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Endangered: Jewish Genius
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Endangered: Jewish Genius

Why has there been a dramatic, recent decline in the academic performance of American Jews?


There’s no doubt that Jews are smart. And I mean really smart – smart enough as a group to be candidates for being the brightest people on earth.

And it’s not because I’m a member of the tribe that I dare to suggest such a seemingly chauvinistic and sweeping generalization. It’s something that’s been acknowledged by countless people in the past and more recently even statistically verified in a host of studies.

Before political correctness probably would have prevented him from stating it so boldly, Mark Twain wrote this about the Jews in the 19th century:

[The Jews] are peculiarly and conspicuously the world’s intellectual aristocracy… [Jewish] contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are.. way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world… and has done it with his hands tied behind him.

The 20th century list of Nobel Prize winners makes Twain’s words almost prophetic. Jews, more than any other minority, ethnic or cultural, have been recipients of the Nobel Prize, with almost one-fifth of all Nobel laureates being Jewish. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates. Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, and 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.

The Jewish IQ average is 40% higher thn the global average.

But it isn’t just geniuses who demonstrate Jewish intellectual exceptionalism. A remarkable study conducted by psychologist Richard Lynn and political scientist Tatu Vanhanen, published in 2006 in IQ and Global Inequity, calculated that a Jewish average IQ of 115 is 8 points higher than the generally accepted IQ of their closest rivals – Northeast Asians – and approximately 40% higher than the global average IQ of 79.1.

So that’s the good news. And that’s what makes a winner of this past year’s Sidney Award – the journalism award given for the most important scholarly article of 2012 – so depressing.

Writing in The American Conservative, Ron Unz highlights what he calls “the strange collapse of Jewish academic achievement.” The gist of his winning essay is the remarkable revelation that Jews no longer excel in the areas in which they previously held such scholarly preeminence. Comparing the number of Jewish prizewinners of major nationwide competitions of the past decade in a host of academic and scientific areas to those of previous years, Unz finds a dramatic and unprecedented fall-off.

In his words: “The underwhelming percentage of Jewish students who today achieve high scores on academic aptitude tests was totally unexpected, and very different from the impressions I had formed during my own high school and college years a generation or so ago. An examination of other available statistics seems to support my recollections and provides evidence for a dramatic recent decline in the academic performance of American Jews.”

If Unz’s conclusion is correct, we need to ask the obvious question: What is it we’ve lost that in the past made us so smart? What was the source of our distinctive brainpower that we’ve allowed to become dormant? If we’re starting to cede the blue ribbon for intellectual achievement to others, what is it that made us so special in the first place?

To my mind the obvious answer is the one rooted in the most famous description of the Jewish people. We are known as “the people of the book.” We were the first people to mandate literacy for every child and lifelong study for every adult. In his book, “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement,” Steven L. Pease lists some of the explanations people have given for the incredible record of Jewish achievement and gives primacy to the cultural values that have their source in the Bible and the Jewish religion. Jews didn’t get the genius from their genes; they made study a central feature of their faith and passed on their love of learning to their children.

A few years ago the South Korean ambassador to Israel, Ma Young-Sam, revealed that Talmud study is now a mandatory part of the country’s school curriculum. In fact, he said almost every home in South Korea boasts a Korean version of the Talmud and parents commonly teach from it to their children. The reason? He explained:

“We were very curious about the high academic achievements of the Jews. We try to understand, what is the secret of the Jewish people? How are they, more than any other people, able to reach those impressive accomplishments? Why are you so intelligent? The conclusion we arrived at is that one of your secrets is that you study the Talmud. We believe that if we teach our children Talmud, they will also become geniuses. This is what stands behind the rationale of introducing Talmud study to our school curriculum.” (“Why Koreans Study Talmud,

I frankly doubt that a dose of Talmudic study will turn South Korean children into scholars. But I do know that creating a climate of respect for scholarship, of reverence for study, of preferring the accumulation of wisdom over any material possessions – all of the ideals that represent the distinctive contribution of Judaism to the world – were the keys not only to the spiritual but also to the intellectual uniqueness of our people.

