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Why We Celebrate Nobel Prizes

Jewish achievement is easier to celebrate by a seemingly objective measure

Adam Chandler
October 09, 2013
Statue of Alfred Nobel(Getty)
Statue of Alfred Nobel(Getty)

In case you didn’t see it yet, the internet is exploding over the the three Jewish chemists (two of whom are Israeli), whose names were added to the rolls of Nobel Laureates earlier today.

Arieh Warshel, Michael Levitt and Martin Karplus were awarded the top international prize for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.

All three winners are U.S. citizens, but also hold dual citizenships. Warshel and Levitt are Israeli citizens and both studied at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, and the prior was also educated at the Technion. Austrian-born Karplus had fled the Nazis to the U.S. as a child. The Nobel prize was awarded to them on the basis of their research at American universities.

This brings the year’s tally of Jewish winners…well, allow me to pass the mic to Avi Mayer for the presentation:

Jews have won 75% of the #Nobel Prizes awarded so far this year. We make up 0.19% (not a misplaced decimal point) of the world’s population.

— Avi Mayer (@AviMayer) October 9, 2013

So, a lot. And, as Haviv Rettig Gur noted, the two Israel winners are the fifth and sixth Israelis to score the Nobel Prize in chemistry in the last decade alone.

What’s best about this annual dump of news that’s Good-for-the-Jews is that it’s seemingly an objective measure of Jewish achievement in the world–objective, in being not marred by conspiracy or weighed down by nervous energy the way that the disproportionate level of “Jewish power” in, say, American politics is bandied about. (If you want to trip down an internet wormhole or two, there are some people who see perfidy in all the Jewish Nobel prizes, but it’s such a ridiculous thing to argue)

As we learned in May, when the American vice president gushes too much about American Jews, we cringe a little bit. The same sometimes goes for Israel, whose progressiveness and achievement often lead to charges of pink-washing, Orientalism, and the like.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t celebrate. Nobel prizes, however, should remain different: Writing in Commentary back in 2007, Charles Murray noted:

In the first half of the 20th century, despite pervasive and continuing social discrimination against Jews throughout the Western world, despite the retraction of legal rights, and despite the Holocaust, Jews won 14 percent of Nobel Prizes in literature, chemistry, physics, and medicine/physiology. In the second half of the 20th century, when Nobel Prizes began to be awarded to people from all over the world, that figure rose to 29 percent. So far, in the 21st century, it has been 32 percent. Jews constitute about two-tenths of one percent of the world’s population. You do the math.

Murray and others have, to the discomfort of many, also presented data proving a Jewish predisposition for intelligence and genius which, in light of all the Nobel Prizes, seems like an excessive celebration after a touchdown (or multiple touchdowns). Let’s hope the conversations don’t go that direction. That’s how the conspiracies begin.

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.

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