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Nobel Prize and the Jews

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Bob Dylan (Flickr photo)

A couple of years ago on the eve of the historic 2016 Nobel Prize Awards when Bob Dylan was a famous no-show (or at least a famous late-to-show), I took a look at some of the many Jewish Nobel Award winners over the years.

Dylan wasn’t the sole Jewish winner that year. Or the following year. Or this year when American Arthur Ashkin will be awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics on Dec. 10 in Stockholm. In fact, Ashkin and Dylan are part of an impressively large and growing group of Jewish Nobel Prize winners.

Which has led many to ask, “Why the Jews?”

First the facts. The voluminous Wikipedia entry, List of Jewish Nobel laureates, states that “as of 2017, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 902 individuals, of whom 203 or 22.5% were Jews, although the total Jewish population comprises less than 0.2% of the world’s population. This means the percentage of Jewish Nobel laureates is at least 112.5 times or 11,250% above average.”

When looking at why so many Jews have excelled at the Nobels, one must tread – and surf – very carefully. You can find yourself mired in Jewish websites, which not only take pride in these accomplishments but also take a swipe at other ethnic groups who have not fared as well.

And then there are the anti-Semitic sites which are happy to point out that not only do Jews control the banks and media, but they also have a corner on the fields of literature, chemistry, medicine, physics, economics, and even peace. And finally, there are the sites that I recommend – those that may exhibit pride (and hopefully, humility) as well as a critical understanding about the achievements of members of the Jewish community.

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Lazar Berman of the American Enterprise Institute uses the Nobel numbers as a starting point and delves into the nurture vs. nature debate and traces Jewish (Ashkenazi and Sephardi) achievements since the Middle Ages. He focuses on IQ as a predictor “of success in academic subjects and most jobs” and points to studies in which Ashkenazi Jews score significantly higher than surrounding populations.

“As for why Jews would have a high mean IQ, it is likely a combination of factors,” writes Berman. “With contemporary Jews growing up in fairly typical middle class American homes, the hereditary hypothesis must play a significant role. The limits of professional opportunity for Jews, and pressure to survive and prosper—not through might but through intelligence and innovation—may well have selected for certain traits. … European universities barred Jews for centuries, so Jews steered away from classics and literature and toward science, done largely outside the traditional universities.”

According to Uzi Arad, director of the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Institute in Herzliya, Israel, “the reason for the disproportionate number of Jewish winners is the premium Jews have placed on learning and scholarship. The tradition of reflection and scholarship has sharpened the inquisitive Jewish mind. It takes an inquisitive, non-conformist mind to break into new areas and make discoveries.”

Charles Murray writes in his article in Commentary, “Jewish Genius: Jews are extravagantly overrepresented in every field of intellectual accomplishment. Why?” The self-proclaimed “Scots-Irish Gentile from Iowa” responds that “something in the genes explains elevated Jewish IQ,” and he then points to the Nobel statistics to demonstrate how Jews have excelled disproportionately in the arts and sciences since the 18th century. Murray examines historical factors like “occupational selection”, the importance of literacy among Jews and heredity. And he sets off a heated debate.

One writer takes Murray to task for using the Nobel Prize as a gauge for intelligence. “Consider that women comprise some 50 percent of the world’s population, but fewer than five percent of Nobel Prize winners (one of Mr. Murray’s favourite metrics). Sweden, with only one tenth of a percent of the world’s population, has contributed approximately five percent of Nobel laureates. Are Swedes therefore smarter than women?”

 Bar-Ilan University’s Noah Efron thinks that the glory days of Jews and the Nobels are behind them. “Nobel Prizes are a lagging indicator. Given years after the achievements they celebrate, often to long-retired scientists, they reflect a state of affairs that existed 30, 40, and sometimes 50 years ago. They are a browning snapshot of bygone days.

“The percentages of Jews among new American PhDs in the sciences has declined greatly over the past generation. The passions that drew Jews to sciences in such great numbers have dissipated. There is no good reason to expect that the remarkable contributions of Jews to science will continue for generations to come.”

Israeli Aaron Ciechanover, the 2005 Nobel Prize co-winner for chemistry, does not appear to share Efron’s concern – at least for his fellow citizens. “The human brain is the only natural resource that Israel possesses.”

It seems like the stellar track record of Jews at the Nobels has not gone to the heads of all recipients – or at least to the heads of their spouses. In 1966, S.Y. Agnon became the first Israeli and the fifth Jew to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (shared that year with co-religionist Nelly Sachs of Sweden.) As noted in Jewish Action magazine, Agnon was “moved by the sight of the Israeli flag in Stockholm and asked his wife, Esther, ‘Did you ever dream you would see the Israeli flag flying over the palace in my honour?’ Her laconic reply: ‘I usually do not dream about flags!’”