NZ Jewish achievers

Andrew Stone in the NZ Herald reports:

A new book examines the positive impact of people in New Zealand

Three New Zealand prime ministers have been Jews.

So have two chief justices, six Auckland mayors, the country’s first female lawyer, Ethel Benjamin, and first woman doctor, Emily Siedeberg, who enrolled at Otago University in 1891 with the consent of dean John Scott who told her to give “no encouragement for frivolity”.

The record of achievement from a small community rolls on: in education, the law, arts, business, medicine, civic affairs, philanthropy, architecture and film.

“Punching well above their weight” was the late writer Michael King’s observation about the Jewish community in New Zealand. Art historian Len Bell, co-editor of a handsome, richly illustrated new history of Jews in New Zealand, firmly agrees. The impact, says Bell, of the smart, often secular mid-century professional migrants, displaced by the rise of Nazi Germany, has been vast.

He says many were motivated to succeed, encouraged by family, education and tradition, driven to high levels of accomplishment.

It is not just in New Zealand that members of the Jewish community “punch above their weight”. In New Zealand, only 0.17% of the population are Jewish. This is well below the number of Buddhists, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Brethren and Sikhs. Of course some (such as John Key) are included in the definition “Jewish community” even though he is not of the Jewish religion.

I’m not Jewish myself, but my father’s family are of Jewish descent (but not religion), fleeing Hitler in 1938. I didn’t know this until I was 14, and by coincidence just a couple of weeks ago ran into an old schoolmate I had not seen for 25 years who was indirectly responsible for me finding out my family background. At 14 we were discussing girls of course, and my friend, Nathan, told me that he can only date Jewish girls, as he has to marry within the religion (which I found out he did indeed do). I had not realised he was Jewish, and remarked to my parents when I got home that Nathan was Jewish, and that I had no idea as he seemed so “normal” (remember I was 14). That’s when I learnt my father’s family was Jewish. The trauma of the anti-semitism that culimated in the Holocaust was so great, that it was something that had never been discussed with my late grand-parents. It was only after they passed away, did I learn more of their life in Vienna, and what happened in the 1930s there.

In 1934 the Jewish population of Vienna was around 9%, yet the comprised 52% of the doctors, 86% of the lawyers, 25% of the leather merchants, 75% of the wine dealers, 82% of credit bureaus etc. I suspect this is was partly fueled the anti-semitism, but of course anti-semitism had existed for hundreds of years prior also.

In the US, this “over-achievement” is also profound. Wikipedia cites:

Forty-five percent of the top 40 of the Forbes 400 richest Americans are Jewish. Twenty percent of professors at leading universities are Jewish. Forty percent of partners in the leading law firms in New York and Washington are Jewish. Thirty percent of American Nobel prize winners in science and 37 percent of all American Nobel winners are Jewish. An estimated thirty percent of Ivy League students are Jewish.

Jews make up just 1.7% of the US population. 14 Senators are Jewish, 30 House Reps the same and seven Supreme Court Justices have been Jewish (out of 112 total).

A good book for those interested in Jewish history is The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels.

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