Jewish IQ: Are Jews Allowed To Be Smart?

Yesterday, Slate posted a piece by William Saletan about the implication of Jewish genes and what the recognition of a Jewish race means to Jewish culture. Saletan begins thusly: Are Jews a race? Is Jewish intelligence genetic? If these notions … Read More

By / November 2, 2007

Yesterday, Slate posted a piece by William Saletan about the implication of Jewish genes and what the recognition of a Jewish race means to Jewish culture. Saletan begins thusly:

Are Jews a race? Is Jewish intelligence genetic?

If these notions make you cringe, you're not alone. Many non-Jews find them offensive. Actually, scratch that. I have no idea whether non-Jews find them offensive. But I imagine that they do, which is why Jews like me wince at any suggestion of Jewish genetic superiority. We don't even want to talk about it.

The mind boggles at the cowardice. What inquisitive thinker doesn’t “even want to talk about” a profound question of science and culture for fear that someone somewhere may take offense? It’s Saletan’s silliness that should “make you cringe.” The article’s lead reminds me of something I witnessed as a graduate student. I attended a research presentation given by a Ph.D. candidate on the topic of African American standardized test scores. On average African Americans score lower on such tests than Asian or White Americans. The student opened his presentation by offering three possible reasons for this. The first: the idea that such tests were constructed with a built in cultural bias. One famous fill-in-the-blank example goes something like “Race is to car, as regatta is to _______.” The presenter noted that such biases had been exhaustively corrected in recent years, so that was an unlikely cause for lower test scores. The second possible explanation: stereotypes of Black students were somehow activated in the exam room setting and this propelled a chain reaction resulting in sort-of group-fulfilled prophecy. This was the candidate’s thesis. The third: Black people are genetically less intelligent than other groups. To which the budding scholar said, “We won’t even get into that.” If learning institutions don’t get into it, bigots and fascists of all stripes certainly will. Back to Saletan. The piece was about a presentation given by John Entine, author of the book Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People, Charles Murray who’s authored some controversial work on Jewish intelligence, and Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist. Here’s the crux:

The average IQ of Ashkenazi Jews is 107 to 115, well above the human average of 100. This gap and the genetic theories surrounding it stirred discomfort in the room. Zoloth, speaking for many liberals, recalled a family member's revulsion at the idea of a Jewish race. Judaism is about faith and values, she argued. To reduce it to biology is to make it exclusive, denying its openness to all. Worse, to suggest that Jews are genetically smart is to imply that non-Jews are inherently inferior, in violation of Jewish commitments to equality and compassion.

I love this line: “To reduce it to biology is to make it exclusive, denying its openness to all.” Imagine the sorrow of the dejected hordes who’ll have to make do with the country club, the DAR, and the millennial legacy of world domination. That’s funny. What’s not funny is that Zoloth, a respected academician, is proposing a fictional dilemma. The discovery of markers for Jewish DNA hasn’t a thing to do with the accessibility of the Jewish faith. When rabbis start asking for blood tests, we can revisit the question. Saletan goes on:

But what if Judaism as a genetic inheritance is compatible with Judaism as a cultural inheritance? And what if the genes that make Jews smart also make them sick? If one kind of superiority comes at the price of another kind of inferiority, and if the transmission of Jewish values drives the transmission of Jewish genes, does that make the genetics and the superiority easier to swallow?”


The theory still sounds arrogant, until you hear the IQ machine's possible costs. Some scholars now hypothesize that the genes that make Jews smart also give some of them nasty diseases such as Tay-Sachs. Entine finds this plausible. He pointed out that some genes associated with brain growth are also associated with breast cancer, including in his own family. During the question-and-answer session, someone brought up another tradeoff: Supposedly, Jews are deficient in vision-spatial skills, possibly because their brains allot extra space for verbal intelligence. That might explain the average Ashkenazi Jewish score of 122 on verbal IQ tests.

Pondering these nuances and tradeoffs, Zoloth reconsidered her aversion to the idea of Jewish genes and Jewish intelligence.

Here we’ve gone from cowardice to full-on masochism. Saletan and Zoloth can accept the scientific claim of Jewish genes as long as such genes condemn Jews to early death. Jewish history is a cascade of horror. Why do we have to hunt out the deadly in order to enjoy one cosmic nanosecond of good news? Trust me: we’re Jews – the other shoe will drop without our asking. The historian Paul Johnson, his faults aside, opens his book Modern Times with a convincing argument that Einstein, Freud, and Marx were the most crucial architects of Twentieth Century thought. The three men were undeniably Jews and undeniably geniuses. But what's been forgotten is their bravery. My question is where has that little twist of protein disappeared to in the succeeding generations of Abraham’s children? I don’t think it’s a strictly Jewish issue, though. It’s part of a larger paradigm of apology that’s bloomed in the West over the past fifty years. The difference is that the world needs the West. If Jews apologize themselves out of existence no one will blink. I have to mention my own initiation into the exclusive genetic club that Laurie Zoloth finds so unsettling. Because as a child I was fair-haired, slightly freckled, and in possession of a smallish nose I understood myself to look “non-Jewish.” This assessment seemed some cause for amusement if not, shamefully, minor celebration all around. A few years ago I was paying for a small coffee in a Korean deli that I had frequented on a more-or-less daily basis. This one afternoon I was counting out, in the palm of my hand, the seventy-five cents I owed the ever-friendly cashier. What happened next was not only an epiphany but also a kind of fantastic New York moment. “Are you Jewish?” she said. At once it struck me that in hovering over my change the Shylock gene had burst into full expression. “Yes,” I said, “Why?” “I thought so,” she said, “Jews don’t look like American people.” But let’s not talk about it, shall we.

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