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Nature or Nurture? Well, Smart Guy?

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The forum at the usually sober American Enterprise Institute yesterday started off with a bit of Borscht Belt humor. AEI adjunct fellow Jon Entine displayed a cartoon of a tablet-carrying Moses looking incredulously toward the heavens.

"Now, let me get this straight," the bearded figure says. "The Arabs get the oil, and we have to cut off the ends of our what?"

Don't get it? Must be your goyishe kop. For two hours yesterday, two AEI scholars and a visiting bioethicist kibbitzed about a pressing cause: Why Jews are so doggone smart.

Entine, author of the new book "Abraham's Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People," argued that genetic mutations gave Jews very high IQs. "If you had one of these mutations" -- such as those that cause Tay-Sachs disease -- "it probably could cause high intelligence," he asserted.

Fellow AEI fellow Charles Murray suggested that the rigors of Talmudic study drove out the dull Jews centuries ago. "If you were dumb and a Jew," said the philo-Semitic Murray, "it was a lot easier to be a Christian." Murray, best known for his incendiary book about race and intelligence, "The Bell Curve," explored Jewish smarts in an April article in Commentary titled "Jewish Genius."

Brought in to rebut the two scholars, Laurie Zoloth of Northwestern University floated an alternative notion: that "Jews are smart because we value learning."

Left unchallenged was the question of whether Jews are indeed smarter than others -- even though it would have only required a walk down the hall to the office of new AEI visiting fellow Paul Wolfowitz, whose leadership on the Iraq war and conflicts of interest as head of the World Bank demonstrate that Jews are capable of questionable judgment.

Of more concern: whether Jews should brag about their big brains, even if studies show them to have high intelligence. "You've got to talk about these things carefully," said Murray, who learned the hard way. "Only an Iowan raised as a Presbyterian could get away with talking about Jewish IQ the way I can because Jews get so embarrassed about Jewish IQ: 'We know we're smart but don't tell anyone else.' " By coincidence, the AEI forum came on a day that was rather good for Jews in Washington.

At the Czech Embassy, leaders of the Jewish advocacy group B'nai B'rith were feted by the Czech ambassador after a day of discussions on such topics as "Democratic and Republican Stances on Current Jewish Issues."

Over at the Heritage Foundation, the think tank devoted an hour-long forum to Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, to discuss his new book. Rebutting what he called an anti-Semitic tract by two academics, Foxman argued that Jews do not control American foreign policy.

It would have been harder to deny the claim that Jews controlled the AEI conference room yesterday.

"The book is not only good for the Jews, it's good for all of us," moderator Sally Satel said as she introduced Entine.

Entine, in his opening remarks, mentioned another source of Jewish pride: the Vulcan gesture made by Spock in "Star Trek." It was, he said, a symbol used by Jewish high priests that Leonard Nimoy learned in synagogue.

Then there was the case of Henry Louis Gates Jr., the prominent African American writer and scholar, who had his DNA tested and, Entine said, "found out he's got a Yiddishe mama."

Entine flashed a slide titled "Smart Jews" and another announcing "Mozart and Einstein IQ>160. What about yours?" The genetically high IQ, he argued, "could be one of the explanations for why Jews overachieve in so many areas among Nobel laureates, winners of chemistry prizes, mathematics prizes, number of professorships in academia."

All this might be traced, Entine said, to diseases that afflict Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe; these genetic mistakes "may promote the growth and interconnection of brain cells." "This is highly debated," the author admitted. "You're suggesting there could be a genetic basis to intelligence and it could be found more in one population than another."

It was not controversial with Murray, however. His only beef was that Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal were smart, too. "You had not only Maimonides . . . you had Jews prominent in business, you had Jews who were advisers to the court," he argued. "Many historians attribute in part the subsequent decline of Spain and Portugal to the fact that they got rid of their Jews." He further credited Jews for the rise of the Netherlands and noted that "one of my thesis advisers at MIT was a Sephardic Jew."

Murray suggested that Jews got smarter by urbanization ("the elevated Jewish IQ was making people money"), flight from Babylon ("they took the smart ones into exile") and what he called "the ultimate hypothesis" that Jews are really "God's chosen people."

Zoloth avoided a direct challenge to Entine and Murray, only suggesting that nurture may have as much to do with Jewish nature. She also cautioned that conversations about racial differences have "historically turned to hatred" -- including a hatred of Jews.

Yesterday, however, there was no hatred in the room, only a bit of navel-gazing. "What's interesting about this is why we're so mesmerized," Zoloth said. "Why are we so mesmerized by Jews, by the topic of Jewish chosenness?"

Smart question.

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