Why are so many winners of the Nobel Prize of Jewish background?

This question is one of those dinner party, or coffee shop, conversations that rises periodically in the course of a social outing with friends. In a similar fashion to a brain-dead zombie, this question put to rest numerous times, only to rise out of its coffin to startling the unsuspecting. This topic arises because it speaks to our deepest anxieties – the seeming connection between race, intelligence and genes. Now the latter topic is too broad and wide-ranging to go into detail here, so let us confine ourselves to the immediate question, posed by the title above. However, it is a matter of record that numerous scientists that have won the Nobel Prize come from a Jewish background.

The conversation usually rears its head as the end point of a series of off-the-cuff observations – Einstein, he was Jewish, right? And Richard Feynman, co-winner of the Nobel Prize in 1965 and author of numerous popular science books – he was Jewish, right? Even scientists that are popularly known but not necessarily winners of the Nobel Prize get lumped into this topic – Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst, he was Jewish, right? And numerous psychologists that have followed in his footsteps, or based themselves partly on his theories – Erich Fromm, Erik Erikson – they were Jews, weren’t they?

The first observation to make in this regard is a statement by Einstein himself, commenting on the status of his theories of special and general relativity. Presenting his theories at the Sorbonne University in 1921, he stated, “If I am proved correct, the Germans will call me a German, the Swiss will call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a great scientist. If relativity is proved wrong, the French will call me a Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German and the Germans will call me a Jew.” Being of Jewish origin in the scientific community was hardly a distinct advantage, given the strong anti-Semitism rampant in Europe in the early part of the 20th century.

Israeli writers have engaged in their own fist-pumping, high-five-boasting, chest-thumping commentary themselves whenever examining this question. This is understandable, given that they are trying to construct an image of the Jewish people being sturdily resilient in the face of numerous obstacles. Having been subjected to anti-Semitic pogroms, outcasts from mainstream society, educational achievement is one way to overcome the impediments of anti-Semitic prejudice.

Numerous theories are proposed to explain this apparent explosion of Jewish domination in the sciences. While there are various nuances and permutations of all those purported explanations, they fall into two broad categories. One is that Jews are possessed of super-DNA genetic material, elevating them into hereditary over-achievers. After all, DNA is the metaphor for our age, particularly since the latter half of the twentieth century is characterised by the monumental growth of genomic research, biotechnology and the human genome project? Did not former Australian Prime Minister, and leader of the Australian Labour Party, state that Australia’s support for Israel was ‘in my DNA?’

Let us dispense with simplistic and utterly ridiculous psycho-gene-babble nonsense about superior and inferior quality genes. The achievement of Jews in the sciences in a completely 20th century phenomenon. Jews were confined to ghettos, driven out of society for centuries in Europe. American psychologists, lawmakers and scientists, confronted by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Imperial Russian empire, regarded the Jews, Mediterraneans, Slavs, and basically anyone who was non-Nordic as intellectual inferior. American policy-makers and educators, steeped in the newly ascendant doctrines of genetic determinism and racial eugenics, were deeply worried that this new stock from Europe would cause a precipitous decline in the American intellectual achievement if they were allowed to settle in the United States. If the Jewish people had super-genes, surely they would have been enthusiastically welcomed into the country obsessed with improving the genetic quality of its human stock.

The second broad category of theories relates to Jewish culture, more specifically to the bookish traditions of the Jewish people. Basically they like hitting the books, driving themselves to excel in education. This sounds nice, partly true by appealing to longstanding cultural traditions, but falls short of explaining why Jewish intellectuals have flowered in the sciences. Back in the ghettos where they floundered for decades, religious education was the main order of the day; studying in the Yeshiva, absorbing ancient texts and the Talmud were all well and good, but that was hardly preparation for tackling the difficult – and at the time burgeoning – scientific fields of biology, geology, and physics. As Jonathan Valk explained in his article for Haaretz magazine, Einstein did not undertake his groundbreaking scientific work on the photoelectric effect (for which he won the Nobel Prize) in the Yeshiva, nor did Sigmund Freud elaborate the basic foundations of what became psychoanalysis by studying religious texts. As Valk goes on to explain:

But we aren’t dealing with something uniquely Jewish as such. Other than a common identity, what is it that unites all of these Jewish thinkers, innovators, and doers? With only the odd and arguable exception, every Jewish Nobel Prize winner has been steeped in the intellectual traditions, mores and values of secular, non-Jewish culture, in addition to whatever attachment they may have had to their Jewish origin.

