There is a big controversy unfolding over Bret Stephens’s latest column, in which he says that the secret of Jewish genius is that Jews are more imaginative moral thinkers than anyone else. Even Fox News is saying that it is racist, and quoting Sen. Brian Shatz saying that the column crossed a line.
Stephens’s argument is that Jews are not just smarter by IQ data, but they think differently. Jewish intelligence is “so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose.”
One can apply a prodigious intellect in the service of prosaic things — formulating a war plan, for instance, or constructing a ship. One can also apply brilliance in the service of a mistake or a crime, like managing a planned economy or robbing a bank.
But… Jewish genius operates differently. It is prone to question the premise and rethink the concept; to ask why (or why not?) as often as how; to see the absurd in the mundane and the sublime in the absurd. Ashkenazi Jews might have a marginal advantage over their gentile peers when it comes to thinking better. Where their advantage more often lies is in thinking different.
A lot of smart people are taking Stephens apart on-line. Begin with Ben Ehrenreich here. I have three points:
–However smart Jews are or aren’t, there is something unseemly about a mid-level thinker like Bret Stephens attaching himself to the coattails of Albert Einstein and Rosalind Franklin and Kafka on a racial basis. Stephens can boast none of those individuals’ breathtaking accomplishments. In fact, his own commentary should be judged by his own “highminded” standard: when he wrote that there is a “disease of the Arab mind,” or repeatedly praised Netanyahu or said that Israel is justified in its slaughter of unarmed protesters and that the hundreds killed and thousands maimed are suffering from Palestinian “victimhood” and a bad culture. Stephens is an entitled twit.
–This is not a column about intelligence, but Israel. You are waiting for the reveal and it comes near the end. It turns out that Jewish specialness has caused a lot of Jew hatred, and it’s directed at Israel. “It’s no surprise that Jew hatred has made a comeback, albeit under new guises. Anti-Zionism has taken the place of anti-Semitism as a political program directed against Jews.” This just goes to show what a sloppy thinker Stephens is. The issues of measurable intelligence and human rights are completely unrelated. The short version of his column is, We’re smarter so we get to do this, and Palestinians can get their rights if they start winning Nobel Prizes. Such an argument deserves contempt and contumely and opprobrium and any other word you want to throw at it.
–Stephens’s self-satisfaction is widely shared in the Jewish community. I know because I’ve been there myself. Our intellectual record in the west in the last century was justly impressive, but it breeds arrogance, when it ought to foster reflection, especially in light of where we are now. Whatever we can claim in the past, we can’t claim it now. When Stephens says that Jews are better thinkers, and uses explicitly moral terms (highmindedness) he invites a full-on scrutiny of Israel’s immoral record and the U.S. Jewish community’s overwhelming complicity in those crimes. There is a moment in an Amos Oz book when Ben Gurion waves off a problem by saying that “Jewish genius” can fix it. I repeat, that attitude was widely shared among Jewish intellectuals… Then you walk into Gaza and see what feelings of cultural superiority have wrought.
No good Jew should want any part of that; and it’s a shame that the New York Times stable is now crowded with arrogant writers like Tom Friedman and Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens when there are many more thoughtful writers on pressing social questions available, to begin with Yousef Munayyer, Nada Elia, and Mairav Zonszein. I’ve met all three, and they are smart as they come.