My Jewish Problem: Jewish Superiority, Jewish Elite

US Politics
on 14 Comments

I went to a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah on Saturday and in some part because of my blog, and its discussion of Jewish politics, felt a little alienated. I forgot to get a yarmulke, then I ran to get one. I wondered who if anyone there had seen my ideas. Later, at the reception, I got into a discussion about these issues with an old friend, who was joined by a friend of his.

My friend said he was a secular Jew and asked me how I define myself. An assimilating Jew, I said. Shortly after that, his friend said, I don’t know what an assimilating Jew is, and walked away.

My friend is more intellectual. He said, What do you think will be lost if Jews assimilate into America? He answered his own question: the excellence that Jews have brought to any number of endeavors, science, the arts, finance, education, and so forth.

I said, But what if these qualities are more widely shared with assimilation? Will our excellence pull up others’ mediocrity?

He said, I think those qualities will be diluted. I.e., lost.

I said I wondered if the process wasn’t inevitable. Jews are successful and prominent, and the more successful people get, the more sociological pressure there is on them to melt in, including pressure on their children to marry out. That is what happened to me. I went to the Ivy League because my family pushed me to excel and I met people who weren’t anti-Semitic. I liked the water.

I had to admit to my friend my indifference as to whether the institutional element of my tribe persists. Religion may well be necessary to social structure and order, but we need some new ones. Pedophilia seems to be inherent to the Catholic church; and its hierarchy is covering it up. Islam has all kinds of problems, with free speech, patriarchalism, and the tolerance of violence. Indifference or disdain for Palestinian suffering seems inherent to the Jewish church. I don’t see why I should revere these institutions.

Still it is interesting that my friend and I shared a premise: Jews are superior; for whatever reason Jewish culture is superior in areas of modern civilized achievement.

In discussing My Jewish Problem on this blog, that’s a core Jewish value I would point to: Jewish exceptionalism. Belief in that idea underlies so much of Jewish social attitudes and achievement. (Maugham extols it in The Alien Corn; Hemingway throws it in Robert Cohn’s face in The Sun Also Rises). Larry Summers sought to broach the issue of Jewish innate intelligence in his notorious women-and-science speechof January 2005:

…Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society;… white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and… Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture. These are all phenomena in which one observes underrepresentation, and I think it’s important to try to think systematically and clinically about the reasons for underrepresentation.

Summers was bumping backwards into the fact of Jews as an elite. And, sociologically, Jewish achievement in the last generation is stunning. We entered the Establishment. A Jewish hedge fund guy who owns oil tankers chairs the American Enterprise Institute, the harbor to Mr. and Mrs. Cheney, and fount of bad ideas.

That’s why this is a public issue: this elite has conducted itself at times in Jewish ways that deserve discussion. Specifically, the neoconservative promotion of a deluded disastrous war out of some degree of love for Israel, and the degree to which their agenda has been afforded political cover by the larger, liberal Jewish community—that is the heart of my interest. When you consider the overall failure of the Jewish intelligentsia and of Democratic politicians to even look at the way religious zealots on the West Bank are affecting American foreign policy, you have to ask, What does secular Judaism mean? Does it also have its faith-based ideologies?

But outside of private conversations like the one I had at the bar mitzvah, these things are not discussed. Of course there is a reason for that. The last time Jews had such prominence in the life of societies, Europe in the first third of the last century, we know what happened. The Nazis pointed to the Jewish elite as a cause for extermination. So the Holocaust has acted as a ban on our even broaching the issue. Myself I don’t have any choice, it’s mine. It’s knit into the fabric of my life, from my tribal beginnings to my achievement phase as a youth, to my involvement in progressive ideas post 9/11.

14 Responses

  1. Eileen Barnes
    May 10, 2006, 11:52 pm

    Thank you, Philip, for a clear-eyed view of your Jewish problem. I have long admired the Jews for their intellect and their amazing musical talent, among other achievements. I think the Jewish people are an outstanding race, one that has contributed much to our world.