It is precisely when Jews turn away from the narrow, sclerotic world of sectarian particularism and embrace the humanitarian and educational culture of their host society that enables them to achieve in the sciences. The sciences are based – at least theoretically – on a meritocratic basis, where commitment to investigation, empirical fact-finding and rigorous impartiality allowed minority groups to escape the confines of discrimination and where intellect can grow and develop. Achieving excellence in education, while being its own reward, was also the best way to integrate into the new society of the United States, and achieve acceptance as equal citizens. As Noah Ephron, lecturer in at Bar-Ilan University wrote in his article in Haaretz magazine, education and scientific achievement was the way to achieve what they wanted to become, productive and respected members of the wider community, breaking out of the anti-Semitic confines in which they had been imprisoned in Europe for so long.

This is not to suggest that anti-Semitism and racism evaporated overnight in American universities – far from it. But is was the first place that a minority group could transcend the barriers that had held them down. The mid-twentieth century in the United States provided the first fertile ground where Jews could achieve without the traditional hostility and encumbrances of European anti-Semitism.

The United States had always had a strong scientific sector, but it was the twentieth century combination of circumstances – the wars in Europe and the resultant disruptions they caused, and the newly emerging Cold War – that spurred the US ruling class into action, pushing scientific research as a top priority. Numerous European scientists – Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi – emigrated to the United States, elevating the scientific melting pot occurring in that country. Across the European continent, the USSR loomed large, with its remarkable scientific establishment rising into international prominence, rivaling the traditional centres of scientific research and development in Britain, France, and western Europe. Though devastated by the German invasion, Soviet science and education made significant strides in the mid-twentieth century, frightening the American ruling class with the spectre of a rival, and scientifically advanced, power bloc.

As Canadian blogger and intellectual Stephen Gowans explains:

Soviet accomplishments in space, considered in light of the mistaken view that the USSR was always a poor second-best to the supposedly more dynamic United States, is truly startling. Soviet achievements include the first satellite, first animal in orbit, first human in orbit, first woman in orbit, first spacewalk, first moon impact, first image of the far side of the moon, first unmanned lunar soft landing, first space rover, first space station and first interplanetary probe. The panic created in Washington after the allegedly innovation-stifling Soviet economy allowed the USSR to beat its much richer ideological rival into space galvanized the United States to take a leaf from the Soviet book. Just as the Soviets were doing, Washington would use public funds to power research into innovations. This would be done through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Science research and development became a multicultural agency in the United States in the wake of the Second World War.

There is one other point worth making here, one that Noah Ephron makes in his article – winning the Nobel Prize is a sensational achievement, there is no doubt. However, if a scientist does not win one, it is not worth losing any sleep over it. Nobel Prizes are given to scientists who have done remarkable work, achieved incredible discoveries or formulated revolutionary innovations. Notice that this is in the past tense – they did great work, but their best is behind them. As Ephron states, while not detracting from the importance of winning the Nobel Prize, they are a fading snapshot of bygone days for a scientist.

The current US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, is a physicist. A graduate of Oxford, his specialty is the field of quantum chromodynamics, a theory regarding the strong interactions between quarks and gluons that compose the hadron family of particles. He is also a representative of the military-industrial complex, pushing for a more aggressive US foreign policy, promoting the privatisation of scientific enterprises for further military research, and typifies the fusion of corporate and military power to further the agenda of the US ruling class. While working in the private sector, he held important posts in the government advisory boards promoting greater collaboration between the scientific community, the military and private companies. He speaks and works for the enrichment of defence contractors.

Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize winning physicist of Jewish origin, worked on the development of military technology in the 1960s. He has since become committed to disarmament and dialogue between nations. Gell-Mann is a pioneer in the field of quantum chromodynamics, the subject in which Ashton Carter took his PhD. It is not so important to note whether a scientist is of Jewish or non-Jewish background, but to note the role that they play in the wider community – as a spokesperson for peace, or a technocrat for war and profit. Rather than look back in dismay or jealous rage about the numbers of particular ethnic groups in the sciences, perhaps we should be devoting our collective energies to providing solutions for the economic and ecological problems that confront humanity today. Scientific enquiry and achievement cannot be sustained within the diseased political and economic order of capitalism that condemns larger numbers of people to a pauperised existence.

Europe is a hotbed of ultra-right extremism

The ultra-right anti-immigrant parties are making sweeping gains electorally and politically in Europe since the economic crisis erupted in 2008. While focusing on the threat of Islamic extremism, real or imagined, we have ignored (in some cases encouraged) the growth of a greater and more urgent threat – the ultra-right parties that are targeting working people, ethnic minorities and the most vulnerable sectors of the crisis-ridden capitalist system.

Since the onset of the 2008 breakdown of the capitalist economic system, the political parties and organisations of the Left have been gaining ground. The growth of workers organisations, socialist parties and organised labour in Greece, Spain, Italy, and other European countries points to an encouraging resurgence of resistance to attacks by the capitalist financial elite. More people are recognising that austerity measures means that the burden of economic recovery will be paid by the people suffering from the economic malaise, and the people that caused the crisis are avoiding taking any responsibility.

