Jewish Exceptionalism -- A Response to Michael Chabon

Jews have won 23 percent of all Nobel prizes, 51 percent of the Pulitzer prizes for non-fiction and 54 percent of the world chess championships. They represent 38 percent of our most philanthropic donors, 21 percent of Ivy League enrollment and 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees. They've started or shaped every major Hollywood movie studio, earned 37 percent of the Oscars for Best Director, conducted the major symphony orchestras, and played a huge part in creating America's garment industry, as well as the major department stores, the radio and television broadcast networks and some of the biggest high tech companies including Dell, Qualcom, Google, Oracle and Intel. This tiny group of human beings, constituting a mere two-tenths of one percent of the world's population and beset for centuries by diaspora, discrimination and displacement, nonetheless continues to bring home the bacon time and time again. And yet, some like Michael Chabon, reacting to the disastrous Israeli landing on the deck of a ship in an attempt to break the Gaza blockade, is willing to dismiss the entire record of exceptional Jewish achievement and claim that Jews (New York Times, June 6, 2010) should simply view themselves as

"not special."

While it is important to criticize the foolish, it is just as important to praise the praiseworthy. We are living in a world where balance and nuance have disappeared. We must be watchful not to lose the ability to admire and learn from the astonishing performance of a people. Two thousand years of troubled history have taught many Jews to keep their heads down. When things have gone poorly, their achievements and successes have made them easy scapegoats. It is one of history's greatest and most stupid tragedies. But it is wrong to simply disdain their performance. The last two hundred years constitute an undeniable record of disproportionate achievement. Understanding the phenomenon (the "elephant in the room") and why it has happened is deserving of serious analysis and debate. We can all learn from it. Discouraging such exploration is unwise. And no young Jewish kid should grow up being taught he or she is simply

"not special."

Nothing will pre-ordain the end of The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement more quickly than that.

Steven L. Pease
Sonoma, California
A non-Jew, Pease is the author of The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement