Bintel Blog

Are Jewish Smarts All in the Genes?

By Daniel Treiman

  • Print
  • Share Share

Is Jewish intelligence genetic? Slate’s William Saletan, who recently attended a panel discussion on the topic, doesn’t want to think so. Still, he grudgingly admits:

A culture that trains its young people to procreate only with one another becomes, over time, a genetically distinct population. And if that culture glorifies intelligence to such a degree that it drives less intelligent people out of the community—or prevents them from attracting mates—it becomes an IQ machine. Cultural selection replaces natural selection.

In other words, even though Saletan isn’t convinced, he admits that proponents of Jewish genetic intelligence may have a case. In any event, the whole subject sort of creeps him out, particularly since any possible genetic predisposition for intelligence could be linked to the prevalence of genetic diseases among Jews.

The whole article is quite interesting and well worth reading.

A few additional points worth noting:

First, I don’t think there would any great benefit if we discovered a genetic predisposition toward above-average intelligence among Jews (or any group for that matter). Any discovery that intelligence is correlated with membership in particular ethnic groups would fuel prejudice, even though individuals wouldn’t necessarily fit into group patterns

Second, I think that the discovery of a genetic basis for Jewish achievement would only diminish our own regard for the worth of our cultural and religious heritage. If Jewish contributions to the world are due to genetics, then maybe our traditions aren’t that important.

Third, while I’m uncomfortable with the notion of a genetic predisposition toward intelligence among Jews, my concerns are not identical to those of others.

For instance, there’s a general aversion in some circles to the notion that Jews are an ethnic (or descent-based) rather than a religious community. Saletan notes that a concern of this sort was raised at the discussion:

Zoloth, speaking for many liberals, recalled a family member’s revulsion at the idea of a Jewish race. Judaism is about faith and values, she argued. To reduce it to biology is to make it exclusive, denying its openness to all.

This, I think, is a legacy of a time in America and the West when religious diversity was tolerated but ethnic (or “national” — a term that was once popular) difference was frowned upon. It’s why liberal Jews in Germany and the U.S. would describe themselves as Germans or Americans of the Mosaic or Hebrew faith.

To this day, this Jewish ethnicity-aversion remains a cause of confusion. It’s why, when asked if they’re Jewish, some feel compelled to answer, “Yes, but I’m not religious” (as if Jewishness were a purely religious identity). It’s also why one often hears American descendants of Eastern European Jews say that their ancestors were Russians or Poles, even though their ancestors quite likely spoke primarily Yiddish and had not intermarried much with the larger non-Jewish populations.

Ethnicity involves something that we inherit, whereas modernity and liberalism privilege the idea that we are the authors of our own identities. That’s why liberal Jews often prefer (wrongly in my view) words like “culture” and “religion” to concepts like “peoplehood” and “ethnicity.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Genetics

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.