However, while the Left has reaped rewards from the breakdown of the capitalist order, let us not be complacent – the economic crisis has also seen a surge of support for the ultra-right. The anti-immigrant parties, marketing themselves as ‘Euro-sceptics’, have exploited the grievances of workers and dispossessed people in Europe to make sweeping electoral and political gains.

As the mainstream bourgeois parties roll back the social and economic gains of the post-World War Two European system, privatising health care, education, and removing social benefits, more people are being pushed down into poverty and living in precarious financial circumstances. The ultra-right parties have gained significant traction in terms of their electoral appeal, and have mobilised thousands of members and supporters to influence the political process in various European countries.

To be sure, the ultra-right parties have been organising and active since the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc in 1990-91. They have appealed to the nationalist sectors of the population, railing against the injustices (real or perceived) of a growing European Union. Their populist opposition was always one of anti-immigration, in particular anti-Arab and anti-Islamic racism. Islamophobia is a vote-winner, and the populist appleal against the new and latest ‘outsiders’ has proven to be electorally beneficial. The French National Front has been the best exponent of this strategy.

The ultra-right parties in Eastern Europe have traditionally been anti-Semitic, drawing on the political experiences of these countries during the 1930s and 1940s when they were capitalist nation states. Anti-Semitic politics was a constant feature of the Eastern Europe nations in the inter-war years. With the reintroduction of capitalist in the early 1990s, openly fascistic and ultra-right parties started making a comeback. Cultural nationalism, and hostility to immigration, found an organised political expression. This political current has reached levels of political power in at least one Eastern European capital, Kiev, the Ukraine.

For the first time since 1945, political parties that trace their political lineage to wartime Nazi collaborators have taken key positions of power in a European country. The Kiev regime, installed in early 2014 after a popular uprising against the previous oligarchic government of Viktor Yanukovych, openly lionises those Ukrainians who fought alongside the Nazi German forces during World War Two. These ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic Ukrainians killed Jews, Poles and anti-fascist Ukrainians in their roles as auxiliaries of the German army. The Svoboda party, which forms part of the Ukrainian Right Sector, routinely denounces the presence of Jews, Russians and other minorities in the Ukrainian polity. Stepan Bandera, the wartime leader of the Ukrainian nationalist organisation, led the pogroms against Jews, Russians, Poles and ethnically cleansed the areas he controlled as part of an effort to create a racially pure Ukrainian state. Bandera is currently hailed as a hero by the new far right Kiev government. There are positive references to the ‘Galician SS’, Hitler’s term for those Ukrainian collaborators who carried out his project of ethnic genocide during the war.

While there are no tears for the ousting of the oligarchic Yanukovych regime, who had integrated Ukraine into the capitalist system and traded with the EU and Russia, there are no celebrations for the mass fascistic parties that have taken power in the wake of the 2013-2014 putsch. The Ukraine of Yanukovych walked a fine line between the competing, balancing interests of the European Union and Russia, placating both sides and maintaining the Ukraine as a ‘buffer’. However, with the help of the EU and the United States, the most pro-Rightist forces, openly spouting their brand of anti-Semitism and white supremacism, organised the most politically active and coordinated elements of the anti-Yanukovych uprising. The neo-fascistic groups, happily displaying their white-power and swastika-resembling symbols, became the face of the pro-EU Maidan uprising. The ultra-right groups made no secret of their coordinating role in confronting the previous regime, and organising the uprising politically.

We also cannot ignore the role of the United States and European Union in financing and politically encouraging these ultra-right anti-Semitic parties, ensuring that the Right Sector were at the political heart of the Maidan protests. Imperialist-supported regime change is always a strong element in driving the political directions of mass protests in Europe. It is no secret that major US politicians, like US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, openly supported the Ukrainian ultra-right parties that formed the core of the anti-Yanukoych protests. This corresponds to the general imperialist strategy of incorporating the former Soviet republics into NATO and the western economic orbit. Politically encouraging the ultra-right as a battering ram in Eastern Europe is an integral step in absorbing these states into the imperialist economic and military network.

Not every single person that participated in the Maidan uprising was a card-carrying member of a neo-fascist party, far from it. But when the most politically organised forces are espousing a white-supremacist ideology, ranting against the influence of Russians, Jews, and ethnic minorities, advocating a Hitlerian view of history, and are friendly to the pro-business agenda of the imperialist states, it is all but inevitable that the Kiev regime will gravitate into the orbit of the EU and NATO, a regime in charge of a state right on Russia’s doorstep.

