In publishing “The Secrets of Jewish Genius,” an opinion piece by regular columnist Bret Stephens, The New York Times demonstrated its commitment to free speech, at least for its stable of elite writers. That commitment means tolerating even the expression of extreme opinions that lack any solid foundation in reality. The immediate outcry from readers and media commentators was overwhelming. The Times chose to ignore the critics and defend its columnist, demonstrating either its inability to recognize racism or, more likely, its complacent acceptance of a racist view of the world.
The Times could have retracted the article or expressed its own editorial critique of its premises. Instead, the “newspaper of record” rose to Stephens’ defense. In its now edited version, the article is preceded by a long, tortured justification of Stephens’ position, assuring its readers that even if he appeared to be making a claim for the genetic superiority of Ashkenazi Jews, that that “was not his intent.”
Here is how The Times dismisses the obvious: “An earlier version of this Bret Stephens column quoted statistics from a 2005 paper that advanced a genetic hypothesis for the basis of intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews. After publication Mr. Stephens and his editors learned that one of the paper’s authors, who died in 2016, promoted racist views. Mr. Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views, but it was a mistake to cite it uncritically.”
We can only admire what an author and a great newspaper can “learn” after publishing a supposedly researched article. To prove its point, The Times quotes (rather than explains) one exasperatingly meaningless passage from the article as if it was a proof of innocence: “At its best, the West can honor the principle of racial, religious and ethnic pluralism not as a grudging accommodation to strangers but as an affirmation of its own diverse identity. In that sense, what makes Jews special is that they aren’t. They are representational.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A term that has specific meaning when referring to democratic processes (electing representatives to a legislative body) or, in the graphic arts, when referring to an artist’s attempt at artistic realism, but which has no meaning when referring to entire groups or categories of people
How do Stephens and The Times expect us to understand the idea that Jews (specifically Ashkenazi Jews) are “representational”? What can they, as a group, possibly represent? This begs another question: Are Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, Muslims or the faithful of other religions a group? This becomes especially problematic in the context of the “melting pot” that the US has long claimed to be. Its culture of individualism — the bedrock of the consumer society — theoretically separates personal identity, including individual talent and intelligence, from group identity. Each individual becomes the autonomous agent of his or her will, rather than a representative of the group.
For The Times, the word “representational” sounds democratic and egalitarian, so rather than try to make sense of Stephens’ obscure and poorly reasoned prose, the editor simply quotes it, as if it was self-explanatory. Perhaps this is Stephens’ inelegant way of repeating the truism that the melting pot is made up of numerous groups, and the Jews, like all the other groups, are competing to be the best performers. But this fundamentally vacuous claim is belied by the title of the article that promises to reveal to its readers a “secret” that sets Jews apart, with the suggestion that they have been predestined to be the best performers.
Stephens’ racist thesis couldn’t be clearer to any reader who focuses on the occasional meaningful words in his text. As the seasoned journalist Jack Shafer observed in Politico, “Jewish genetic superiority was the exact direction his woolly argument was headed, something easily deduced from reading the passages excised from the original column.” Stephens cites approvingly some kind of vague consensus affirming “that Jews are, or tend to be, smart.” He then goes on to make a new, more precise claim concerning “the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose.” To make his case, he cites a number of heroes and one anti-hero: “Sarah Bernhardt and Franz Kafka; Albert Einstein and Rosalind Franklin; Benjamin Disraeli and (sigh) Karl Marx.”
There had to be one black sheep in the brilliant family, but Stephens, a former Wall Street Journal columnist, knows that everyone recognizes that Marx was a genius. Stephens might have cited a few other family members who, in more recent times, equally rose above the crowd, achieving widespread admiration: Harvey Weinstein, Bernie Madoff, Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell. Most people seem to have suddenly stopped believing in the “bracing originality and high-minded purpose” of those personalities who wielded so much influence for so long.
