In a recent WSJ article one finds the following (HT: YE):
5. Wall Street Journal (Ben Rooney), Oct. 24: It is extremely hard not to be a bit star-struck by the Israeli technology scene…. ‘It is Silicon Valley for the rest of the world‘ said Saul Klein, a London-based venture capitalist…. ‘On a scale of one to 10, the innovation I see in Germany would be close to zero. In Israel, it is a 10,’ said Mark Tluszcz, co-founder of Mangrove Capital Partners, a Luxembourg-based venture firm…. What’s the secret? Reasons include the role of the Israeli Defense Forces, and in particular the high-tech Unit 8200; the unique cultural values of a country forged from centuries of oppression; and Jewish mothers…. The link with America remains as strong as ever. If you look at the flight schedules into Tel Aviv, there are just three direct flights a week from Beijing, and another three from Seoul. There are at least that many a day from the U.S.”
Lots of explanations available. I tend towards the one about the Jewish culture of dispute, and the way that one is encouraged to ask challenging questions. About which, two anecdotes and a thought:
1) The first time I studied Talmud, I learned with a venerable and brilliant man, Rabbi Abraham Lappin. At the end of a long passage in which we read carefully and exhaustively not only Rashi’s commentary by that of every Tosafot, he asked us if we understood. We all nodded dutifully. To which he replied, “no you don’t.” When he saw the pained look on our faces, he added, “if you did, you’d have questions.”
2) On a plane from Israel to Germany in the late 1990s, sitting next to an Israeli businessman with factories in Germany and Israel. “Is there a difference between Israeli workers and German workers?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “if I ask a German worker to do something, he says, ‘Yes boss.’ If I ask an Israeli worker to do something, he says, ‘Why do you want to do that?’”
3) This is intimately linked to the difference between honor-shame dynamics and integrity-guilt. I you view challenges as attacks on your “face”, as forms of zero-sum one-upsmanship, then questions from subordinates is insubordination; if you take challenges as occasions to up your game, as potentially positive-sum ways to learn from an exchange with another person who may have a different and valuable perspective, then such questions are opportunities.
When Abba Eban said, “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” he got is somewhat wrong. For them, positive-sum encounters in which both sides win (i.e., Israel also wins) are not viewed as opportunities, but decisive defeats in the zero-sum world of honor lost (by Israel’s successful resistance and survival), and the overriding need to regain face by destroying her.
One man’s opportunity is another’s shame… at the core of the difference between innovative and productive cultures on the one hand, and cultures of impoverishment on the other.
UPDATE: Apparently Dawkins is puzzled by the phenomenon. In an interview with the New Republic he admits:
RD: …the number of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes is phenomenally high.
IC: OK, but what do you make of that?
RD: Race does not come into it. It is pure religion and culture. Something about the cultural tradition of Jews is way, way more sympathetic to science and learning and intellectual pursuits than Islam. That would have been a fair comparison. Ironically, I originally wrote the tweet with Jews and thought, That might give offense. And so I thought I better change it.
IC: I still want to know what you draw from this. Do you think the Torah is more progressive than the Koran?
RD: No, I doubt it. I don’t think that.
Of course he has no idea; and like Christopher Hitchens, his exposure to the Hebrew Bible is via his Anglican teachers whom he apparently disliked intensely. A Christian lens, especially one formed in the crucible of invidious identity formation, is not the way to find out just how “progressive” the Torah is.
And I don’t think that the key is in the text (although that’s critical), but how the community reads the text. The culture of dispute is unquestionably encouraged by the text – think of Abraham arguing with God about just how much innocent collateral damage is acceptable to punish the guilty – but unless that is embodied in the relations of the community, the idea has no life.
IC: So then what?
RD: I haven’t thought it through. I don’t know. But I don’t think it is a minor thing; it is colossal. I think more than 20 percent of Nobel Prizes have been won by Jews (24% of Science).