Why are so many winners of the Nobel Prize of Jewish background?

This question is one of those dinner party, or coffee shop, conversations that rises periodically in the course of a social outing with friends. In a similar fashion to a brain-dead zombie, this question put to rest numerous times, only to rise out of its coffin to startling the unsuspecting. This topic arises because it speaks to our deepest anxieties – the seeming connection between race, intelligence and genes. Now the latter topic is too broad and wide-ranging to go into detail here, so let us confine ourselves to the immediate question, posed by the title above. However, it is a matter of record that numerous scientists that have won the Nobel Prize come from a Jewish background.

The conversation usually rears its head as the end point of a series of off-the-cuff observations – Einstein, he was Jewish, right? And Richard Feynman, co-winner of the Nobel Prize in 1965 and author of numerous popular science books – he was Jewish, right? Even scientists that are popularly known but not necessarily winners of the Nobel Prize get lumped into this topic – Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst, he was Jewish, right? And numerous psychologists that have followed in his footsteps, or based themselves partly on his theories – Erich Fromm, Erik Erikson – they were Jews, weren’t they?

The first observation to make in this regard is a statement by Einstein himself, commenting on the status of his theories of special and general relativity. Presenting his theories at the Sorbonne University in 1921, he stated, “If I am proved correct, the Germans will call me a German, the Swiss will call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a great scientist. If relativity is proved wrong, the French will call me a Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German and the Germans will call me a Jew.” Being of Jewish origin in the scientific community was hardly a distinct advantage, given the strong anti-Semitism rampant in Europe in the early part of the 20th century.

Israeli writers have engaged in their own fist-pumping, high-five-boasting, chest-thumping commentary themselves whenever examining this question. This is understandable, given that they are trying to construct an image of the Jewish people being sturdily resilient in the face of numerous obstacles. Having been subjected to anti-Semitic pogroms, outcasts from mainstream society, educational achievement is one way to overcome the impediments of anti-Semitic prejudice.

Numerous theories are proposed to explain this apparent explosion of Jewish domination in the sciences. While there are various nuances and permutations of all those purported explanations, they fall into two broad categories. One is that Jews are possessed of super-DNA genetic material, elevating them into hereditary over-achievers. After all, DNA is the metaphor for our age, particularly since the latter half of the twentieth century is characterised by the monumental growth of genomic research, biotechnology and the human genome project? Did not former Australian Prime Minister, and leader of the Australian Labour Party, state that Australia’s support for Israel was ‘in my DNA?’

Let us dispense with simplistic and utterly ridiculous psycho-gene-babble nonsense about superior and inferior quality genes. The achievement of Jews in the sciences in a completely 20th century phenomenon. Jews were confined to ghettos, driven out of society for centuries in Europe. American psychologists, lawmakers and scientists, confronted by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Imperial Russian empire, regarded the Jews, Mediterraneans, Slavs, and basically anyone who was non-Nordic as intellectual inferior. American policy-makers and educators, steeped in the newly ascendant doctrines of genetic determinism and racial eugenics, were deeply worried that this new stock from Europe would cause a precipitous decline in the American intellectual achievement if they were allowed to settle in the United States. If the Jewish people had super-genes, surely they would have been enthusiastically welcomed into the country obsessed with improving the genetic quality of its human stock.

The second broad category of theories relates to Jewish culture, more specifically to the bookish traditions of the Jewish people. Basically they like hitting the books, driving themselves to excel in education. This sounds nice, partly true by appealing to longstanding cultural traditions, but falls short of explaining why Jewish intellectuals have flowered in the sciences. Back in the ghettos where they floundered for decades, religious education was the main order of the day; studying in the Yeshiva, absorbing ancient texts and the Talmud were all well and good, but that was hardly preparation for tackling the difficult – and at the time burgeoning – scientific fields of biology, geology, and physics. As Jonathan Valk explained in his article for Haaretz magazine, Einstein did not undertake his groundbreaking scientific work on the photoelectric effect (for which he won the Nobel Prize) in the Yeshiva, nor did Sigmund Freud elaborate the basic foundations of what became psychoanalysis by studying religious texts. As Valk goes on to explain:

But we aren’t dealing with something uniquely Jewish as such. Other than a common identity, what is it that unites all of these Jewish thinkers, innovators, and doers? With only the odd and arguable exception, every Jewish Nobel Prize winner has been steeped in the intellectual traditions, mores and values of secular, non-Jewish culture, in addition to whatever attachment they may have had to their Jewish origin.

