What Explains Jewish Success?

Antisemitism is in the news lately, and I wonder if at least part of the explanation is envy of the extraordinary achievements of the Jewish people. They are a brilliant and successful people, and that is bound to cause resentment in people who have not been as successful.

The Ashkenazim: A Case Study in Jewish Hyper-Intelligence

I recently read an article about the amazingly high intelligence of the Ashkenazi Jews. The Ashkenazim are descended from Jews who lived in Alsace and the Rhine Valley in Medieval times, and later in Eastern Europe. About 80% of Jews are Ashkenazim, with the remainder primarily Sephardic. Originally, they were from Israel, but genetic research suggests their bloodline branched off from other Jewish groups about 2,500 years ago.

Those who research human intelligence have found that the Ashkenazim are bunched near the top of the bell curve. Steven Pinker, who lectured on Jews, Genes, and Intelligence in 2007, says “their average IQ has been measured at 108-115.” Richard Lynn, author of The Intelligence of American Jews says it is half-standard higher: 107.5. Harpending, Hardy and Cochran of the University of Utah report in “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence” that their subjects “score .75 to 1.0 standard deviations above the general European average, corresponding to an IQ of 112-115.”

An average IQ of 115 is 8 points higher than the average of the next smartest demographic, Northeast Asians, and approximately 40% higher than the global average IQ of 79 calculated by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen. When the bell curve is applied to the Ashkenazim, it predicts that 12.5% of them will have an IQ between 133 and 148, and 2.5% will have an IQ greater than 148.

In fact, the standard bell curve under-predicts the proportion of Ashkenazim at the extreme high end of the intelligence spectrum. Charles Murray notes that “the proportion of Jews with IQs of 140 or higher is somewhere around six times the proportion of everyone else.” Harpending, Hardy and Cochran report roughly the same number: “4 out of every 1,000 Northern European has an IQ of 140 or higher, but 23 out of every 1,000 Jews has that IQ.”

A 1954 survey of New York public school children with IQs of 170 or higher, which is well into the genius range, revealed that 24 of the 28 were Jewish.

In the 19th century, Mark Twain noted that:

“[The Jews] are peculiarly and conspicuously the world’s intellectual aristocracy . . . his 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.”

Twain’s observation is not obsolete. Here is a brief list of Ashkenazi accomplishments in the last 90 years.

Nobel Prizes: Since 1950, 29% of the awards have gone to Ashkenazim, even though they represent only a tiny fraction of the world’s population (less than 0.2%). In the 21st century, they’ve received 32% of the total, and in 2011, five of the thirteen Nobel Prize winners were Jewish – 38.5%. The Ashkenazim are disproportionately enrolled in America’s Ivy League universities; they represent 30% of Yale students, 27% of Harvard, 23% of Brown, 32% of Columbia, and 31% of Pennsylvania.

But the Jews’ accomplishments have not at all been limited to academic settings.

Jews have always been over-represented in the professions and in most high-profile occupations. Take, for example, Hungary in the 1930s: Ashkenazim were 6% of the population, but comprised 55.7% of physicians, 49.2% of attorneys, 30.4% of engineers, and 59.4% of bank officers; plus, they owned 49.4% of the metallurgy industry, 41.6% of machine manufacturing, 72.8% of clothing manufacturing, and, as housing owners, received 45.1% of Budapest rental income. Jews were similarly successful in nearby nations such as Poland and Germany. In today’s America, Jews comprise about 40% of partners in large law firms in New York and Washington, DC.

In “Jewish Genius,” Charles Murray tallies contributing individuals in a variety of vocations, noting how over-represented Jews are in making significant contributions to their fields, as compared to their percentage of the population. In Biology, Jews are over-represented by a factor of 5, in Chemistry 6, in Physics 9, in literature 4, in music 5, in the visual arts 5, in math 12, and in philosophy 14.

Israel has benefited enormously from the influx of Jews. In 1922, it had a mostly impoverished population of 752,000. Today, there are 8.5 million residents, and a gross domestic product per person of over $40,000. On a per capita basis, Israel rates first in the world in graduate degrees, first in museums, first in home computers, and first in publishing scientific papers.

Israel has become a center of high-tech enterprise, with the second-largest number of startup companies in the world after the U.S., and the third-largest number of NASDAQ-listed companies after the U.S. and China. Intel, Microsoft, and Apple built their first overseas research and development facilities in Israel, and other high-tech multi-national corporations, such as IBM, Google, HP, Cisco Systems, Facebook and Motorola have opened Research & Development branches in Israel.

What Explains the Remarkable Intelligence and Success of the Jewish people?

What explains the intelligence and success of the Jewish people? Here are some possible answers.

A. Studying the Scriptures

The Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) and the Talmud (recordings of rabbinic discussions) are intellectually complex and sophisticated. Faithful Jews are required to learn and study the extensive laws and regulations in the Hebrew canon. And, as David writes in the Psalms, contemplating the divine statutes gives wisdom to the simple:

“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.” Psalm 19:7

Jewish students are not merely encouraged to memorize Scripture but to work with it, to apply it to real world situations, and to argue about its application. Jewish tradition held that it took “study of seven hours a day for seven years” to properly understand the Talmud. In the modern Western context, the required, extensive religious education is in addition to state-required schooling, so Jewish children are in effect getting a double-dose of education. Charles Murray notes that, “no other religion made so many demands upon the whole body of its believers, . . . Judaism evolved in such a way that to be a good Jew meant that a man had to be smart.”