Stephens then proceeds to misquote Einstein who attributed what he called an “attitude” (and not “a moral belief”) that he felt was “incarnate in the Jewish people.” Einstein summed it up in these words: “[T]he life of the individual only has meaning insofar as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful.” Perhaps Stephens believes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who claims to represent the Jewish people globally — demonstrates this attitude incarnate in his people. Einstein, who rejected all forms of militarism, opposed the creation of the Jewish state and “condemned Menachem Begin’s and Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud party as ‘fascist’ and espousing ‘an admixture of ultra-nationalism, religious mysticism and racial superiority,’” certainly wouldn’t have believed it.
It’s worth noting that, before The Times belatedly edited the article, Stephens referred specifically and repeatedly to Ashkenazi Jews. In the Bowdlerized version now available on The Times’ website, all references to the Ashkenazi have been removed. But in his text, Stephens clearly isn’t referring to the Jewish religion, but to a particular “ethnic group” (the term used in the cited study).
Bret Stephens appeals to history to “explain” the superiority of the Jews: “And there is the understanding, born of repeated exile, that everything that seems solid and valuable is ultimately perishable.” Nearly every creative writer in Europe from the late middle ages to the Renaissance eloquently expressed the exact same sentiment (Sic transit gloria mundi). Does Stephens believe that Michel de Montaigne and William Shakespeare (among so many others) borrowed this from Ashkenazi culture? It’s true that this traditional philosophical theme has now been lost in the pragmatic, ever more materialistic West, but does Stephens believe contemporary Jewish writers promote it?
Had he taken the historical argument seriously, Stephens might have explored a certain decline in the quality of Western culture that has provided an opportunity to some formerly marginalized groups of people to come to the fore in business, science and the arts. He might equally have looked into the specific role that Christians, who refused to dirty their hands with the sin of usury, attributed to European Jews. They counted on Jewish bankers to manage the money capitalism needed for its development. Jews thus found an increasingly influential place in the colonial and imperial power structures, but also in the arts and sciences that accompanied the expansion of the capitalist economy.
Instead of delving into the deeper trends of history, Stephens prefers to wax poetic, borrowing a metaphor from the Hebrew Bible and the story of Joshua at Jericho: “If the greatest Jewish minds seem to have no walls, it may be because, for Jews, the walls have so often come tumbling down.” Some critics might point out that the Israelis have also become pretty good at erecting walls.
Because of his sloppy thinking and even more imprecise writing, Stephens may simply be seeking to reinforce US President Donald Trump’s recent initiative to define the Jews as a race or nationality as a means of punishing those in US universities who oppose Israel’s politics. Stephens tries to hedge his bets. He hesitates between claiming that Ashkenazi Jews are a superior race and affirming that the Jews globally represent a superior culture.
The link with Trump’s politics may be revealing. Stephens’ thesis dovetails with the dominant trend in current US political ideology, embraced by Republicans and establishment Democrats alike: exceptionalism. If either all Americans or all Jews believe they are exceptional, all their actions, however aggressive, will appear to be justified.
Over recent decades, US exceptionalism has become, in the minds of politicians as diverse as George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, a dogma never to be doubted and a mantra to be endlessly repeated, even if there is some dispute as to what exceptionalism means. The “secret” message Stephens appears to be trying to get across is that Ashkenazi exceptionalism is the indispensable complement to American exceptionalism. The link between the two also helps explain and justify the strength of the “unbreakable alliance” between the US and Israel, two incredibly prosperous nations.
But there is another link between both exceptionalisms: racism or a form of elitist white supremacy (not to be confused with the populist white supremacy of David Duke or the Ku Klux Klan). Ashkenazi Jews are white. They govern Israel and orientate its culture. This means that Israel can appear to be an appendage of Europe rather than a nation of the Middle East. Jews exercise significant influence as talented and highly-motivated individuals in numerous domains within the US power structure.
In Stephens’ reading, Sephardic and Ethiopian Jews, with their darker skin, do not benefit from the “superior IQ” attributed to the Ashkenazi. In its official culture, The New York Times expresses equal sympathy to all minorities. But, like other corporate media in the US, it does tend to express a sympathy that — in Orwellian terms — makes a dominantly white elite in business and politics a little “more equal” than the minorities. One would have to be blind — or at least as naive as, say, Chuck Todd — not to notice that the solidarity between the US and Israeli power structures has something to do with whiteness and the traditional colonial occupation of keeping the ever-threatening darker races at bay.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.