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Aspiring to fulfil the stereotype

Student blogger Jamie Rodney on the myth of Jewish intelligence, and the reality of Jewish guilt

    I’m writing this at 4:15pm on a Sunday afternoon. My room is a mess. No, my house is a mess. I have failed to achieve any of the goals I set myself for this weekend, not even managing to put on some trousers.

    As generally happens on unproductive days like this, my mind is wandering to other things. Namely, the time when, back at school (I won’t say how old I was), a teacher (I won’t say which one), told me “The thing about Jewish students is that they tend to be more hardworking and intelligent than average.”

    I don’t fully remember how I responded to it, at the time, whether I felt amused or just patronised. This particular teacher was famed for his well-meaning eccentricity and ability to digress, and it’s perfectly possible that I got too distracted by whatever monologue about ancient Rome that he launched into after paying me this strange compliment.

    There are more qualified people than me to debate on whether this kind of philosemitism is something that should be welcomed or scorned, but it shouldn’t take much in the way of Hebraic powers of deduction to see why the two thoughts are linked.

    Yes, stereotypes commonly held by some gentiles (and, to be fair, some Jews), about superior Jewish intellect and industry are flattering, but if (speaking of Jewish stereotypes) you’ve got a propensity for self-loathing, it can be something of a double-edged sword.

    I don’t have the strongest of Jewish identities, but even I can’t think of our collective achievements without feeling proud. We made the desert bloom. We make up 0.2% of the global population, but 22% of Nobel Prize winners. Without us, there’d be no theory of relativity and no Facebook, no polio vaccine and no jeans, no Hollywood….and here I am, having watched twelve different YouTube videos today instead of studying.

    Now, to be clear, I’m not saying all Jews feel like this. I’m also not saying that no non-Jews do. What I am saying is that for me, thinking about my Jewish heritage and about my own failings are always intimately linked. To be fair, I’m sure I could work out a way to hate myself even if I wasn’t Jewish, but having so many icons to fail to live up to certainly helps.

    I’ve always had these feelings, but going to University has strengthened them a hundredfold. Partly it’s because of the kind of people (and I mean my actual peers, not random Jewish celebrities) I have to compare myself to. Back at school, I was always near the top of the class, whereas at St Andrews I’m lucky if I end up near the middle. Now, I’m not saying coming second-to-top in my class for Higher English made me think I was more likely to be the next Einstein or Spielberg, but it was certainly a barrier against guilt at my own inadequacies.

    But there’s more about being a student that feeds into this. As I’m sure you’re aware, prospects for young people aren’t exactly stable or promising. Since I was about eighteen, I’ve tried to avoid thinking about that, imagining I’d somehow pull off something brilliant post-graduation that would see me secure myself a future without having to negotiate a dodgy job market. I’m now just about realizing that that wasn’t especially realistic. And that I’m pretty average.

    That’s why I still feel a little awkward judging my old teacher for well-meaning naïveté.

    Jamie Rodney is currently studying at St. Andrews University, and has written for The Tab and Labour Vision

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