The Hebrew Bible tells fathers to teach the Torah to their children. (Deut. 4:9-10; 6:5-9; 11:19; Psalm 78:5; Prov. 22:6). Religious education was mandatory for all Jewish boys, and, unlike most ancient cultures, Jewish women were taught to read and write. The Medieval scholastic Peter Abelard (1079-1142) wrote about Jewish education: “A Jew, however poor, even if he had ten sons, would get them all to letters, not for gain as the Christians do, but for understanding of God’s law. And not only for his sons, but his daughters.”

Ellen White tells us that Scripture study quickens the intellect:

“If the Bible were studied as it should be, men would become strong in intellect. The subjects treated upon in the Word of God, the dignified simplicity of its utterance, the noble themes which it presents to the mind, develop faculties in man which cannot otherwise be developed.” (Fundamentals of Christian Education, 165.)

“The Word of God is to be the foundation of all study, and the words of revelation, carefully studied, appeal to and strengthen the intellect as well as the heart. The culture of the intellect is required, that we may understand the revelation of the will of God to us. It cannot be neglected by those who are obedient to His commandments.— Manuscript 16, 1896.

B. Eugenic Effect of the Babylonian Captivity

An interesting theory suggested by the author of the article on Ashkenazi intelligence is that the Babylonian captivity had a selective effect on the Jewish population, preserving the most brilliant and weeding out the lowest. In 586 BC, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, who “carried into exile . . . all the officers and fighting men, and all the craftsmen and artisans . . . only the poorest people of the land were left.” (2 Kings 24:14) Those carried off to Babylon were the flower of Judah’s intellectual aristocracy.

Within five decades, the exiled Jews, availing themselves of the commercial and educational advantages of the advanced Babylonian civilization, rose to the top echelons of Babylonian society, in business enterprises, in the scholastic world, in court circles. They became leaders in commerce, men of learning, advisors to kings.

In 538 BC, the Persian king Cyrus the Great granted the Jews permission to return to their homeland. Some 42,000 Jews returned to Jerusalem in the first wave of re-settlement (Ezra 2), with a later group returning under King Artaxerxes following (Ezra 8). The returning Jews discovered that their poorer brethren who had been left behind had assimilated into neighboring pagan nations.

Cyril Darlington, in his “The Evolution of Man and Society,” suggests that the temporary separation of the Jewish elite, and permanent removal of the uneducated and unskilled, boosted the average intelligence of those still identifying as Jews.

To prevent the returnees from intermarrying and becoming indistinct from the surrounding nations, the Jewish leaders instituted and enforced a strict ban on intermarriage with gentiles (See, Ezra 9-10; Nehemiah 13:23-27). Additionally, the returnees elevated the books of Moses, bringing them back to prominence for the whole nation (Nehemiah 7:73-8:18). These are the books containing the moral law, the civil law, and the ceremonial law, including the dietary and health laws.

C. The Intellectual Effects of Jewish Diet and Sanitation

Perhaps the most compelling Bible story to emerge from the Babylonian captivity is that of Daniel and the three Hebrew worthies, Hananiah (renamed Shadrach), Mishael (Meshach) and Azariah (Abednego). What was behind their great success? Scripture tells us that they adhered to the dietary laws.

The story, related in Daniel chapter one, is that Daniel and his three friends had already been screened for high intelligence, and assigned to preparation for government service. They were to eat the same food and drink the same wine as the king, during a three-year period of education. But the King ate meat that was forbidden to Jews and considered defiling under the Levitical food laws. Daniel asked that he and his friends be given only water to drink and vegetables to eat. The King’s steward was very hesitant to grant this request, fearing that he would be punished if the young men began to suffer from malnutrition. Daniel suggested a short clinical trial—Give us our preferred fare for ten days and then see how we look:

“At the end of the ten days, they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.”

The experiment continued throughout the three years of training, and in the end there was no doubt as to the wisdom of the Hebrew worthies’ simple diet. They were ten times better than their peers with the same education:

At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.

We have noted elsewhere that adherence to the Levitical laws on unclean animals has numerous health benefits. The science is now such that no one seriously doubts that it is healthier to eat only clean animals. God promised Israel that if they obeyed His laws, they would have good health and not suffer the diseases of the surrounding nations:

“If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land—your grain, new wine and olive oil—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you. You will be blessed more than any other people; none of your men or women will be childless, nor will any of your livestock be without young. The Lord will keep you free from every disease. He will not inflict on you the horrible diseases you knew in Egypt, but he will inflict them on all who hate you.” (Deut. 7:12-15)

But the story of Daniel shows us that’s God’s diet makes us not only healthier, but smarter, too. It turns out that health is among the most important factors in the origin of group differences in IQ test scores and other measures of cognitive ability. There is little doubt that centuries of avoiding unclean foods has contributed to the Jewish intelligence gap. I would like to see Loma Linda University do a multi-generational study on health, vegetarianism, veganism and how they affect intelligence from one generation to the next.

Summary and Conclusion

Although much of the data relate to the Ashkenazi Jews, rather than to the Sephardic and other branches of Judaism, we can generalize that Jews are the most intelligent race on earth. On average, they score higher on standard intelligence tests. Their success has not been limited to academic settings; they are overrepresented in all high-profile professions and occupations. Their success, and the envy that it breeds, are likely the real cause of much antisemitism.

But most if not all the factors that have made the Jews such an intelligent and successful people are available to all of us. We can all live healthy lives, getting water, rest, and exercise and avoiding the consumption of unclean meat, stimulants, drugs and alcohol. We can study and memorize Scripture, and learn to apply its principles to real world situations. We can embrace hard work. We can eschew self-indulgence and immorality, and have stable, long-lasting marriages. We can teach our children God’s principles found in the Bible, in addition to their regular schooling. I guarantee you that if we do all these things, we will be as successful and intelligent as the Jews.