    I also think as you do, that orthodox Jews in Isreal have been instrumental in pushing Isreal toward ends that are not too civilized. I wish that Jews who think as you do were in the majority. Then things would be different, I think.

    It's good to know you are around and talking. Keep it up.

  2. Rhampton
    May 11, 2006, 12:44 am

    As a non-Jew, I'd like to know why you consider some Jews to be un-assimilated. How did you come to this conclusion?

  3. Nesher Broderick
    May 11, 2006, 8:10 pm

    "Indifference or disdain for Palestinian suffering seems inherent to the Jewish church." ??? How exactly do you empathize with a people of which polls have shown overwhelmingly support "freedom fighters" (i.e. homicidal murderers of women and children) and whose corrupt leadership has embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars? (Why do you think Hamas won big in the last election?!)

  4. JooToo
    May 12, 2006, 2:24 am

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Asians as the "new Jews" in the context of your beliefs about Jewish exceptionalism and elitism.

  5. Alvin DeBonis
    May 13, 2006, 1:24 am

    I've met a lot of smart people who are Jewish, but also have met people who are not smart at all who are Jewish. I think its important not to categorize people by race, as there are plenty of people who fall out of the categorization. So the next time you meet a dumb person, don't assume they're not Jewish, or visa versa–just because they're smart doesn't meen their Jewish. The same goes for looks. There are plenty of good looking people of every religion, and ugly ones too. If I had a nickle for every one I mistook for someone I liked and thought was Italian, I'd be a rich guy. Instead, Im not a rich guy, but hopefully someone's whos half smart.

  6. Anonymous
    May 17, 2006, 6:29 am

    Alvin DeBonis wrote:

    "I've met a lot of smart people who are Jewish, but also have met people who are not smart at all who are Jewish. I think its important not to categorize people by race, as there are plenty of people who fall out of the categorization. So the next time you meet a dumb person, don't assume they're not Jewish, or visa versa–just because they're smart doesn't meen their Jewish."

    –Exactly. I seem to recall a line by the Yale (and Jewish) historian Peter Gay that went something like: "There is a monograph screaming to be written on stupid Jews." I also remember that Hannah Arendt wrote (I assume in "Eichmann in Jerusalem" something to the effect that no one seemed to care about the "little" less-gifted Jews who perished during the Holocaust. Something like "and what about little Hans from around the corner"? (I read the books many, many years ago.) I liked the subtle way this point was raised in Polanski's "The Pianist." Yes, the protagonist was gifted, but why was he any more entitled for a chance at survival than anyone else?

    –Not long ago I was seriously upset when a Jewish person came close to accusing me of anti-Semitism when I suggested that not all Jews are geniuses.

    –In reference to the later piece to which this article is linked, didn't Nicholas Lemann (sp?) also write a piece about how Asians are the "new Jews?" That was interesting, too.

  7. sophia
    June 1, 2006, 11:38 pm

    Why don't you just admit to yourself and the world that you hate Jews and being Jewish, you miserable nincompoop?

  8. AirAlan
    June 14, 2006, 8:03 pm

    Sophia (to Phil): "Why don't you just admit to yourself and the world that you hate Jews and being Jewish, you miserable nincompoop?"

    And why don't you, Sophia, just admit that you are a Jewish chauvinist who attacks people like Phil for the crime of raising issues that practically no one else is talking about these days? As a gentile, I for one appreciate his insights. If you have anything positive to add to the discussion maybe you should concentate on that and leave Phil's alleged self-hatred out of it.

  9. pharaohb
    June 15, 2006, 1:48 pm


    New reader of the blog and found this post very interesting. I'm a secular American Jew who found himself working for a Palestinian news wire in the West Bank for the last year. Occupying (no pun intended) the bizarre space between being a Arabic speaker (who had previously lived in Cairo) and not a Hebrew speaker, but also one who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, attending religious school and went to services – I was able to travel between Israel and Palestine with a degree of access into both cultures.

