A Non-Jew’s Take On Jewish Achievement


In 2009, Steven Pease, a venture capitalist and CEO from Sonoma, Calif., who specializes in turnarounds, wrote his first book, “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievements” (Deucalion), a thorough compendium of Jewish accomplishments in a wide variety of areas. Pease, a Protestant who came of age during the era of the Holocaust and the birth of Israel, “grew up sympathetic to Jews,” he wrote.

Now, he’s come out with his second book, on a similar theme, “The Debate over Jewish Achievement,” which seeks to explain what he had previously documented. The Jewish Week interviewed Pease by email; this is an edited transcript.

Q: Why does a non-Jew — a self-described “Presbyterian by upbringing, of Scots-Irish, English, and German heritage” — develop such a strong interest in documenting Jewish achievement? In your book, you spend 620 pages citing every conceivable Jewish achievement over the last 200 years.

A: It began with simple curiosity. I have probably had more Jews in my life for longer than most gentiles. From kindergarten through college I had lots of Jewish friends and acquaintances. In 1972, I moved to Miami and spent six years as executive vice president working for a Jewish boss in what was then a Jewish industry (real estate information) with Jewish direct reports and competitors. As a turnaround CEO and venture capitalist I had Jewish board members, employees and CEOs of companies in which I invested.

From all this, my experience was that Jews were disproportionately accomplished. I thought I could probably prove it but I had neither the time, nor the tools (the Internet).

In roughly 2003, I began to track down the data. What I found out was astonishing. The range and breadth of the achievements exceeded my expectations many times over and yet this phenomenon was little known and rarely discussed or written about. So I attempted to write the most comprehensive book on the subject ever published.

Why another book, another 299 pages, on the subject?

“The Golden Age” devoted one chapter (of 26) to a tentative answer to the question: “Why are Jews such high achievers?” If the first book was the definitive answer to the “What?” question, I thought it was time to provide a definitive answer to the “Why?”

Standing on one leg, what’s your explanation of Jewish success — nature or nurture?

Mostly nurture, and by that I mean Jewish culture.

Jews are the highest achievers of the last 200 years, but they are not the only ones. In the ’70s and ’80s the offshore Chinese were remarkable high achievers. More recently, many Asian cultures are becoming high achievers. The Mormons have been very successful as were the 18th- and 19th-century Scotts, the 17th-century Dutch, and many others. What seems clear are the common cultural threads many of them have shared. Most placed a huge premium on education.

The Jews made education mandatory after the Roman Conquest. Most placed a premium on rationality. They believe they can influence their own destiny. They tend to defer gratification and see that as mature behavior. They treasure family, believe in the importance of work, treasure merit, and on and on. In essence what we can learn, promote and emulate are the cultural values shared by all these groups.

You cite stats and stories in all sorts of areas — academia, arts and entertainment, the Olympics, science, etc. — where Jews have excelled. What’s your favorite example?

“The Jazz Singer.” It is my introduction to “The Golden Age” chapter on Hollywood and it describes the making of the first important “talking motion picture” and the Jewish role in inventing the movie industry.