The Yanukovych regime was no friend of the working class, that is certain. That regime was responsible for corruption, maintaining the rule of the oligarchs that have left the Ukraine an economic mess. Yanukovych was part of the oligarchic capitalism that has enriched a tiny handful of billionaires, privatising state assets, and leaving the majority of the population struggling to survive in the post-Soviet capitalist economic order. However, this does not blind us to the fact that the beneficiaries of the Maidan protests have been the ultra-right, mass fascistic parties.

As Seumas Milne pointed out in his insightful article; “So in the week that the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army was commemorated as Holocaust Memorial Day, supporters of those who helped carry out the genocide are hailed by western politicians on the streets of Ukraine. “ Read the entire essay by Milne at The Guardian web site here.

It is not just in the Ukraine that the ultra-right is attaining political success. Hungary has witnessed the rise of its own homegrown variety of fascism, the Jobbik party, with its electoral wing and its paramilitary thuggish branch. Jobbik campaigns on an anti-immigrant, xenophobic platform, and not only wins seats in parliament, but also intimidates its opponents on the streets. Jobbik has contributed to the emergence of anti-Soviet and anti-Russian cultural nationalism in Hungary since the withdrawal of Russian troops in 1989. Winning further success in the wake of the growing capitalist economic crisis, Jobbik has exacerbated anti-Roma sentiments and blamed this particular ethnic group, along with the Jews, for Hungary’s economic doldrums. Any lingering doubts about the racist underpinnings of Jobbik would have been resolved by viewing the leaflets handed out by their supporters. Their campaign literature contained an image from the Easy Rider film accompanied by the slogan ‘Jews are the problem – time to step on the gas!’

Venturing further afield from Eastern Europe, we can see the emergence of a more united, coordinated ultra-right formation across the European continent – a ‘Brown International’ if you will. (Hat tip to Left Flank). In an article by the Greek socialist Thanasis Kampagiannis, the growth and cooperation of various ultra-right parties is examined. Written in January 2014, the author warned of a major electoral breakthrough by far right parties in the general European elections in May – he was proven correct, with the French National Front, exploiting anger about the mounting social costs of austerity, emerging as the big electoral winner in French elections.

After a public relations facelift, the extreme right-wing parties of the National Front led by Marianne Le Pen, and the Dutch Freedom Party headed by the execrable Geert Wilders, announced an alliance of sorts back in November 2013. Couched in the terms of Euro-scepticism, the ultra-right is using the breakdown of the capitalist order, and consequent surge in unemployment, to make significant political gains in the traditionally stable capitalist economies of Western Europe. While they distance themselves from the more openly pro-Nazi parties like the Greek Golden Dawn, they using the same anti-immigrant and populist platform to espouse their views, and they have received a friendly hearing from some mainstream bourgeois politicians as well. The ultra-right of Western Europe, including the Austrian Freedom Party, UKIP in Britain, the Italian Northern League and the Swedish far-right Democrats, have all toned down their more brazen fascistic thuggish image and cultivated an air of political sophistication. However, beneath the veneer of respectability is the strong lurch to the right.

Europe is increasingly resembling the economically and politically chaotic situation that obtained in the 1930s. We are not there yet, however, the coordination of ultra-right parties does present an urgent menace that must be confronted. The article by Kampagiannis above explains that;

If racism was the ticket for the fascist parties to pass from the margins to the central political scene, Islamophobia ensured that their seat would be Business Class. Islamophobia offered the adhesive tissue for the alliance of Le Pen and Wilders.

Open racism ensured that the ultra-right would get a hearing in the parliaments of Europe – Islamophobia guaranteed that they would receive a respectable hearing in the corporate boardrooms and political headquarters of European capital. The outsider enemy was necessary to unite all these disparate formations into a more cohesive force, as encapsulated in the following image from Left Flank;


Hostility to Islamic migration has been the key electoral strategy that ultra-right needed to gain mainstream respectability, portraying themselves as the defenders of Western cultural nationalism from the intrusions of backward outsiders.

The legitimacy of the mass ultra-right parties must be confronted by an organised, multiethnic Left that opposes all forms of racism and xenophobia. It is not migrants or refugees that are responsible for the worst economic crisis in Europe since the end of World War Two. The capitalist class with its programme of neoliberalism and endless war is directly responsible for the privations of the workers and unemployed in Europe. As Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist politician from England explained, ultra-right populism ignores the true causes of pauperisation and war; blaming one minority group after another is a barren and futile exercise. The free-market fundamentalism that drives our economic programme is to blame. We have taken up the warnings about Islamic extremism (real or imagined) in the aftermath of September 11 and the bogus ‘war on terror’, but have ignored the rise of the greater and very real danger of an organised and politically active ultra-right.