    In terms of "Jewish Exptionalism," I was struck by the mundane nature of Israeli society. The push for education and professional success does not seemed to be as ingrained in Israeli society as in American Jewish society, and the pre-war Jewish communities. I though about great secular Jewish theorists of the early 20th c: Max Weber, Freud, Einstein, etc. I think something that drives the great creative and intellectual achievements of the Jewish community over the past 150 years has been it's ability to stand with one foot in and one foot out of post-enlightenment western culture. We're not totally a part of it, and we're not complete outsiders, we can look at it from a unique angle. In the Jewish state, that unique position is gone, and with it, something of the modern Jewish experience.

    Just a few thoughts.

  10. joey cavod
    June 19, 2006, 1:19 pm

    The Middle East has been growing date palms for
    centuries. The average tree is about 18-20 feet tall
    and yields about 38 pounds of dates a year.

    * Israeli date trees are now yielding 400 pounds/year
    and are short enough to be harvested from the ground
    or a short ladder.

    * Israel the 100th smallest country, with less than
    1/1000th of the world's population, can lay claim to
    the following:

    The cell phone was developed in Israel by Israelis
    working in the Israeli branch of Motorola, which has
    its largest development center in Israel.

    Most of the Windows NT and XP operating systems were
    developed by Microsoft-Israel.

    * The Pentium MMX Chip technology was designed in
    Israel at Intel.

    * Both the Pentium-4 microprocessor and the Centrino
    processor were entirely designed, developed and
    produced in Israel.

    * The Pentium microprocessor in your computer was most
    likely made in Israel.

    * Voice mail technology was developed in Israel.

    * IP Phone technology was developed in Israel

    * Both Microsoft and Cisco built their only R&D
    facilities outside the US in Israel.

    * The technology for the AOL Instant Messenger ICQ was
    developed in 1996 by four young Israelis.

    * Israel has the fourth largest air force in the world
    (after the U.S, Russia and China). In addition to a
    large variety of other aircraft, Israel's air force
    has an aerial arsenal of over 250 F-16's. This is the
    largest fleet of F-16 aircraft outside of the U. S.

    * Israel's $100 billion economy is larger than all of
    its immediate neighbors combined.

    * Israel has the highest percentage in the world of
    home computers per capita.

    * According to industry officials, Israel designed the
    airline industry's most impenetrable flight security.
    US officials now look (finally) to Israel for advice
    on how to handle airborne security threats.

    * Israel has the highest ratio of university degrees
    to the population in the world.

    Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than
    any other nation by a large margin – 109 per 10,000
    people –as well as one of the highest per capita
    rates of patents filed.

    In proportion to its population, Israel has the
    largest number of startup companies in the world. In
    absolute terms, Israel has the largest number of
    startup companies than any other country in the world,
    except the U.S. (3,500 companies mostly in hi-tech).

    With more than 3,000 high-tech companies and startups,
    Israel has the highest concentration of hi-tech
    companies in the world — apart from the Silicon
    Valley, U. S.

    Israel is ranked #2 in the world for venture capital
    funds right behind the U. S.

    Outside the United States and Canada, Israel has the
    largest number of NASDAQ listed companies.

    Israel has the highest average living standards in the
    Middle East.

    The per capita income in 2000 was over $17,500,
    exceeding that of the UK.

    On a per capita basis, Israel has the largest number
    of biotech startups.

    Twenty-four per cent of Israel's workforce holds
    university degrees, ranking third in the
    industrialized world, after the United States and
    Holland and 12 per cent hold advanced degrees.

    Israel is the only liberal democracy in the Middle

    In 1984 and 1991, Israel airlifted a total of 22,000
    Ethiopian Jews (Operation Solomon) at Risk in
    Ethiopia, to safety in Israel.

    When Golda Meir was elected Prime Minister of Israel
    in 1969, she became the world's second elected female
    leader in modern times.

    When the U. S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya was bombed in
    1998, Israeli rescue teams were on the scene within a
    day — and saved three victims from the rubble.

    Israel has the third highest rate of entrepreneurship
    — and the highest rate among women and among people
    over 55 – in the world.