“The people of the book” are becoming “the people of the buck.”

That’s why I think assimilation of Jews into the broader American culture is far more than a theological concern. My fear isn’t simply that of Jews losing their faith. What troubles me is that “the people of the book” are becoming “the people of the buck.” I’m afraid we are beginning to lose sight of what for ages made us deserving of being a light unto the nations.

As long as our children emulated the heroes of the mind and spirit, we maintained our place in the forefront of the world’s achievers. But as we watch Maimonides give way to Madonna, our goals shrink to the success of the marketplace and our bank accounts.

What a shame it would be if with all of our brainpower we weren’t smart enough to hold fast to the very traditions that insured our intellectual excellence.

January 5, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 112

(78) Anonymous, August 14, 2014 5:03 PM

Jewish genius

Excuse me, but with all due respect you do not know what you're talking about at all. Today, there is no decrease and will decrease. Recent figures are still half the members of the National Department of Mathematics is Jewish. One-third of American scientists are Jews. Only in the 21st century. Ie the last ten years the percentage increase in the Jewish National Nobel Prize winners. Ie in the 20th century Jews were 25% of Nobel Prize winners. And the last ten years the Jews were almost 30%. There is no decrease in Intelligence and the Jewish average IQ is the highest in the world. Jews IQ of 117 compared to white non-Jews who have an average of only 100. Even in Chess, chess champions are half Jewish. Even today there are Jews like Hshachmtai named world number two Levon Arronian, and vice-world chess champion Boris Gelfand. Or the United States Chess Champion Uri Shulman. There is no decline in Jewish Intelligence and will never be.

(77) skeptic, January 19, 2014 12:31 AM

Well, IQ studies aren't all that reliable. For instance, 4 studies were carried in Hong Kong with samples over 1000 and one came up with an average IQ of 103 and another came up with a result of 112. Even if we take the figure of an average IQ of 110, it's possible that the results are not representative at all since all of those studies that were taken into account by Lynn had samples of 400 or lower. Also, scientists often make methodological mistakes such as considering southern chinese and northern chinese to be absolutely the same, when several statistics suggest that southerners aren't as bright as Germans for instance. Also, Ashkenazi Jews had an advantage relative to several other groups such as the Indians, Chinese and even Americans. Modern science was born in Germany and Germany was much more developed than countries like China and India. Also, a lot of great scientists don't win the Nobel Prize, so it doesn't make sense to count the number of Jewish Nobel Prize winner instead of counting the number of people who published in major science journals.

(76) Anonymous, May 5, 2013 11:24 PM

Utterly Flawed Study -- Comparing Apples to Oranges

Flawed study. Intelligence has at least some genetic basis. The intermarriage rates have risen to nearly 50% of American Jews by this generation. That means mixed genetics as well as mixed cultures and different accompanying values on the nurture end of things. The research is comparing apples to Ashkenazi genetic pool preserved from Europe with 2 Jewish parents instilling Jewish values and attitudes towards education and intellectualism in the home compared to a much more mixed pool a few generations later as assimilation caused unprecedented rates of intermarriage. Literally not the same pool of people both in nature and nurture.

Steven, June 16, 2013 4:46 AM

takes work. not new Lexus.

This study does not take into consideration the rise in population with better access to education. I dont believe the Talmud is a secret formula to becoming intelligent. I think hardship and the struggle to survive sharpens the mind. Jews now have a nation with great military strength. And the rest of the developed world where 99% of Jews live do so in comfort and upper level lifestyle. young people take this for granted and fall asleep under the laurels.

(75) Anonymous, January 15, 2013 4:06 PM

drugs, fundamentalism

many of the brilliant Jews mentioned were not members of any fundamentalist group. (ie ultra orthodox) In order to use your intelligence your mind must not be commited to any rigid way of thought. also, the turn from liberalism to conservatism among many Jewish groups has been a turn off to many young Jews who are looking for a cultural identity. feeling alienated, lost, many young ones turn to drugs and other escapist routes.

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