NY Times Column: Jews Are Famously Accomplished Group


jewsDavid Brooks writes in the pages of the New York Times: Jews are a famously accomplished group. 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, 38 percent of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists, 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.

In his book, “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement,” Steven L. Pease lists some of the explanations people have given for this record of achievement. The Jewish faith encourages a belief in progress and personal accountability. It is learning-based, not rite-based.

Most Jews gave up or were forced to give up farming in the Middle Ages; their descendants have been living off of their wits ever since. They have often migrated, with a migrant’s ambition and drive. They have congregated around global crossroads and have benefited from the creative tension endemic in such places.

No single explanation can account for the record of Jewish achievement. The odd thing is that Israel has not traditionally been strongest where the Jews in the Diaspora were strongest. Instead of research and commerce, Israelis were forced to devote their energies to fighting and politics.

Milton Friedman used to joke that Israel disproved every Jewish stereotype. People used to think Jews were good cooks, good economic managers and bad soldiers; Israel proved them wrong.

But that has changed. Benjamin Netanyahu’s economic reforms, the arrival of a million Russian immigrants and the stagnation of the peace process have produced a historic shift. The most resourceful Israelis are going into technology and commerce, not politics. This has had a desultory effect on the nation’s public life, but an invigorating one on its economy.

Tel Aviv has become one of the world’s foremost entrepreneurial hot spots. Israel has more high-tech start-ups per capita than any other nation on earth, by far. It leads the world in civilian research-and-development spending per capita. It ranks second behind the U.S. in the number of companies listed on the Nasdaq. Israel, with seven million people, attracts as much venture capital as France and Germany combined.

As Dan Senor and Saul Singer write in “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” Israel now has a classic innovation cluster, a place where tech obsessives work in close proximity and feed off each other’s ideas.

Because of the strength of the economy, Israel has weathered the global recession reasonably well. The government did not have to bail out its banks or set off an explosion in short-term spending. Instead, it used the crisis to solidify the economy’s long-term future by investing in research and development and infrastructure, raising some consumption taxes, promising to cut other taxes in the medium to long term. Analysts at Barclays write that Israel is “the strongest recovery story” in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Israel’s technological success is the fruition of the Zionist dream. The country was not founded so stray settlers could sit among thousands of angry Palestinians in Hebron. It was founded so Jews would have a safe place to come together and create things for the world.

This shift in the Israeli identity has long-term implications. Netanyahu preaches the optimistic view: that Israel will become the Hong Kong of the Middle East, with economic benefits spilling over into the Arab world. And, in fact, there are strands of evidence to support that view in places like the West Bank and Jordan.

But it’s more likely that Israel’s economic leap forward will widen the gap between it and its neighbors. All the countries in the region talk about encouraging innovation. Some oil-rich states spend billions trying to build science centers. But places like Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv are created by a confluence of cultural forces, not money. The surrounding nations do not have the tradition of free intellectual exchange and technical creativity.

For example, between 1980 and 2000, Egyptians registered 77 patents in the U.S. Saudis registered 171. Israelis registered 7,652.

The tech boom also creates a new vulnerability. As Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic has argued, these innovators are the most mobile people on earth. To destroy Israel’s economy, Iran doesn’t actually have to lob a nuclear weapon into the country. It just has to foment enough instability so the entrepreneurs decide they had better move to Palo Alto, where many of them already have contacts and homes. American Jews used to keep a foothold in Israel in case things got bad here. Now Israelis keep a foothold in the U.S.

During a decade of grim foreboding, Israel has become an astonishing success story, but also a highly mobile one.

{NY Times/Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. A few days ago, you ran a story quoting a prominent Gadol to the effect that individuals who work on Shabbos are worse then Beheimas. Yet nearly all of the Jews that are the subject of this article fall into that category (all of the Nobel laureates but one, if I recall correctly).

    So which is it. Are we to be proud of these “enormously accomplished” Jews? Are we to regard them as lesser than beasts? Accomplished beasts?

    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t bask in the success of your fellow Jews while simultaneously failing to show them basic dignity.

  2. I would have liked to have heard Senor when he spoke locally; all the radio programs had him waxing poetic about how serving in the army matures and leads to the entrepeneurial spirit. Not that I would have heckled but I would have liked to heard more (without having to read the book). (But Rabbi Tatz was in town the same night, didn’t need a coin to make that decision.)

    Ken Spiro has some fascinating insights on this too.

  3. Jews no matter where they are have great potential. Its their genes that have undergone great suffering that have allowed them to shine as a collective. The Jews of today more than any previous generation have less reason to be compared to a beast or anything less. The times of the Gemarra were different times for us, than todays confussed generation. Unfortunately there are people today who abide strictly to Shabbat adherences, but their morals are less than a beast. Who is so wise to judge our holy brethren today before the great day of Judgement when God will Judge all people of this Earth. Me included. please do not edit my piece.

  4. “No single explanation can account for the record of Jewish achievement”



  5. wow and here i thought the nytimes was “anti semitic” and hated jews. it just goes to show you that not everything is as peoeople say it is…

  6. Hey puzzled (#4) tzippi (#5) has your answer. If you listen to Rabbi Ken Spiro’s tapes on this topic (available at aish.com) you will find his explanation for all this Jewish productivity, particularly from non frum Yidden, is due to a soul that is searching for something (the Ribbono Shel Olam).Failing to find a sipuk for its’ thirst, it branches out in many areas, but is never really satisfied, so it remains constantly driven.

  7. Rebari — I have heard explanations along the lines of R. Spiro’s but never seen a source. There are many other explanations rooted in Jewish history and culture, some of which are canvassed in the article, and most of which are not as self-serving.

    Having said that, I am not bothered by the question of Jewish creativity or productivity. I am bothered by a position which attempts to shep Nachas from the achievements of (almost invariably) secular Jews, while simultaneously demeaning them. I realize the motivation for this position, but find it glaringly inconsistent.

  8. Don’t kid yourself. They are and they still do! An article on the op-ed page is meaningless. It reflects the opiniion of the writer alone, and is a forum where anyone can write anything about anything.