Having seen Christopher Nolan’s magnificent film “Oppenheimer,” I was struck by how many of the physicists working on the Manhattan Project were Jews. Aside from Oppenheimer, there were Isador Rabi, Richard Feynman, and Edward Teller, among others. Oppenheimer’s doctoral adviser was the Nobel laureate Max Born, who was Jewish. And the godfather of modern physics was the inestimable Albert Einstein.
The Manhattan Project’s development of the atomic bomb, which killed tens of thousands of civilians in Japan, is somewhat controversial today. But at the time when American GIs suffered catastrophic casualties in conquering Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the Japanese refused to surrender, the Pentagon estimated that it would cost close to a million casualties to conquer Japan. In addition, there had been concern that the Germans were on the cusp of developing their own bomb. It was therefore not a difficult decision for President Harry Truman to give the orders to drop the bomb.
The question of what factors led to Jewish dominance in the sciences was addressed more than two decades before the Manhattan Project in a paper, “The Intellectual Preeminence of the Jews in Modern Europe,” published in the 1919 edition of the Political Science Quarterly by the leading political scientist Thorstein Veblen.
In it, he asserted that because the Jews were marginalized in society, they played the role of the “perpetual outsider” who questioned everything, shattering our most cherished assumptions in the process. They had a mentality of detachment and skepticism, the goal of which was the “disinterested pursuit of knowledge.” Einstein’s most radical work was when he was a lowly patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland. If he were a tenured professor, he would have a vested interest in avoiding controversy and defending the status quo.
Does this mean that if Jews were not persecuted and marginalized, they would not perform better than their gentile peers? This is of course disproven by the Jewish experience in America, the most accommodating Diaspora community to Jews in our history. Our contributions to American society, many times greater than our proportion of the general population, touches virtually every sector of our society.
Jews have been the recipients of dozens of Nobel prizes in science, medicine, and the arts. Nine out of the ten Nobel laureates who graduated from the City College of New York were Jews.
Entire industries were founded by Jews. Hollywood, that quintessential American dream factory, was developed by European Jewish immigrants, and it still is dominated by Jewish screenwriters, directors, and producers. Dozens of Jews, led by the Gershwins, Rodgers, Hart, Sondheim, Berlin, Kern, Lerner, Loeb, and others, have dominated the Broadway stage and the Great American Songbook.
The world of finance, with Jewish-founded banks and brokerage firms, are omnipresent on Wall Street and Main Street. Hedge funds disproportionately are run by Jews.
As Jews dominated the clothing industry in the early to mid-20th century, they displayed their wares in fashion theaters known as department stores. In politics, Jews are disproportionately represented in both the House and the Senate, with the latter’s majority leader Jewish.
In technology, Intel was cofounded by the Hungarian Jewish refugee Andy Grove, Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook, and a Soviet Jewish émigré resettled as part of Operation Exodus, Sergey Brin, co-founded Google.
Jews are the most philanthropic ethnic group in America, with billions of dollars provided to hospitals, educational institutions, museums, and Jewish and Israeli causes. It’s estimated that more than 20% of political contributions to the major political parties are made by Jews. And academic institutions that practiced quotas against Jews (some still do) have a disproportionate share of their faculty members of the Jewish faith.
Considering this American Jewish success story, in his “Science, Jews and Culture,” Professor David Hollinger offered a different thesis from Veblen’s marginality, which he considered not relevant for America. Jews had a high literacy rate. Through restrictions on owning land in Europe and elsewhere, they learned trades and how to handle money, with close attention paid to detail, record-keeping, and “facility for abstraction.” They were also mobile and flexible in response to changing circumstances.
In “The Jewish Century,” historian Yuri Slezkine compared the Jews with the fleet-footed mythological character Mercury. Unlike their land-locked gentile neighbors, Jews were “mobile, literate, mentally nimble, and occupationally flexible.”
As capitalism evolved, Slezkine continued, it became an “exchange among strangers with everyone trying with varying degree of success, to play the Jew. Among the most successful were the Protestants in Max Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic.’”
I would add that textual study of the Bible and Talmud, offering differing viewpoints and arguments, sharpen the mind, particularly when students argue points in study groups or chavruta.
All too often, when confronting antisemitic slurs, we spend so much time trying to overcome disgusting tropes about Jews or defending Israel against heinous attacks of committing atrocities or genocide. As co-chair of Agudath Israel’s Combatting Antisemitism Initiative, I asked an executive of a major community relations agency why we don’t put forward the message about Jewish contributions to American society. His answer was that it’s not our job. Other agencies or synagogues should do that. I think that’s short-sighted and reeks of a silo mentality. Providing a positive message about Jews is complementary to attacking the negative message from the antisemites.
Too often we’re portrayed as victims of the Holocaust and antisemitic attacks without the other side of the story. The Pew Study on Jews said that its respondents believed that studying about the Holocaust was the most important educational endeavor. What message does that send to our young people? Our victimhood is more important than the joys of being Jewish or Medinat Yisrael, which are consigned to secondary or tertiary status for study.
The White House strategy on antisemitism includes supporting a Jewish heritage month on the annual calendar. It already exists and is barely visible, lost among Afro-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, and gay celebration months. Has anyone seen Jewish heritage month cited on television? I haven’t.
It’s ironic that when Jews are accused of owning the media, we don’t seem too industrious in honoring
Let’s play offense in showcasing Jewish achievements for American society rather than only playing defense in countering the attacks of the antisemites. We need to do both.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014. He is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation and consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project.