With Coronavirus vaccines on our minds and in more and more Israeli bodies, we return to a perennial mystery that thrills Jew-haters but unnerves many American Jews – although it should thrill American Jews and unnerve Jew-haters. With articles noting that Pfizer’s head scientist Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla, and Moderna’s chief medical officer Tal Zaks are Jewish, the usually Nobel-prize-based question arises: why are so many leading scientists Jewish?
Jew-haters, who have made anti-Semitism the most plastic hatred by twisting any Jewish achievement into fodder for their Jew-hating theories, have a simple explanation. You see! The Coronavirus was just a Jewish (or Israeli) plot. Having spread the virus, Jew can now profit by peddling the cure.
Unfortunately, Jew-hatred intimidates many Jews into downplaying Jews’ disproportionate contributions to humanity, hoping anti-Semites won’t notice. It’s like the New York Jews I grew up with who whispered the words “cancer,” “blacks” or “Jews.” Americans don’t downplay America’s outsized contributions to humanity, hoping the Chinese or Islamists won’t notice; Jews shouldn’t apologize for Jewish successes either.
But therein lies the question – are they “Jewish successes” or merely successes by Jews?
I grew up on tales of another American Jewish super-duper-vaccine-producer, Jonas Salk, who defeated polio. True the story, like today’s, was actually a peculiarly American success amid a massive global effort — by 1955, nearly two-thirds of Americans had donated to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, today’s March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.
Moreover, the Jewish twist to the polio tale pivoted around a scientific duel between Salk and Alfred Sabin. Desperate to defeat this crippling disease – which struck kids — they also feared making lethal mistakes. “When you inoculate children with a polio vaccine, you don’t sleep well for two or three months,” Salk admitted.
Tragically, as Salk’s “dead-virus” vaccine — injecting an inactivated dose to trigger anti-bodies – gained momentum, faulty manufacturing processes caused 250 new cases of polio. Meanwhile, dismissing Salk as a “kitchen chemist,” Sabin saw his approach triumph – thanks to trials he conducted during the Cold War in Soviet Russia, of all places. More scientists trusted Sabin’s “live-virus” vaccine – injecting a weaker mutant strain — while preferring Sabin’s cheaper, easier, oral administration of the vaccination.
Both rivals exemplified American Jewry’s great wave of Eastern-European immigrants. Sabin was born as Abram Saperstein in 1906 in Bialystok, present-day Poland. Salk was born eight years later in New York. In that time’s casual yet crude Jew-hatred, Dr. Tom Rivers, “the father of modern virology,” called Sabin “the smart Jew” and Salk, “the young Jew.”
Millions of us drank Sabin’s vaccine, even as we swallowed the stories of Salk’s heroics. So Salk became the national hero, while Sabin remained the scientific guru, leaving each one frustrated – and jealous.
Two of Jonas Salk’s explanations for this Jewish-science nexus don’t fly today. Expressing his era’s Darwinian, biologically-based, reading of intelligence, he said: “The process of natural selection undoubtedly resulted in a stock that has been passed on to its successors: It gave me whatever qualities were necessary to survive and to evolve.” Then, treating Jew-hatred as a toughening agent, he deemed “adversity … an advantage. Jews have developed an innate wisdom about how to manage to continue to thrive and strive. I could see that in the way my mother brought up her children.”
Fortunately, lethal anti-Semitism has diminished. Most Jewish super-scientists today grew up free. Bar-Ilan University’s Professor Noah Efron, in a gem of a book called “A Chosen Calling: Jews in Science in the Twentieth Century ,” explains that science became the path to success for many turn-of-the-century shtetl-born Jews who moved to Russia’s cities, Palestine’s Yishuv or the golden medina , America. After all, science valued “universality, impartiality and meritocracy.” So it “is not so much what Jews were (smart, bookish) that explains their success in science, as what we wanted to be (equal, accepted, esteemed), and in what sorts of places we wanted to live (liberal and meritocratic societies).”
Efron’s thoughtful history helps explain the continuing connection. Salk was partially-correct. Culture matters. Parental expectations – or abdications – count. Even as the People of the Book spend too much time on Facebook, even as fewer American Jews know what the Talmud is, let alone have minds sharpened by Talmudic casuistry, Jewish culture still values questioning, out-of-the-box thinking, and academic achievement. We applaud the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Isidor Rabi’s mother for not asking “what did you learn in school today” but “did you ask a good question?” We tell Bible stories about Solomon cleverly proposing cutting a baby in two to see who really loved the disputed child. And we joke about death-row prisoners requesting particular ethnic delicacies as a last meal – yet the Jew (or Israeli) orders strawberries. “They’re not in season,” the warden exclaims. The condemned Jew shrugs: “So, we’ll wait.”
It’s also not coincidental that, more recently, science’s “universality, impartiality, and meritocracy” helped Israel bypass boycott and become a technological super-power.
Privately, despite the Jew-haters’ sneers, American Jews track Jewish success stories obsessively. In fact, the American Jewish narrative often slights normal Jews, middle-class Jews, values-driven but not high-net-worth Jews, New York Post Jews not New York Times Jews.
So, no, Jews don’t have some innate scientific genius. The Jewish genius remains appreciating genius Jews, creating a family and communal culture celebrating brains not just brawn, counter-cultural creativity not just convention, and science not just celebrity, be it in the Diaspora or our high-tech Jewish-democratic state.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.