Media Analysis

Palestinians can have human rights when they start winning Nobel Prizes — Bret Stephens

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

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.

100 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Even without the crude racism, Stephens shows himself to be a sloppy thinker and poor stylist. Formulating a war plan is “prosaic”? Why use the example of a war plan when redecorating one’s house would do as an example? (Most wars don’t go to plan, of course, and the generals formulating those plans are often fools fighting the last war rather than the one they need to plan for.) Building something as complex as a… Read more »

I recall R. Cohen of the Washington Post favorably reviewing a book or article claiming Jewish superiority many years ago. It’s not, as you say, a new or rare claim. I have a book, published years ago, that accepts the claim, but debates whether the superiority is due to genetics or cultural factors. So maybe all is not lost for those of us who don’t have the right genes. Maybe if we emulate the superior… Read more »

Thank you Tom Friedman, Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens! Your support for “Israel” and Zionism is well serving the Palestinian cause.

What an amazing achievement for privileged populations to have more achievements than populations that are denied schools, hospitals, roads, water, and sanitation. I could probably win more Nobel prizes than Israel all on my own if governments would just shovel billions (trillions?) of dollars my way to set up research laboratories and technology businesses. All the money would go straight to research, with no money spent on expensive fripperies like supporting racist populations or paying… Read more »

Those who boast of their intellectual superiority fail to understand many important things. They fail to understand the unearned advantages that have made intellectual achievement easier for them than for others. They fail to understand the arbitrary and defective nature of conventional measures of intelligence such as IQ tests and Nobel Prizes. They fail to understand the resentment that their claims of intellectual superiority arouse in others and the costs of such resentment to themselves.… Read more »