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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2013
Number 79
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The Jewish “Success” Story?

A review essay by Steven Windmueller

The Chosen People: A Study of Jewish Intelligence and Achievement by Richard Lynn. Washington Summit Publishers: Whitefish, Mont.

Richard Lynn’s book on Jewish intelligence joins a body of work designed to explain why a particular group seems to be identified as high achievers. At the outset I am uncertain what might be the particular value or outcome for such research. Texts of this nature are often designed to confirm or create particular theoretical understandings as to what leads a specific cohort to outrank their peers based on a variety of standards, including education, income, professional attainment and, of course, IQ. In this 350-page publication, Dr. Lynn seeks to define the distinctive character and success of the Jewish people by introducing his readers to a survey of countries and continents in which Jews have or currently reside. Armed with charts and statistics, the writer seeks to confirm within each of these case situations the intellectual, economic and cultural accomplishments of the Jews. For example, Lynn notes the number of bridge champions in France who happen to be Jews, while documenting the Jewish Nobel Prize winners within Israel, Switzerland, the United States and a half a dozen other nations, and the number of Jews who received the Lenin Prize in Russia, along with an array of other “measures” designed to identify Jewish prominence.

In reviewing this and similar writings, one often finds a type of triumphalism associated with such assumptions related to intelligence and achievement on the part of a group. For Lynn and others, the posting of the “number” of Nobel Prize winners and other measures of attainment by Jews including their important social or religious values is interpreted here as somehow confirming a group’s success. This form of “counting” in my view proves little about the status of “the Jews” but rather tells us much more about the mind of the intellectual and his/her personal accomplishments. One must assume that Dr. Lynn holds to the belief that this data has some form of universal value or maybe offers something definitive about an entire people. It is not difficult to recall how this type of data collection has been employed against Jews in the course of history, which must raise the question as to why Dr. Lynn is pursuing this form of research now.

Lynn also introduces what he terms as “three troubling conclusions”: all of which appear to be interlocked with one another. The first of these revolves around the issue that “the high Jewish IQ must have a generic basis.” The second outcome appears as follows: “...the high IQ of the Jews...seems to have been a eugenics success story. We have seen that there is a strong case that the eugenic customs and practices of Ashkenazim seem to have been a major factor responsible for the evolution of their high intelligence.” And finally, he concludes that “an ethnic group with a high IQ succeeds despite discrimination, and this raises the question of why other ethnic groups have failed to succeed.”

Not only does Dr. Lynn seek to analyze the nature of “Jewish genius” but then proceeds to determine the fate of the Jewish people on the basis of selective demographic data in his brief concluding section, where he notes: “For all these reasons, it is impossible to be other than pessimistic about the survival of the Jews as an ethnic group in the medium term.” He closes by offering his other sweeping commentary. “On the other hand, it will be good news for the Gentiles, who will benefit from an infusion of Jewish genes that have contributed so much to world culture.”

If one were looking to attract negative racial or religious responses to the “success story of the Jews” than this type of literature most assuredly offers such an opportunity. In turn, I can find little redeeming value in such a publication.

Steven Windmueller is Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and a contributing editor.

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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