In 2019, the music critic Norman Lebrecht published the book, Genius and Anxiety, in which the author, proud of being a Jew, tells us about the enormous contribution of Jews to the world between 1847 and 1947. Lebrecht does not purport to give any explanation for the disproportionate contribution of Jews to culture and science, based on rationales such as the hypothetical existence of a Jewish DNA, or the driving force of the Jewish religion. Instead, he shows us lives full of anguish and ambivalence, of individuals we remember today as cosmopolitan geniuses, and who we had frequently forgotten were Jews. This is met with particular astonishment in Spain, a country with few Jews, as our sophisticated neighbor to the north, France, was blessed by its Jews, to the point of being able to say in the first third of the 20th century that, “Nobody speaks French like Sara Bernhardt, and nobody writes in French like Marcel Proust”.
Los Pocos Elegidos (“The Chosen Few”) is a book published in 2012 by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, which does try to explain the overrepresentation of Jews in the creation of talent in human history. The authors of the book belong to a genre of scholars who ignore the fact that there may be people who prefer to do something other than maximize their own economic interest. For these economists, there was a greatly relevant decision in Jewish history: the mandate of Joshua ben Gamla in 64 AD forcing all Jewish parents to provide religious education for their sons, and send them to school from the age of 6. In the following hundred years, this order was carried out progressively and inexorably. What consequences did this have for the lives of the Jews? In addition to taxes, how could peasant families cope with droughts and epidemics, along with losing the workforce of their sons throughout their educational years? It was an economic impossibility, which unleashed a torrent of conversions to Christianity and its sects, which led to the decline of the Jewish population to its historical minimum. Around the time of the destruction of the Temple, there were 5.5 million Jews. Mainly concentrated in Israel with 2.5 million, one million in Egypt and North Africa, and one million in Mesopotamia. All farmers. In 650 AD, with the arrival of the Muslim invasion, there were 1.2 million Jews left in the world (75% in Mesopotamia). One million perished in the wars against Rome, and the rest had abandoned Judaism. The world’s first compulsory universal education experiment reduced the Jewish population to its all-time low with a demographic impact proportionally greater than the Holocaust.
However, Mesopotamia’s over-skilled Jewish farmers were in the right place at the right time — when the Abbasid Caliphate began an era of urbanization and economic development unmatched since the fall of the Roman Empire. Literate Jewish farmers found themselves in an illiterate world with a common language, Arabic, very similar laws based on the Koran, a freedom of movement from the Indus River to the Atlantic Ocean, and a freedom of establishment in the emerging commercial metropolises of Baghdad, Basra, Damascus, Cairo or Córdoba. As economic subjects, they freely decided between 700 AD and 900 AD to stop being farmers and turn their intellectual capital accumulated thanks to Joshua ben Gamla, into professional assets, which transformed them forever into merchants, doctors, artisans and financiers, mostly urbanites. In no case, the authors argue, was the abandonment of agriculture due to the prohibitions on owning land or real estate imposed on Jews in the Abbasid Caliphate or the Byzantine Empire.
How did the Jewish communities from India to Spain avoid acculturation and manage to stay together? Thanks to THE NETWORK they formed via commercial correspondence and the “replies” of rabbis, who were often the most efficient merchants, and whose writings circulated at the same rate as merchandise through the commercial arteries of the Abbasid Caliphate, Byzantine Empire, and Muslim Spain. A good part of these historical writings have been discovered in the Genizah of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo. The Jewish communities then made their way to Christian Europe through Spain and Italy, with the same intellectual and professional background as in the Arab world. There were no prohibitions that kept Jews from farming until the First Crusade in 1095. The hypothesis of Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, outlined by Max Weber, is that the DIASPORA was VOLUNTARY. The Jews chose to be lenders and merchants, as this was the best possible choice in economic terms, and not because of prohibitions or exclusions imposed which required them to be farmers.
In his article “Jewish Genius”, the political scientist Charles Murray takes up part of the argument of Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein. He argues that the decline in the Jewish population from 5.5 million to 1.2 million, which occurred from the destruction of the Temple to the Muslim conquest, was not only due to conversions to Christianity caused by the compulsory education edict for boys, but rather was the result of something more sophisticated, which triggered the order of Joshua ben Gamla. This order obliged Jewish men to read scriptures in public, something that is not easy, and not served by superficial literacy. Reading the Torah and prayers in public is not a mechanical activity; it requires complex skills. This leads Murray to argue that only the most capable Jews (able to read complex texts in public) remained faithful to Judaism, which subsequently leads him to reflect that the existence of a Jewish IQ higher than non-Jewish intelligence was the leading determinant for the extraordinary achievements of Jews throughout history.
