Outcry after NYT writer appears to argue Ashkenazi Jews are genetically smarter
In Friday column, Bret Stephens links to 2005 study on Jewish intelligence by controversial scholars tied to white nationalist groups
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens has sparked a firestorm of criticism after he appeared to argue that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically predisposed to have a higher IQ than non-Jews.
In a column published in the paper’s Friday edition titled “The Secrets of Jewish Genius,” Stephens asks, “how is it that a people who never amounted even to one-third of 1 percent of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most pathbreaking ideas and innovations?”
Stephens wrote that the “common answer” was that “Jews are, or tend to be, smart,” and claimed that “when it comes to Ashkenazi Jews, it’s true.” He quoted as evidence a 2005 academic paper that argued “Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data.”
The paper, published in the Journal of Biosocial Science, argued that Ashkenazi Jewish culture and communal behavior during the Middle Ages may have selected for their higher intelligence, as measured by IQ scores — while also causing the genetic disorders unique to the community.
The arguments in the paper are controversial among scientists. One of its three co-authors, Henry Harpending, is celebrated among white supremacists for arguing elsewhere that human civilization has accelerated human evolution outside Africa and left white Europeans genetically predisposed to be more committed to their families and to possess a stronger work ethic than people from sub-Saharan Africa.
“Bret Stephens latest piece is not like the other ones,” wrote US Senator Brian Schatz (Democrat of Hawaii), who is Jewish, in a Twitter post on Saturday about the conservative columnist’s latest piece.
“I mean it is bad, like the other ones, but this one crossed a very important line and for no reason other than to be provocative. Well, consider me provoked,” said Schatz.
Journalist Elizabeth Spiers insisted “there is no way a woman or a person of color would have gotten away with submitting a column that stupid and immoral.”
I said this the last time Bret Stephens wrote a column, but I think it bears repeating: there is no way a woman or a person of color would have gotten away with submitting a column that stupid and immoral. There are vastly superior writers who don't get column space in the NYT…
— Elizabeth Spiers (@espiers) December 28, 2019
In the column, Stephens does not explicitly claim that the achievements of Jews have a genetic basis, saying he has set aside “the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher IQs” in favor of an argument about Jewish culture. Certain habits of the Jewish intellectual tradition and Jews’ outsider sensibilities as a minority community throughout most of their history have given them an advantage as scientific and cultural innovators,” he argues.
But Tim Marchman, an editor at Vice, noted that the 2005 paper cited and linked to by Stephens as evidence of higher Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence argues the opposite, noting that Ashkenazi Jewish IQ scores outstrip Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews who share both the Jewish tradition and their Ashkenazi compatriots’ status as a minority.
“It’s hard to read this column as expressing anything other than a belief in the genetic and cultural inferiority of non-Ashkenazi Jews; it’s hard to tell if that’s intentional or due to appalling sloppiness, but either way it’s not the sort of thing the Times should be running,” Marchman wrote.
Many, including at least one fellow New York Times contributor, called for Stephens to be dismissed over the column.
“Speaking as both an Ashkenazi Jew and a NYT contributor, I don’t think eugenicists should be op-ed columnists,” wrote Jody Rosen.
Stephens has not yet commented publicly on the outcry. He left Twitter earlier this year after somebody mocked him by comparing him to a bedbug.