Some time back I wrote a column lamenting the fact that many Christian denominations were losing members, at least in North America and Europe. These losses, while not yet of alarming proportions, are nevertheless real and growing. Some comfort can be derived from growth of Mormon and various Pentecostal denominations in Latin America, Africa and Asia. But this growth has little relevance to losses in the developed western world. But western Christianity is not alone in this concern.
After having survived various BCE conquests and diasporas, the Muslim subjugations, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust, traditional American Jewish life is now in danger of fading, possibly due to its own successes. Acceptance, assimilation, a decreasing birth rate, a trend among young Jews toward a more secular existence and marriage outside the faith are all causing concern among traditional Jews. Jewish scholar Alan Dershowitz recently stated, "the very success of Jews as individuals has contributed to their vulnerability as a people."
Historically, Judaism has experienced some of its most vibrant growth during periods of extreme persecution. Dershowitz writes, "As the result of skyrocketing rates of intermarriage and assimilation, not to mention the lowest birth rate of any ethnic or religious community in the United States, the era of enormous Jewish influence on American life may be coming to an end. Due to their disproportionate visibility, influence and accomplishments, American Jews have made enormous contributions to American life in science, medicine, the law, the arts and especially in philanthropy. But our numbers may be reduced to the point where our impact on American life may become marginalized." Dershowitz might be overstating his case, but not by much. Much current evidence suggests he is at least partially right. And a further word on proportionality.
During World War II Jews comprised 3.3% of the U. S. population but made up 4.3% of the U. S. armed forces. Of American Nobel Prize winners 37%, or eighteen times their percentage of the population, have been Jewish Americans. In most all fields Jews have contributed far out of proportion to their actual population numbers, particularly in the professions.
The high school I attended had by far the largest Jewish enrollment in Birmingham. And, typically, the Jewish students’ performances and contributions were far out of proportion to their actual numbers. They not only had slightly higher IQs, their culturally-ingrained work ethic made the rest of us hustle to keep up in the classroom, in sports and in other activities. Few were particularly gifted athletically, but their self-discipline and single-minded dedication more than made up for any lack of size or talent. I recall the rescheduling of a high school football game originally scheduled on a Jewish holiday because three members of our starting eleven (we played both ways in those days) were Orthodox Jews. I doubt if anything like that would be a problem in today’s more secular environment. But in those days as a Protestant Christian I was not allowed to play sports or attend movies on Sunday. How times have changed.
Many of today’s young Jews refer to themselves as ethnic, but not necessarily religious Jews. And today almost half of them marry outside their faith. Older, more traditional Jews have long feared assimilation almost as much as annihilation as a threat to their continued existence as a distinct people.
Judaism’s troubled past of discrimination and persecution has acted as a unifying force for the preservation of its faith and traditions. But outside of the Muslim Middle East, anti-Semitism in its former fury hardly exists today. And whereas the first waves of Jewish immigrants tended to huddle together in America’s larger cities, mostly in the northeast, today many third and fourth-generation Jews have moved to the interior of the country and to the suburbs and have become more dispersed and mainstreamed. This includes a secularization in line with general American societal trends. Today many Jewish groups emphasize the cultural as opposed to the racial and religious aspects of their Jewishness as way of distinguishing themselves in a society that is fast absorbing and neutralizing their historical uniqueness.
Is there a logical explanation for the remarkable record of Jewish excellence, or are they simply smarter than the rest of us? Perhaps. But that’s not the whole story. Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews tend to have slightly higher IQs than the world average while Sephardic (Spanish and Middle Eastern) Jews are about average. But throughout most of history the Jewish community has educated all its children instead of just the children of the wealthy. I feel this has been a major contributor to Jewish excellence in most fields of endeavor. Shouldn’t there be a lesson here for the rest of us?
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.