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The Great Brain

Pseudo-science helps a family straddle the Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide

Haim Watzman
June 12, 2007

“Good news,” I said to my wife, Ilana, as the family sat down for Shabbat lunch. “Charles Murray says that you aren’t genetically stupider than me after all.”

She gave me one of those looks that says, “Take your Y chromosome and go to hell.”

“Who is Charles Murray and how does he know about our brains?” she asked sternly.

I explained that Murray is a conservative political scientist who has written a great deal about intelligence. “He co-wrote a book called The Bell Curve that argued that white people’s genes make them smarter than black people,” I told her.

“Is he Jewish?” Ilana wondered.


“So how smart can he be?” Ilana asked, dishing out the meat-stuffed celery her mother made us. “Anyway, who said I’m biologically stupider than you in the first place?”

I told her about a scientific paper published by some scholars at the University of Utah which proposes to explain why there have been so many high-achieving Ashkenazim in the arts and sciences over the past millennium. They suggest it was a result of selective breeding; legal restrictions forced Ashkenazi Jews into financial and trade occupations, which require more intelligence than farming, crafts, and manual labor. They had to know math, languages, and be good at analytic reasoning. Sephardi Jews didn’t need those skills.

“Your parents were born in Iraq. So ethnically you are an Oriental or Sephardi Jew. My grandparents were born in Eastern Europe, so I’m Ashkenazi. So according to the guys in Utah, of the two of us, I’ve got the better brain.”

Ilana reminded me dryly that her maternal grandfather had been a successful businessmen and trader in Baghdad before losing everything he had when he fled Iraq and moved his family to Palestine in the 1930s. Her father’s father left Baghdad at about the same time but reestablished himself successfully in Bombay, before losing everything he had when he moved his family to Israel in 1949.

“That article appeared in a very respectable venue, The Journal of Biosocial Science, which gives it great credence,” I pointed out defensively.

“Remind me how your great-grandfathers made a living?” she asked.

“One was a dirt-poor schoolteacher,” I said hopefully. “And another was a dirt-poor storekeeper.”

“And the other two?”

“A baker and a blacksmith,” I admitted. “But no matter. Murray, in a display of scholarly panache, has torn the Utah paper to shreds. He argues that it’s not just Ashkenazi Jews who are smarter than everyone else. Sephardi Jews are smarter than everyone else, too.”

“Where does he say that?” asked my scholarly son Asor, who has honed his reasoning skills by studying for a year and a half at a yeshiva.

“It was in Commentary, which is a magazine read by a lot of very smart Ashkenazi Jews, for example ones that favored invading Iraq.”

My oldest daughter, Mizmor, who with her mixture of choice Ashkenazi and Sephardi genes must have quite a brain, seemed unconvinced. “How does he reach that conclusion?”

“He points out that some Sephardis were hot stuff. Maimonides, for example, and Benjamin Disraeli. And he suggests that selection for sharp brains began much earlier, back in the first century, before the Second Temple was destroyed. That was when Joshua ben Gamla ruled that all male Jews go to school beginning at age six. Ever since then, Jews have been nearly universally literate, compared to other nations.”

“You mean, if I lived before the first century I wouldn’t have had to go to school?” asked my youngest daughter Misgav, for whom the Second Temple Period had just become a golden age.

“They were learning business theory and math and science?” asked Ilana.

No, I told them. The sources around today show that the elementary school curriculum consisted mostly of memorizing the Bible.

“So according to Murray’s thesis, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews should be equally represented in Israel’s universities and top-earning professions.” Ilana said.

“But in reality Ashkenazi Jews make up a solid majority of Israel’s student body, university faculty, and professions, even though Sephardi Jews are a majority in the population,” I answered back.

“So the Utah guys are right?” she asked.

I had to be honest and tell her that over the past three decades, Israeli society has become less stratified between an Ashkenazi elite and a Sephardi underclass, and that as that has happened, the number of Sephardi Jews in universities and white collar professions has increased considerably—even if there isn’t yet full equality.

“So Murray might be proved right, once we cancel out those annoying effects of social and class discrimination?” Ilana asked.

“Israel’s Arabs have also made considerable gains as the country’s society has opened up,” I added, pointing out other explanations for Jewish academic success. “As a minority population, Arab citizens of Israel see education as a key to advancement, just like Jews did.”

“So do my genes make me smarter than everyone else or don’t they?” asked my younger son, Niot.

“That’s open to debate,” I said, “but they definitely make you smarter than Charles Murray.”