Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The following article, which I wrote on the occasion of the Nobel prize ceremony in Stockholm earlier this month, appeared in the latest issue of The Jerusalem Report:
Give me your bright, your noble...
Just as anti-Semites enjoy “proving” that Jews control the world or parts of it, some of us love to glory in “our” contributions to mankind. On you can see lists like “Jews in chess,” “ Jews in sociology,” and of course “Jewish Nobel Prize winners”. Of all Nobel Prize winners, the site says, 22 percent are Jewish or “half-Jewish,” though we make up only approximately 0.25 percent of the world population.
What is more interesting than such ethnic-religious statistics, though, is the fact that so many of the Nobel Prize winners, Jewish and non-Jewish, come from emigrant families or are emigrants themselves. The biographies of the winners of this prize of prizes, which can be found on, are fascinating. A total of 776 individuals and organizations won the prize since 1901. Let’s narrow that down to the 564 winners of the prizes for chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, and economic sciences, since the choice of winners for the peace and literature prizes is less objective and has often been controversial.
In many of the life stories we read that the scientists, their parents, grandparents or ancestors moved to a foreign country – mostly the United States, but also Great Britain, France, Israel and other countries – in search of a better or safer life. I found at least 148 winners who for one reason or another left their native country for good, 52 whose parents were emigrants, and 24 whose grandparents emigrated. Americans – virtually all of whom are immigrants or descended from immigrants – make up the majority of scientists whose biography does not specifically mention some sort of migration.
Several Nobel laureates are Holocaust survivors. Some of them fled or were sent to the United States or England before World War II broke out – for instance economist Robert Aumann (Israel’s representative in Stockholm on December 8), and Walter Kohn (Chemistry 1998). Others survived the war in occupied Europe, such as Daniel Kahneman (Economics 2002) and Rita Levi-Montalcini (Medicine 1986).
But not only Jews appear as refugees in the biographies. For example, the ancestors of at least three laureates were Huguenots who arrived in America after having fled religious persecution in France. Also, not all the migrants are refugees. Often a scientist simply went abroad – again, mostly to the U.S. – to puruse his or her research or a job offer.
Clearly the work that turned these 564 scientists into Nobel Prize winners constitutes only a small part of outstanding human endeavors and achievements in the last century or so. And clear, not all migrations have been a blessing for the immigrants themselves or for the countries that received them.
Still, the biographies of the Nobel laureates suggest that there is a certain connection between a country’s intellectual freedom, religious-political tolerance and hospitality on the one hand, and its prosperity, scientific and cultural bloom on the other. That more than 250 out of the 564 prize-winners are Americans can hardly be a coincidence. Whatever this says about American institutes of higher learning and research, there might also be a link to the U.S. being a country of immigrants.
The U.S. is not an isolated example. In the Netherlands’ Golden Age, the Dutch economy and cultural life thrived partly because of the country’s colonial enterprises but also as a result of its reputation for tolerance, which attracted many Jewish and Protestant refugees. Something similar is true for the Muslim world: it reached its zenith when in some respects its tolerance outdid that of Europe.
These days many Westerners tend to see immigrants – and particularly the Muslims among them – as a burden and a threat rather than as a source of fresh blood that can help to invigorate our societies. An economic recession and stereotyped ideas but also Islam’s apparent lack of adaptability and Islamist terrorists can be blamed for this.
Nevertheless, the U.S. and other Western countries should not give in to Islamist terror by turning themselves into inaccessible fortresses. Obviously we cannot afford to let terrorists abuse the openness and tolerance of our societies, yet we have to remember that these remain two of our most powerful assets, which should be cherished and defended, not sacrificed in our war against terror. Allowing the fanaticism of others to erode our own tolerance and hospitality weakens us and lets the terrorist have their way.
As for us Jews, it is clear that as immigrants who contributed to the countries that received them we form part of a larger whole. For good reason, some immigrant groups abroad look at the local Jewish communities to learn about their own integration and advancement. If we could help Muslims and other minorities integrate more successfully into Western societies, that would be one of our most significant contributions to humanity in the 21st century.

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