Just as Hanukkah is wrapping up and the decade is drawing to a close, The New York Times simply had to eke out one more mistake in the form of Bret Stephens’ new op-ed. Conservative columnist Stephens penned a column praising Ashkenazi intelligence while citing an article co-authored by Henry Harpending. Harpending, who died in 2016, was a eugenicist and white supremacist who argued that certain races (primarily Africans and African Americans) were less intelligent and capable than others. As English majors like to say, there’s a lot to unpack here.
First, the op-ed should never have gone to print. The editor and fact-checker’s jobs are to ensure that racist pseudoscience and patently false information are not spread as if they are fact. The New York Times redacted the citation within the article after its publication, but that doesn’t change the fact that Stephens’ article is based on eugenicist concepts. Even if the article had never gone to print, its basis indicates racism on Stephens’ part, which should have given the editorial team pause. Clearly, it did not.
Second, there’s the issue of a Jewish man using eugenics to laud the achievements of white-passing Jewish people. Before the Holocaust, the Nazis used eugenics, or “racial hygiene,” to enact policies meant to stamp out people they deemed “lesser” than the ideal aryan race. These policies led to the dehumanization of people with developmental disabilities (who are often still the targets of eugenics) and Jewish people, as well as other “undesirables.” Eugenics is a science of genocide, and its presence in an article about the intelligence of a specific group of Jewish people is worrisome at best.
Ashkenazi Jews are not the only Jews that have improved society and the world. Sephardic Jews, black Jews and Mizrahi Jews all have made contributions within the Jewish community and the world as a whole. Jews of all ethnicities are united by their combined faith, and singling out the group most often perceived as white indicates something sinister lurking beneath this ostensibly harmless op-ed.
Ashkenazi Jews have made great strides within STEM and art fields, but that is not due to their biological makeup. Arguing that a certain group is genetically superior to other groups is textbook eugenics and has no scientific standing. Furthermore, the insinuation that one group is superior insinuates that other groups are lesser, which is just racism. It’s not creative, it’s not factual and it’s not fair.
I understand the desire to highlight Jewish achievement. However, if that spotlight comes only with the quashing of other races and ethnicities, including other Jews, it is undeserved. Stephens’ op-ed is shrouded in racism and any representation or benefit he may have intended is overshadowed by that. The New York Times has indicated, once again, that it does not have the best interests of the diverse Jewish population at heart. I’m interested to see if the backlash toward Stephens’ op-ed will prompt the editorial team to rethink their fact-checking process.