Why are there so many Jewish Nobel winners?
By Alan Aziz, The Jewish Chronicle. Published on December 8, 2022.
There is no greater accolade for scientific achievement than the Nobel Prize. Awarded to almost 1,000 people and organisations since 1901, this year’s prizes will be awarded tomorrow, as always, in Stockholm.
One of the most remarkable Nobel statistics is that 22 per cent of winners have been Jewish, despite our people comprising less than 0.2 per cent of the world’s population.
In other words, Jewish Nobel laureates number at least 11,250 per cent above average.
The Super Achievers by Ronald Gerstl (published in 2020) discusses a what may lie behind this remarkable phenomenon. First is the — surely offensive — view that Jews have an intellectual advantage.
Charles Murray set out this argument in a 2007 essay, Jewish Genius, writing that “something in the genes explains elevated Jewish IQ”. The Israeli 2005 Nobel Prize co-winner for chemistry, Aaron Ciechanover, puts it somewhat less crassly: “The human brain is the only natural resource that Israel possesses”.
But not only is this offensive, it is also reductionist, making Jewish Nobel success less of an achievement and more a fait accomplit. Is it any great win, after all, if you were born into greatness rather than earning it? It’s a form of the nature vs nurture argument.
Rather, writes Gerstl, it is “Jewish cultural values based on family upbringing, dedication to education, self-motivation, persistence, resilience in face of adversity, and just plain hard work” that “undoubtedly contribute to their success.”
Education has been put on a pedestal for Jews for millennia, dating back to the Torah — which means “teaching”. God chose Avraham to teach his children the ways of the Chosen People; Moshe Rabbeinu, “our teacher”, did the same, and following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the Romans granted permission to establish an academy.
According to the late Rabbi Lord Sacks, the Jews knew that “to defend a country, you need an army, but to defend an identity, you need a school”.
The emphasis on study has always been so great that Maimonides even declared that education of the young should never be interrupted, even to rebuild the Temple. We had to become literate to continue studying and practising Judaism so that we wouldn’t assimilate.
But it wasn’t just Jewish education Maimonides prioritised, also introducing Greek philosophy into the syllabus.
But while Jewish excellence in intellectual pursuits has always shone through, its place in science is relatively new. It’s easy to look at the achievements of the Technion, for example and assume it has always been so. The Technion (the Israel Institute of Technology) is the powerhouse behind Israel’s status as the “Start-Up Nation”, with some 70 per cent of the country’s high-tech founders and managers having graduated from it, and with four Nobel laureates to its name (out of five Israeli academic Nobel winners). Yet this is not the case.
When the great Jewish thinker and writer Joseph Jacobs set out to compare the talents of Jews with other westerners in 1886, he found their achievements mediocre in every scientific field apart from medicine.
Indeed, the now widely accepted view that Jews and science go hand-in-hand only truly blossomed in the decades immediately before and after the Second World War, and this was borne out of necessity. Universities across Europe were preventing Jews from studying in them, so we did what any species would to survive: adapt and move on.
Thus, scores of Jews sought solace in science, “done largely outside the traditional universities”, according to Lazar Berman of the American Enterprise Institute, as a means to an end, to achieve the power, wealth and society afforded to so many of their non-Jewish counterparts.
If Jewish DNA has anything to answer for, it’s not natural IQ but diligence in working hard to succeed.
And the argument could be made that this is nothing to do with genes but instead a response to handicaps placed on our people since time immemorial by those who want us to fail.
In the words of former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres: “There is something in our DNA that makes us Jews never feel satisfied.”
Jewish people do not allow failure to get in their way. This is particularly true in Israel, within the high-tech and start-up arena which is dominated by Technion graduates. As the writer and well-known philosemite Samuel Beckett, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1969, wrote: “Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”
Alan Aziz is the CEO of Technion UK