtoplasmaKid / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0.

A poet, an economist, and three scientists with Jewish backgrounds were among the winners of this year’s Nobel Prizes.

The substantial 2020 haul adds to a remarkable string of achievement that, by a count maintained by the Jewish Virtual Library, has at least 208 Jewish Nobel winners of more than 900 total recipients in the overall history of the awards.

Roughly 20 percent representation among Nobel winners is far disproportionate to the distribution of Jews in the world population, which is closer to 0.2 percent. If the prizes were randomly distributed throughout the population, in other words, there would be only one or two Jewish winners over the about 120 years the prizes have been given.

The Jewish Nobel presence was physically symbolized this year by a viral video distributed by Stanford University. Captured by a doorbell porch camera, it featured one Nobel winner in economics trying to wake up the other in the middle of the night to share the good news.

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“The best part of this fantastic video is the mezuzah on the doorpost,” tweeted Avi Mayer, the global communications director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

While the Nobel may have been discredited in some circles by the peace prize to Yasser Arafat, it remains something about which Jews feel a certain group pride.

Another tweeter commented, “Normal people: ‘This video is so cute!’ Jews: ‘MEZUUUUUUZAH!!!’”

“Congratulations to the 2020 Jewish Nobel Laureates!” exulted an email from National Museum of American Jewish History, asserting, “The stories of these brilliant individuals are the kind of ‘Only in America’ stories our Museum uniquely exists to tell — the stories of the Dreamers and Doers who, through imagination, aspiration, and hard work, make the world a better place for all.”

In addition to the economist with the mezuzah, Paul Milgrom, this year’s group of laureates included poet Louise Glück, who won the literature prize. Harvey Alter was among the winners in the medicine category for his work on Hepatitis C.  Andrea Ghez and Sir Roger Penrose, two scientists with Jewish heritage, were among the three winners of the physics prize for work on black holes.

Explaining what some have called “Jewish genius” can be perilous. When New York Times columnist Bret Stephens tackled the topic last year, his editors hung him out to dry by publishing an “editors’ note” falsely accusing him of committing a mistake that he had not actually made. Charles Murray, a scholar of intelligence, wrote about the topic in the April 2007 issue of Commentary under the headline “Jewish Genius,” with the subheadline “Jews are extravagantly overrepresented in every field of intellectual accomplishment. Why?”

Murray, a gentile, concluded, “The Jews are God’s chosen people.”

Almost as characteristic as Jewish achievement and intelligence — and perhaps related to it — is Jewish anxiety. That worry has wandered in recent years to the possibility that Jewish domination of the Nobels might be headed for a decline, along with their presence in Ivy League freshman classes. The fear is that Jews will be eclipsed, particularly in the hard sciences, by more newly-arrived immigrant groups such as Asian Americans, whose “Tiger Mom” parents have them doing extra math homework while the dissolute Jewish children are playing video games.

This year’s Nobel haul, in that regard, might be reassuring — until you remember that the Nobel, often awarded at the end of a career, is a lagging indicator. It could be the last gasp of a community that was flourishing a generation or two ago but is now headed toward diminution.

Whether American Jews will still be winning lots of Nobels in 40 or 50 years is a question to which I do not know the answer. If I had to predict, though, based on overall demographic trends, I would guess that the next 120 years see more Israeli Jewish winners and, proportionally, fewer American Jewish ones. And that, increasingly the American Jewish winners will be those with a Jewish grandparent or “Jewish heritage” rather than those that identify unambiguously as American Jews. That could be a consequence of an American Jewish culture that has put a higher priority on Nobel prizes in secular fields than it has on Torah study or on Jewish religious practice, mezuzahs notwithstanding.

But you never know. The US has some of the world’s greatest universities and, at least in the hard sciences, an impressive amount of academic freedom. The free enterprise system rewards excellence and innovation. And the Jews have a way — not always, but often — of defying predictions of decline.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.



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