“GAZA Flotilla Drives Israel Into a Sea of Stupidity” declared the Israeli daily Haaretz on Monday, as though announcing the discovery of some hitherto unknown body of water. Citizens of other nations have long since resigned themselves, of course, to sailing those crowded waters, but for Israelis — and, indeed, for Jews everywhere — this felt like headline news.
Regardless of whether we chose in the end to condemn or to defend the botched raid on the Mavi Marmara, for Jews the first reaction was shock, confusion, as we tried to get our heads around what appeared to be an unprecedented display of blockheadedness. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic cast his startled regard back along the length of Jewish history looking for a parallel example of arrant stupidity and found, instead, what Jews around the world have long been accustomed to find in contemplating ourselves and that history: an inborn, half-legendary agility of intellect, amounting almost to a magical power.
“There is a word in Yiddish, seichel, which means wisdom, but it also means more than that: It connotes ingenuity, creativity, subtlety, nuance,” Mr. Goldberg wrote. “Jews have always needed seichel to survive in this world; a person in possession of a yiddishe kop, a ‘Jewish head,’ is someone who has seichel, someone who looks for a clever way out of problems, someone who understands that the most direct way — blunt force, for instance — often represents the least elegant solution, a person who can foresee consequences of his actions.”
This is nonsense, of course — nonsense to which, I hasten to assure Mr. Goldberg, I have always avidly subscribed. In the aggregate, Jews may or may not be smarter than other groups, but the evidence in favor of granting some kind of inherent or culturally determined supernatural abilities of seichel to the yiddishe kop certainly cannot be found in our history, which is littered as thickly with the individual and collective acts of blockheads as that of any other nation or people or tribe.
... As a Jewish child I was regularly instructed, both subtly and openly, that Jews, the people of Maimonides, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk and Meyer Lansky, were on the whole smarter, cleverer, more brilliant, more astute than other people. And, duly, I would look around the Passover table, say, at the members of my family, and remark on the presence of a number of highly intelligent, quick-witted, shrewd, well-educated people filled to bursting with information, explanations and opinions on a diverse range of topics. In my tractable and vainglorious eagerness to confirm the People of Einstein theory, my gaze would skip right over — God love them — any counterexamples present at that year’s Seder.
This is why, to a Jew, it always comes as a shock to encounter stupid Jews. Philip Roth derived a major theme of “Goodbye, Columbus” from the uncanny experience. The shock comes not because we have never encountered any stupid Jews before — Jews are stupid in roughly the same proportion as all the world’s people — but simply because from an early age we have been trained, implicitly and explicitly, to ignore them. ...
It was this endlessly repeated yet never remembered shock of encountering our own stupidity as a people — stupidity now enacted by the elite military arm of a nation whose history we have long written, in our accustomed way, by pushing to the endnotes all counterexamples to the myth of seichel — that one heard filtering through so much of the initial response among Jews to the raid on the Mavi Marmara.
This sense of widespread shock at Israel’s blockheadedness in the aftermath of the raid seemed not to be confined, in fact, to Jews. Even Israel’s sternest critics will concede that the Jewish state knows how to go about the business of survival in a hostile world with intelligence, ingenuity, creativity, flexibility and preternatural control over the levers of chance and diplomacy (not to mention the global economic system and the news media).
Indeed anti-Semites and the enemies of Israel have often been found among the most devout believers in the myth of seichel, of a special — O.K., a diabolical — Jewish intelligence.
For we Jews are not, it turns out, entirely comfortable living with the consequences of this myth, as becomes clear from the squirming and throat-clearing that take place among us whenever some non-Jew pipes up with his own observations about how clever and smart we are in our yiddishe kops. These include people like the political scientist Charles Murray, author of an influential essay titled “Jewish Genius,” or Kevin B. MacDonald, a psychology professor at California State University at Long Beach who argues that Jews essentially undertook a centuries-long program of self-breeding, selecting for traits of intelligence, guile and skill at calculation, as a kind of evolutionary adaptation to the buffetings of history and exile.
Such claims, in mouths of gentiles, are a disturbing echo of the charges of the pogrom-stokers, the genocidalists, the Father Coughlins, who come to sharpen their knives against the same grindstone of generalization on which we Jews have long polished the magnifying lenses of our self-regard. The man who praises you for your history of accomplishment may someday seek therein the grounds for your destruction.
This is, of course, the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity: the idea of chosenness, of exceptionalism, of the treasure that is a curse, the blessing that is a burden, of the setting apart that may presage redemption or extermination. To be chosen has been, all too often in our history, to be culled.
You can read my response here.