Noah Smith has some thoughts on the chosen people that I thought I would respond to today, as we approach the Sabbath, because TGIS, mensches.

Asking the latest iteration of the Jewish question, namely, “why do American Jews seem to eat a disproportionately large and delicious share of the national reuben?” Noah Smith narrows the question to:

“Do Jews, identified consistently, succeed enduringly well, relative to other religious minorities, relative to other Americans or Europeans, and after taking into account selective immigration and a preference for urbanization?”

He claims this question isn’t interesting; to that I say, nu? Who said it had to be interesting? And also – I do think it’s interesting, because it’s the actual question, and because the actual answer to that question might have some value (as opposed to an answer like “Jews are basically equivalent to Southeast Asian immigrants, except they feel slightly guilty when they eat pork”).

More to the point, I think the crux of this question has to do with the fact that, compared to other groups in world history, Jews are weird. Really weird, frankly.

Firstly, the fact that Jews exist at all, today, is pretty remarkable, and not for magen David-waving reasons like “lots of people whose name started with the letter ‘H’ tried to kill us and seriously eff those guys” though, seriously, eff those guys. Especially you, Hadrian*. Eff you and the Wall you rode in on. Or something.

It’s remarkable that the Jews are still here because, looking at the moment that the Jews were finally displaced fully from their ancestral homeland, one thousand eight hundred eighty one yeqrs ago, there were lots of groups and peoples and religions and polities and states around, and pretty much none of them are around none. Sure, there are those who can more credibly claim some through-line or direct-ish descent from those groups, but pretty few who can straight-up claim to be part of an unbroken substantial continuity of those groups. Have you met any Goths lately? Huns? Been subjected to Roman rule? Parthian? The Jews were expelled from Judea when Christians were still being fed to the lions, when the foundations of European feudalism were still 150 years away, when world maps in the Eastern Hemisphere did not include the Western Hemisphere. There is something uniquely enduring about the Jews, worth acknowledging without acknowledging exactly why, per se.

But taking a narrower perspective, the Jews took a unique path to American immigration. Basically, they came to America in two distinct bunches. First, in the 1850s, came the German Jews. These were the pre-assimilated Jews, relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan, who had basically made it before they even got here. Then, in the 1880s, the Eastern European Jews started arriving alongside all the Germans and Irish and Italians and Poles who were coming in droves. These Jews were the shtetl Jews, the real Fiddler on the Roof Jews, still looking over their shoulders for Cossacks and dybbuks. The now-American Jews who were already here (who, remember, were very assimilated, likely Reform, already wealthy) looked at these new Jews, who were provincial and poor and accustomed to rural life, and said “oy vey, we gotta help these nudniks.” It was half solidarity, half Pgymalion. So they poured money into creating institutions to help these Jews get not merely fed, clothed, and housed, but assimilated and educated and employed. They created Federations and HIAS and Bnai Brith.

So you take a people who have spent nearly two millennia carefully balancing intense in-group solidarity and enthusiastic assimilation and adaptation, with a culture that not only promotes literacy, constructive skepticism, and intellectual engagement in a way that was totally counterproductive economically for centuries and yet has somehow endured in something weirdly close to at least a subset of its ancient form  despite dispersion, assimilation, and persecution; and you bring them en masse to the most tolerant, liberal, and urbanized place on the planet; and you welcome them with an extremely dense network of well-funded and highly-motivated institutions devoted to ensuring their success in their adopted homeland, a homeland that would be uniquely welcoming of said success…

Anyway, Jewish success in the United States is no mystery. Neither, by the way, is the fact of Jewish success – consider that it is a notable decline for a group that comprises 2% of the population to comprise merely 12% of the United States Senate. Jews are a weird case, and not directly comparable even to other “model minority” stories of selection bias.

Now, the question of whether it will endure is another question – this, though, is a question of what constitutes endurance. If, in 50 years, Jews are still wealthy, powerful, and well-represented in major cultural and economic institutions well beyond their numbers, but less so than today, does that represent endurance?

*May his bones be crushed.

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