It is precisely when Jews turn away from the narrow, sclerotic world of sectarian particularism and embrace the humanitarian and educational culture of their host society that enables them to achieve in the sciences. The sciences are based – at least theoretically – on a meritocratic basis, where commitment to investigation, empirical fact-finding and rigorous impartiality allowed minority groups to escape the confines of discrimination and where intellect can grow and develop. Achieving excellence in education, while being its own reward, was also the best way to integrate into the new society of the United States, and achieve acceptance as equal citizens. As Noah Ephron, lecturer in at Bar-Ilan University wrote in his article in Haaretz magazine, education and scientific achievement was the way to achieve what they wanted to become, productive and respected members of the wider community, breaking out of the anti-Semitic confines in which they had been imprisoned in Europe for so long.

This is not to suggest that anti-Semitism and racism evaporated overnight in American universities – far from it. But is was the first place that a minority group could transcend the barriers that had held them down. The mid-twentieth century in the United States provided the first fertile ground where Jews could achieve without the traditional hostility and encumbrances of European anti-Semitism.

The United States had always had a strong scientific sector, but it was the twentieth century combination of circumstances – the wars in Europe and the resultant disruptions they caused, and the newly emerging Cold War – that spurred the US ruling class into action, pushing scientific research as a top priority. Numerous European scientists – Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi – emigrated to the United States, elevating the scientific melting pot occurring in that country. Across the European continent, the USSR loomed large, with its remarkable scientific establishment rising into international prominence, rivaling the traditional centres of scientific research and development in Britain, France, and western Europe. Though devastated by the German invasion, Soviet science and education made significant strides in the mid-twentieth century, frightening the American ruling class with the spectre of a rival, and scientifically advanced, power bloc.

As Canadian blogger and intellectual Stephen Gowans explains:

Soviet accomplishments in space, considered in light of the mistaken view that the USSR was always a poor second-best to the supposedly more dynamic United States, is truly startling. Soviet achievements include the first satellite, first animal in orbit, first human in orbit, first woman in orbit, first spacewalk, first moon impact, first image of the far side of the moon, first unmanned lunar soft landing, first space rover, first space station and first interplanetary probe. The panic created in Washington after the allegedly innovation-stifling Soviet economy allowed the USSR to beat its much richer ideological rival into space galvanized the United States to take a leaf from the Soviet book. Just as the Soviets were doing, Washington would use public funds to power research into innovations. This would be done through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Science research and development became a multicultural agency in the United States in the wake of the Second World War.

There is one other point worth making here, one that Noah Ephron makes in his article – winning the Nobel Prize is a sensational achievement, there is no doubt. However, if a scientist does not win one, it is not worth losing any sleep over it. Nobel Prizes are given to scientists who have done remarkable work, achieved incredible discoveries or formulated revolutionary innovations. Notice that this is in the past tense – they did great work, but their best is behind them. As Ephron states, while not detracting from the importance of winning the Nobel Prize, they are a fading snapshot of bygone days for a scientist.

The current US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, is a physicist. A graduate of Oxford, his specialty is the field of quantum chromodynamics, a theory regarding the strong interactions between quarks and gluons that compose the hadron family of particles. He is also a representative of the military-industrial complex, pushing for a more aggressive US foreign policy, promoting the privatisation of scientific enterprises for further military research, and typifies the fusion of corporate and military power to further the agenda of the US ruling class. While working in the private sector, he held important posts in the government advisory boards promoting greater collaboration between the scientific community, the military and private companies. He speaks and works for the enrichment of defence contractors.

Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize winning physicist of Jewish origin, worked on the development of military technology in the 1960s. He has since become committed to disarmament and dialogue between nations. Gell-Mann is a pioneer in the field of quantum chromodynamics, the subject in which Ashton Carter took his PhD. It is not so important to note whether a scientist is of Jewish or non-Jewish background, but to note the role that they play in the wider community – as a spokesperson for peace, or a technocrat for war and profit. Rather than look back in dismay or jealous rage about the numbers of particular ethnic groups in the sciences, perhaps we should be devoting our collective energies to providing solutions for the economic and ecological problems that confront humanity today. Scientific enquiry and achievement cannot be sustained within the diseased political and economic order of capitalism that condemns larger numbers of people to a pauperised existence.

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One thought on “Why are so many winners of the Nobel Prize of Jewish background?

  1. In this interesting article Rupen Savoulian explores some popular accounts around Jews and their intelligence. His narrative is fair. Among other things, he also discusses the scientific and technological developments in the Soviet Union and United States. As far as the hazy question of the relation between the Jewish background and the Nobel Prize winners is concerned, we have little evidence to support the view that it has anything to do with the ‘Jewishness’ as such, which by implication is to assert a distinct Jewish race.

    Just like the followers of other religious who are called Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc., most Jews identity themselves with Judaism. But they do not belong to any separate blood group or race. By mingling with other people in various parts of the world and intermarriages over the course of centuries, they are as diverse in their racial make-up as many other people. As a result, Jews from Africa, Arab Middle East, India or China are distinctly different from the European Jews. In fact, to perpetuate the myth of Jewish race is not much different than to make the absurd claim that Muslims belong to a ‘Muslim’ race or Christians to a ‘Christian’ race.

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