    Relative to its population, Israel is the largest
    immigrant-absorbing nation on earth. Immigrants come
    in search of democracy, religious freedom, and
    economic opportunity. (Hundreds of thousands from the
    former Soviet Union)

    Israel was the first nation in the world to adopt the
    Kimberly process, an international standard that
    certifies diamonds as "conflict free."

    * Israel has the world's second highest per capita of
    new books.

    Israel is the only country in the world that entered
    the 21st century with a net gain in its number of
    trees, made more remarkable because this was achieved
    in an area considered mainly desert.

    * Israel has more museums per capita than any other

    * Medicine… Israeli scientists developed the first
    fully computerized, no-radiation, diagnostic
    instrumentation for breast cancer.

    An Israeli company developed a computerized system for
    ensuring proper administration of medications, thus
    removing human error from medical treatment. Every
    year in U. S. hospitals 7,000 patients die from
    treatment mistakes.

    Israel's Given Imaging developed the first ingestible
    video camera, so small it fits inside a pill. Used to
    view the small intestine from the inside, cancer and
    digestive disorders.

    Researchers in Israel developed a new device that
    directly helps the heart pump blood, an innovation
    with the potential to save lives among those with
    heart failure. The new device is synchronized with the
    camera helps doctors diagnose heart�s mechanical
    operations through a sophisticated system of sensors.

    * Israel leads the world in the number of scientists
    and technicians in the workforce, with 145 per 10,000,
    as opposed to 85 in the U. S., over 70 in Japan, and
    less than 60 in Germany. With over 25% of its work
    force employed in technical professions. Israel places
    first in this category as well.

    A new acne treatment developed in Israel, the Clear
    Light device, produces a high-intensity,
    ultraviolet-light-free, narrow-band blue light that
    causes acne bacteria to self-destruct — all without
    damaging surrounding skin or tissue.

    An Israeli company was the first to develop and
    install a large-scale solar-powered and fully
    functional electricity generating plant, in southern
    California's Mojave desert.

  11. lisa
    July 14, 2006, 6:13 am

    well, there is value and beauty in diversity. That to me is a value. Like people getting worked up over biodiversity and the animal races becoming extinct. That shouldn't turn the survival of the tribe into a totem or an idol. The tribe exists for what reason? Why did God create it? To be a light unto nations. To do good, essentially. That's its purpose. So, diversity, that unique beauty of Judaism and Jewish life, as a means to an end, not as a goal that can be mutilated and made negative (as happens so easily!)

    We carry these amazing, beautiful heritages. Have you ever read Elie Wiesel's "Souls on Fire", a collection of Chasidic stories? Or Martin Buber's book "For the Sake of Heaven"? Ohh, what an amazing culture! But each person decides how they wish to participate, how they wish to engage. You can participate at things at one of those centers in NY. Or go to Israeli folk dancing. Or go to services. Or not go to services, but say a beautiful prayers on your own at home in the morning. Or you can study Chagall. I dont know what!!! When you want to encourage children to read, do you dictate to them "you will like science fiction. You will read WW1 history." No! You let them discover their own passion, if you want them to have a life long and self-sustaining relationship with books. Same with Jewishness and Judaism.

    For me, I want to sing Yiddish songs and maybe learn some Yiddish. :) I think this is a nice route!

  12. Face It
    October 17, 2006, 6:25 am

    Jews aren't superior in any way, but parasites in whatever society they reside in. They rarely work in the fields necessary to human survival (farming, construction, etc.) but only in fields that further complicate the world and take it further away from people living cleanly, self-sustainingly, and simply on the land. You state yourself that Jews are extremely underrepresented in farming — so what would happen if farmers around the world stipulated that no more food be sent to NYC? The answer: all those Jews would starve…because they are lazy and refuse to do any jobs they consider below them. Because they are 'too superior' to do real, hard labor — they only work in entertainment, academia, journalism, banking, and other fields that are taking the world further into this 'sophisticated' paved over urban nightmare that they have created.

  13. amap
    December 17, 2008, 1:08 am


  14. Miss Costello
    November 6, 2011, 5:01 pm


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