‘Lapsed Presbyterian’ Author Carves an Unlikely Niche: Jewish Achievement

November 18, 2015

5 min read

Despite the horrors of the Holocaust, the 20th century was arguably one of the most successful centuries ever for the Jewish people, especially for Jewish Americans who played a pivotal role in the ascendance of the U.S. as a global superpower.

Comprising only about 0.2 percent of the global population, the Jewish people have been disproportionate high achievers in areas such as science, medicine, business, politics, and many other areas. From Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk to the Rothschild family, Jews have made a significant impact on advancing humanity. In fact, Jews have won more than 20 percent of all Nobel Prizes to date.

Author Steven L. Pease, a self-described “lapsed Presbyterian” born and raised in Spokane, Wash., seems like an unlikely individual to discuss Jewish achievement. But throughout his career as a CEO specializing in turnarounds, as well as a venture capitalist and community activist, Pease has had the opportunity to meet many successful Jewish businesspeople and leaders who have influenced his career. This led Pease to write two books on the subject, “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement” in 2009, which chronicles the disproportionate achievements of Jews, and “The Debate Over Jewish Achievement” in 2015, which explores the “why” behind the “what” of disproportionate Jewish achievements.

JNS.org spoke with Pease about his interest in the Jewish people and the discourse over what has led to their success.

JNS: As a non-Jew and self-described “lapsed Presbyterian,” what is your interest in the Jewish people?

Pease: Given my long history of Jewish friends and acquaintances since kindergarten, my initial interest was to explore whether or not my hunch, that Jews are disproportionate high achievers, was true. What I found is simply astonishing and it led to the first book.

So the question is, what has driven the performance? And can we all learn from it? Can we encourage more of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, to be high achievers and contribute in similar ways? I think we can, but first I had to explore it. That is the reason for the second book. More of us need to understand and emulate the values I believe drive the performance. That is how we make the world a better place for all of us.

Much has been written about Ashkenazi Jews and their genetics. Based on your assessment, what is the driving factor behind Jewish success, nature or nurture? Or both?

As with other high achieving groups, there are probably elements of both nature and nurture involved in the performance, but I believe it is much more nurture (culture) than nature (genetics).

In the Jewish case, perhaps the best argument for nature is higher reported Ashkenazi IQs than the average IQs of white Americans and Europeans. However, the counterpart reported IQs of Sephardic Jews are essentially the same as whites. Yet it was the Sephardic Jews who were the disproportionate high achievers during the Spanish Golden Age. It is highly unlikely that genetics can change quickly enough to cause a 10-point IQ drop in the years since.

As explored by academics Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein in their early papers and later book, “The Chosen Few,” mandatory education for Jews has been a critical cultural Jewish value for 2,000 years. It was the Roman conquest and destruction of the Second Temple that ended the Sadducees’ dominance of Judaism and resulted in rabbinic Judaism taking over as the dominant Jewish denomination. Rabbinic Judaism then made education mandatory for all Jews after 70 AD. This, and at the same time the diaspora began to disperse Jews and they ultimately became tiny minority populations living in small enclaves throughout much of the world. Education was to make them valuable wherever they lived.

In the end, culture was far more important in driving the achievements chronicled in “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement.” Nature matters, but culture matters more.

What are some unique things about the Jewish people that you have found make them so successful?

For starters, consider the premium placed on education for 2,000 years. Add the sense that it is what you do in this life that matters, the belief in the importance of free will, choice, and accountability; the premium placed on rationality; tolerance for competing views (as reflected in the Talmud); assertiveness; and verbal skills.

In addition, the values of deferred gratification; the importance of family, a healthy diet, and moderation in alcohol and drugs; a premium placed on skills, autonomy, and independence; tenacity; willingness to be different; and tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Are there any other ethnic or religious groups that share these values?

Interestingly, the same values important to Jews are shared by most of the other high-achieving groups such as Mormons, Basques, Sikhs, many other Asian populations, Ismaili Muslims, as well as American groups of Iranian-, Cuban-, Lebanese-, Indian-, and other hyphenated immigrant Americans, and others.

Do you feel that Jewish culture is superior to other cultures? What can other ethnic or religious groups learn from Jewish success?

No, I don’t, but the mix has helped drive their performance in the same way that Confucian culture helps drive Asians and similar values drive other groups of high achievers. What all of us can do is learn about these values, think about their importance, and encourage ever more people to respect and emulate such values.

What role has anti-Semitism played in Jewish achievement and what role does it continue to play?

I think it has played a big part. I associate it with my belief that we learn more from our hardships and mistakes than we do from our successes and good times. Perhaps the role of anti-Semitism was best described by the late and much-honored British historian Eric Hobsbawm, who was Jewish. He said, “Given equal rights at least in theory, a certain degree of unease in relations between Jews and gentiles proved historically useful.” He meant it drove Jews to stand out, to strive and perform. Discrimination appears to have driven Jews to be more autonomous, to develop and rely on their own skills, to not depend on others that might turn against them at some point.

What has been the reaction among the Jewish community to your books? Have some been afraid that your work may actually cause more anti-Semitism?

There are a range of opinions.

Many feel fearful or threatened because they are afraid my efforts will unleash envy and provoke heightened levels of anti-Semitism. For what it is worth, to my knowledge, my books have never stimulated anti-Semitism of any kind. If anything, the reverse has been true. Non-Jews have become more respectful of the positive contributions of high-achieving Jews.

In more than 25 book presentations, [and] radio and television interviews, I have never had a negative question or reaction. When I have spoken before Jewish audiences, they have been uniformly gracious and friendly. I think they also learned I was not trying to take advantage of Jews by writing about them.

With rising levels of intermarriage and assimilation, do you think that Jews will be able to continue their unique success in the 21st century?

I am worried about this.

I am not too worried about the growth in the numbers of secular Jews. As long as they retain their Jewish cultural values, a disproportionate number of them will continue to achieve greatness. And I am not particularly worried about intermarriage as long as the families retain the values I describe above and they pass those values down.

On the other side of the equation, I have other worries. That is, to the extent the haredi Jewish population is growing quickly, before long it may become the world’s dominant Jewish group. If so, I see a decline in disproportionate Jewish achievement. My concern arises from their inclination to shut themselves off from the secular world and from secular education as well as their seeming disregard for The Enlightenment and The Jewish Enlightenment. There is a huge disparity in college graduation rates between haredi Jews (25 percent) and those of the modern Orthodox (65 percent), Conservative (59 percent), Reform (65 percent), and secular Jews. There are also major differences in rates of poverty and in aspirations toward secular achievements.

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