This has been a blockbuster week for the love of Jews. (It doesn’t take much, I s’pose.) First, Los Angelenos voted in their first Jewish mayor. Vice President Biden also chimed in, making some people nervous, with a gushing speech about the brilliance and enduring power of Jews. Over at Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fish wants us to know that this isn’t just an American thing and it doesn’t necessarily constitute pandering.
In a recently published memoir, titled A Collection of Works Written During Leisure Time, Wu Guanzheng, who from 2002 to 2007 was China’s top anti-corruption official, reminisces about his time in Israel. “I bought some books on the Jewish people,” he writes. One, which he cites later, is written by someone with the name “Abraham” and called — you guessed it! — Why Are Jews Intelligent.
Wu notes how Jews “attach extreme importance to study” and how they see scholars “as their spiritual leaders.” Somewhat ironically for the man who was once the seventh-highest-ranking figure in an authoritarian system, Wu also praises Jews’ ability to “speak truth to power” and “freely express different opinions.”
Chinese are notoriously philo-Semitic. Jewish visitors are often greeted with the platitude, “Ah, Jews, you so easily make money” (no joke), and there are dozens of Chinese-language books promising insight into Jewish secrets like raising smart children, succeeding in business, or unlocking the moneymaking secrets of the Talmud.
Wu also tweaks China’s conventional wisdom about Judaism. “There are people who say that the world’s wealth is in the Jews’ pocket,” he writes. “Actually, Jews’ wealth is in their own brain.” (The line works better in Chinese, where Wu uses a word for brain that literally means “brain pocket.”)
Of course, there are always people trying to spoil the fun for the rest of us. Leave it to Michael Chabon, a Jew with one of the most highly-functioning brain pockets, to put us in our place, which he did mercilessly in 2010.
In the aggregate, Jews may or may not be smarter than other groups, but the evidence in favor of granting some kind of inherent or culturally determined supernatural abilities of seichel to the yiddishe kop certainly cannot be found in our history, which is littered as thickly with the individual and collective acts of blockheads as that of any other nation or people or tribe.
An honest assessment of Jewish history must conclude that even the collective act that might seem most tellingly to argue in favor of Jewish intelligence — our survival across millenniums in spite of constant hatred, war, persecution, intolerance and genocide — is ultimately just the same trick performed by our species as a whole (at least so far).
It feels true to say that being Jewish will always initiate some kind of external reaction in the world. (I enjoy living in New York City because there often tends to be no reaction at all, which I almost always silently register in my own head, thus debunking the whole purpose of experiencing something normal). Read enough of the news each day and you’ll see how the reactions trend globally on the topic (usually for the bad).
So if the flip side of the caricature of Jewish banefulness is Jewish awesomeness instead, I’m always going to take it when it comes along. The feat of Jewish survival may be something we take too much pride in, but also YOLO.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.