Jewish culture 101 – The Lucky Few?

By Zuzanna Mietlińska 

Why Jews are overrepresented in competent positions

It’s not anti-Semitic to ask why there is a disproportionate number of ‘economically successful’ people of Jewish origin in relation to their population. Jews make up more than 1/5th of the world’s Nobel Prize winners (including over 40% in economics) and 20% of the world’s richest 50 people. The fact that a relatively small population has specialized in the most profitable occupations for years is abused in order to demonise and antagonise Jews. But a curious question remains, and must be answered – at least partially. 

Answer 1: Jewish education

One of the answers to the problem can be the incomparable importance of Jewish education. “We studied for our college entrance exams for a thousand years!” – said Albert Einstein once in an interview. But what did he mean?

The Torah is often described as an endless spring of information, and different religious texts complete the sacred lines with extensive, built over centuries, commentary which develops, complements and clarifies different dilemmas that may come to the mind of a careful reader. Multifarious religious authorities explain its complexity, contributing to Rabbinical Jewish tradition, but it is not only them who are responsible for creating this ethos of perpetual studying! Every Jewish man can, in fact, contribute, and is encouraged to do so. Children in cheders are being taught by a method not used in the Western world. Instead of reading the texts carefully by oneself, you are taking part in a heated, one-on-one debate over different pesukim, so that your knowledge and reflections can be directly confronted by a different student. A student can overstride his teacher! 

It is said in Mishneh Torah, that there is an inalienable responsibility of a man to teach his kids, but also his grandkids – which can be interpreted as teaching future generations on how to obey the Law, and how to worship God. Not only that; you should also teach yourself, and the teaching is even more important than marriage –  first comes studying, then getting married. Here, you can observe the veritable obsession with gaining knowledge, and every man should study, regardless of his wealth – that is egalitarian at its core. How much time should you study? Until your death, for about 10 hours a day, and ideally at night. An ideal student should have a simple disposition, not be arrogant, for obvious reasons of being a blameless, diligent student. An ideal teacher should be steady and non-wrathful and should not intimidate his learners. 

It was also a common practice to hit a student if he does not obey his duties, and to stand in a cold water bucket, so as to avoid falling asleep during long classes. It is not permitted, on the other hand, to charge for the lessons, and the teacher’s job is to engage and arouse the interest of the students actively. There is no ascetic ideal in Judaism, but it is said that studying the Torah should be one’s meal. But at the same time, this pursuit should not be beyond one’s capabilities – studying belongs to Earth. 

One could say that the prioritisation of education allowed the first generation of Jewish immigrants in the United States to overcome obstacles such as crime and poverty to take an obvious example. Learning turned out to be a key to a brighter future.

And taking a couple steps back to line out a broader, historical perspective – although the dearness of education has proved to be a relatively bad investment for the future, Jews were religiously dedicated to an ideal of constant study. If they did not obey the idea of sending offspring to school, they were considered dissidents in their community. Thus, Jews were able to bear higher-paid offices and established small-scale businesses that were handed down to the next generations accordingly.

Answer 2: Religious incentives

But being literate and peer-pressured to study does not answer the question fully. Can the key to success be found in the principle of Judaism?

In his book “Jewish Business for Business Success” Rabbi Levi Brackman has delineated an interesting point of view on Jewish “triumph” in many economic areas. The list of positive attitudes for businessmen encouraged by the Torah includes a special approach to failure, will power and honesty, all deeply rooted in the sacred texts. 

What Torah teaches you first and foremost, is to “Love your neighbour like yourself” (Lev. 19:18) – it is important to empathize with the client, to treat him or her the way you want to be treated, in order to keep customer service at a high rate. Secondly, “Do not (…) put a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14) –  a devoted Jew will not benefit from a client using dishonest and unfair methods of earning. Thirdly, “He who loves instruction loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid” (Proverbs 12:1) – being humble and listening to constructive criticism is another key to success, building a positive reputation based on evaluation. Then, „Know what is above you: an eye that sees” (Ethics of the fathers 2:1) – remember that there is a higher power that sees and assesses your deeds, whether you like it or not. 

These principles hold one’s horses and help an individual to pursue success based on positive attitudes and good habits. But are they always obeyed?

Answer 3: Societal conditioning

Probably the most prevalent idea on the topic, and a source of many misconceptions about the so-called “Jewish nature”, is when money-lending in Medieval Times preserved an upsetting stereotype of a “stingy Jew”. In short, Jewish usurers were encouraged by two coexisting factors to choose their proficiency: high tax burdens on landholding, and little to no risk in money-lending jobs, with an incentive to earn as much on an interest, as the market allowed. In the 12th and 13th century, the Christian Church, with many exceptions, disqualified lending money among fellow believers. Jews became bankers and financiers, filling in the positions that were needed to be held in a healthy society. The shift to an urban lifestyle among many was a result of high-skilled job opportunities, now flowering among the better educated. Network abilities in Jewish communities, tightened by hundreds of years in diaspora, have proved to be very effective in usury and merchant businesses, as they worked out as a communication network. All in all, it was the societal conditioning that demarcated the line historically but also created harmful stereotypes, that remain to this day. 

There is no clear answer to the question of Jewish overrepresentation in high-skilled, economically profitable areas, such as law, medicine or accounting. There are many factors that have contributed to this fact, both socially and historically, among which education, religion and socio-economic burdens seem to contribute. However, it is important to remember that by continuing to highlight the apparent ‘overrepresentation’ of Jews in such positions, it becomes easy to perpetuate stereotypes that have harmed the Jewish community for centuries – with every concept, there goes an obvious simplification. Because who did not hear of a Zionist Occupation Government and other stories, which can be successfully put among tales of Cinderellas and Snow Whites…

Edited by Yasmina Al Ammari

Artwork by Chira Tudoran