The Sorbonne sociologist Victor Karady published “The Jews of Europe in the Modern Era: Experience of Violence and Utopia”, translated to Spanish in 2000, which is a sociological explanation for the disproportionate Jewish contribution to the modernization of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. This sociological analysis starts from two premises:
- In Europe, anti-Jewish violence saw no interruption from the First Crusade in 1095 to the Holocaust and beyond.
- Victims of violence had a completely different social structure than their aggressors. The Jewish communities had proto-capitalist economic structures that had been endowed by their occupational structures (commerce, crafts, medicine, loans with interest). They also enjoyed great mobility and an accumulation of religious cultural capital derived from religious practice, which made them unbeatable in the domains of the so-called liberal professionals.
The perceived hatred and the proto-capitalist structure were seen after the French Revolution, with a Europe that raised the ghetto barriers for Jews everywhere. This forced Jews to face a much more complex reality, full of opportunities (assimilation) and threats (anti-Semitism). European Jews responded by converting the incessant application of the Jewish religious ideal into the psychological mechanism of DEFERRED ACHIEVEMENT, and setting in motion what social psychologists call COMPENSATORY MECHANISMS in the face of hatred and identity threats. This is the same biological support which enables the blind to develop disproportionate hearing abilities. These Jewish compensatory mechanisms were not found among the host societies of the Diaspora. These included:
- SUCCESS AT ANY COST (lives turned into self-fulfilling prophecies).
- Disposition to professional mobility, which facilitated economic independence.
- Search for information through THE NETWORK of religious and professional connections of the Diaspora.
- Self-reflection, persistence, asceticism and work ethic.
- Entrepreneurial spirit, willingness to take advantage of opportunities.
- Rational calculation, risk calculation, and a tendency towards innovation.
- Flexibility on what services to provide, based on religious intellectual capital.
Norman Lebrecht tells us about brilliant and anguished individuals who each responded in their own way to this identity threat: Karl Landsteiner, Paul Ehrlich, Siegfried Marcus, Rosalind Franklin, Fritz Haber, Geneviève Halévy, Emanuel Deutsch, Trotsky, Freud, Helena Rubinstein, Martin Buber, Félix Mendelssohn, Karl Marx, Lionel de Rothschild, Disraeli, Heine, Alkan, Sarah Bernhardt, Marcel Proust, Albert Einstein, Charles Dow, Hermann Levi, Ben-Yehuda, Eliezer Ludwig Zamenhof, Berthold Auerbach, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Albert Ballin, Emma Lazarus, Ben Ish Hai, Max Nordau, Teodoro Herzl, David Wolffsohn, Albert Moll, Magnus Hirschfeld, Irving Berlin, David Sarnoff, William Paley, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn, Jack Warner, Adolph Zukor, Wittgenstein, Amedeo Modigliani, Franz Kafka, and many more.
Victor Karady and Paul Johnson document the base of the pyramid: those anonymous heroes whose biographies were not kept, and who have only been recognized as statistical figures. Vienna 1936, 75% of all doctors were Jewish. Hungary 1920, Jews made up 32% of all music teachers. Poland 1929, 42% of industrial entrepreneurs were Jewish. Ukraine 1926, 30% of liberal professionals were Jewish, New York 1930, 50% of all university students were Jewish.
Charles Murray continues to think about the high Jewish intelligence quotient when he notes that in the first half of the 20th century, Jews won 14% of the Nobel prizes. In the second half of the 20th century, 29% of all Nobel prizes went to Jews, and in the current 21st century, Jews have won a whopping 32% of Nobel prizes awarded.
Carl Safina, the author of “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel” states, “No one has explained where CREATIVITY arises, but some human minds lurch along sparking new ideas like a train with a stuck wheel. It’s not rationality that’s strictly human, it’s irrationality. It is the crucial ability to envision what is not, and to pursue unreasonable ideas. Maybe more than anything, what ‘makes us human’ is our ability to generate wacky ideas.”
Magnus Hirschfeld, a young Jewish doctor, has created the World League for Sexual Reform, and presented a petition in the Reichstag (Parliament) to revoke the paragraph of the German Penal Code that criminalizes homosexual relations. The petition was rejected, and he kept presenting it year after year, until it was accepted for processing in 1929, by then accompanied by the signatures of Albert Einstein, Hermann Hesse, Stefan Zweig and Martin Buber.