“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.
An honest assessment of Jewish history must conclude that even the collective act that might seem most tellingly to argue in favor of Jewish intelligence — our survival across millenniums in spite of constant hatred, war, persecution, intolerance and genocide — is ultimately just the same trick performed by our species as a whole (at least so far).
The presence of Jews among the not-yet-extinct peoples of the world can no more be credited to any kind of special trait or behavior than the Tasmanians or the Taino ought to be blamed for their own eradication. In the end human survival is a matter of luck — or destiny, if you prefer — of decisions taken in distant capitals in vanished eras that bore unforeseeable fruit 200 years on, of chaotically intersecting systems of weather, metaphysics and pandemic, of the failures and weaknesses and limitations of our would-be destroyers.
We construct the history of our wisdom only by burying our foolishness in the endnotes. To imagine a Chelm — the town inhabited, according to Ashkenazi Jewish folklore, entirely by fools — requires a presumption of general wisdom elsewhere, as the proper imagining of Heaven requires an earthly realm of sorrow.
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. A stupid Jew is like a hole in the pocket of your pants, there every time you put them on, always forgotten until the instant your quarters run clattering across the floor.
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.
This is the ambiguity that cites the dispensation of God and history, of covenant and Holocaust, to lay claim to a special relationship between Jews and the Land of Israel, then protests when the world — cynically or sincerely — holds Israel to a different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.
This is the ambiguity that proudly asserts the will and the obligation of Israel to be a light unto the nations, then points to the utterly evil, utterly bankrupt, utterly degraded, utterly stupid misdeeds of ship-sinking, sailor-massacring North Korea — North Korea! — in an attempt to give context to its own relatively less-evil, bankrupt, degraded and stupid behavior.
Now, with the memory of the Mavi Marmara fresh in our minds, is the time for Jews to confront, at long last, the eternal truth of our stupidity as a people, which I will stack, blunder for blunder, against that of any other nation now or at any time living on this planet of folly, in this world of Chelm. Now is the moment to acknowledge that the 62-year history of Israel, like the history of the Jewish people and of the human race, has been from the beginning a record of glory and fiasco, triumph and error, greatness and meanness, charity and crime.
The past two decades in particular have illustrated to Jews and to the world a painful premise, but one that was implicit in the Zionist idea from the beginning: If, in the words of the 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish people have a natural right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state,” then the inescapable codicil of this natural inheritance is that the Jewish people, “like all other nations,” are every bit as capable of barbarism and stupidity.
IF Israel was, as the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann put it, to “become as Jewish as England is English and America is American,” then, like England and America and every other modern polity, Israel must slog along through history, purblind and panicky, from its founding to its ultimate fate, prey at every moment to — and, God willing, on guard against — its rich, inglorious human heritage of blockheadedness.
After my initial shock at this fresh display of foolery by the Chelmites of Jerusalem had subsided, I felt an abstract pity for the wasted dead with their cargo of lumber and delusions, for the ill-equipped, poorly led soldiers who had killed them and, running true and clear like a subterranean stream, pity for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas the past four years, and his family. But I also felt a kind of grim relief, even resolve.
Let us shed our illusions, starting with ourselves, whoever we are and however august our inheritance of stupidity. Let us not forget the eternal hole in our human pocket. Let us not, henceforward, judge Israel or seek to have it judged for its intelligence, for its prowess, for its righteousness or for its moral authority, by any standard other than the pathetic, debased and rickety one that we apply, so inconsistently and self-servingly, to ourselves and to everybody else. And let us not forgive ourselves — any more than we forgive Israel, or than Israel can forgive itself — for that terrible inconsistency.
Michael Chabon, the author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.