George Gilder’s enthusiasm has always been infectious. In his recent book it is feverish. His 1981 bestseller Wealth and Poverty became the most influential tract of the Reagan era because his passion for the possibilities of capitalism inspired readers in a way that deeper texts could not. From economics Gilder wandered into technology, with mixed results. He became a tech-stock guru in the 1990s, promoting the endless possibilities of what he dubbed the “telecosm.” His newsletter touted stocks that vaporized in the subsequent tech bust. Late in 1999, just before Internet stocks crashed, he wrote, “I don’t think Internet valuations are crazy. I think they reflect a fundamental embrace of huge opportunities.”
As a social critic and economist, Gilder initially benefited from the overconfidence of the autodidact, following his nose to original conclusions. Over time, though, he appears to have persuaded himself of a crankish Grand Theory of Everything conflating capitalism, religion, and science. He dabbled in the fever swamps of creationism and took an increasingly mystical view of the impact of computation and telecommunications. His present book tries to blend his infatuation with the state of Israel with his quasi-religious view of technology, and in reading him it is hard to avoid the impression that he thinks the Jewish religion is a good thing because it promotes the higher goal of capitalism and scientific advancement.
There are some good things in The Israel Test (Richard Vigilante Books), or, rather, things that might have been good if they had been in a different book or were in fact better when they appeared in earlier books. Gilder includes a good deal of anecdotal material about Israel’s high-tech entrepreneurs, for example, although this ground is covered better in Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s Startup Nation.
This book’s good things otherwise include his appreciation of the failure of the so-called peace process, a story he retells with gusto. He tells it so well, in fact, that it may seem peevish to dwell on the book’s eccentricities. But Gilder is too important a writer to patronize with a pat on the back for taking (in this reviewer’s sight) the right side of Israel’s war with terrorists. Where Gilder is at his most original—in his discussion of science and particularly “Jewish science”—the book gets inextricably into quicksand.
Gilder is so eager to find a connection between “Jewish science” of the 1920s and Israeli technology of the 2000s that he fails to notice the obvious. He barely mentions the most visible cause of Israel’s technological miracle: the mass immigration of Russian scientists and engineers to Israel during the 1990s. Yet this was decisive for the country’s subsequent preeminence in high-tech industry. As Reuven Brenner wrote in the January 2010 issue of First Things:
Israel was the beneficiary of immigration “shock.” Of the million Russians who moved to Israel during the 1980s and 1990s, more than 55 percent had post-secondary education, and more than half held academic and managerial positions in their former country. Fifteen percent were engineers and architects, 7 percent were physicians, 18 percent were technicians and other professionals, and 8 percent were managers. By 1998 Israel had 140 scientists and engineers per 10,000 members of its labor force. This made Israel the world leader in the scientist and engineer workforce, followed by the United States with 80 and Germany with 55 scientists and engineers per 10,000 members of its labor force.
A great deal of Israel’s scientific manpower was trained by the Communist educational system. Israel’s moral character—the fact that it outlasted Soviet Communism and provided a home for Russian Jews—made it into a technological superpower, but the fact that an intellectual windfall from the collapse of Soviet Communism might explain Israel’s economic leapfrog does not fit well into Gilder’s thesis of a grand nexus linking Jewish religion, science, and Israeli economic power. The topic of immigration (about which Gilder has written convincingly in other contexts) does not even merit an index entry. No fact is too obvious for him to overlook if it does not square with his Grand Theory.
Is there indeed such a thing as “Jewish science”? The Nazis invented the idea and might have lost the Second World War by persecuting Jewish scientists, many of whom went on to build America’s atomic bomb and other wartime technologies. With the most philo-Semitic of motives, Gilder also believes in Jewish science. Jewish genetic superiority, in his account, fostered Jewish physics, which Israeli entrepreneurs turned into a technological miracle. Everyone else is jealous of Israeli success, and anti-Semitism therefore is a variant of the jealousy that always attends entrepreneurial success. This must be one of the most eccentric constructs to appear under the byline of an important public intellectual in recent years.
There are two egregious errors in Gilder’s panegyric. First, he perceives a direct link between Jewish faith and modern physics.
As epitomized by [the mathematician John] von Neumann and Einstein, European Jewish scientists of the time possessed a passionate faith in the coherence of the cosmos. Underlying, suffusing, informing, and structuring the universe, so both believed, is rationality and meaning. In its way, it was a religious faith as formidably fecund as the Jewish monotheism of the Torah from which it ultimately stemmed, and it founds its liturgy in the logic of mathematics.
Einstein’s greatest attainments, general relativity and the equivalence of energy and mass (E=MC2), were expressions above all of his monotheistic faith, more intense than any rabbi’s, that the entire universe epitomized a profound inner consistency and logic, embodied most purely in the aesthetic beauty and wholeness of mathematics.
Ignore the condescending comment that Einstein’s faith was “more intense than any rabbi’s.” The notion that rationality is embodied in the aesthetic beauty and inner consistency of nature is not Jewish, but Greek, and, specifically, Plato’s. Einstein famously declared his belief in “Spinoza’s God,” that is, a God who is nature and is revealed in nature’s inherent harmony. Spinoza may have been Jewish, but he rejected biblical revelation in favor of a strictly natural religion and was expelled from the Jewish community of Amsterdam for heresy. There is nothing new in Jews’ becoming leading exponents of an alien ideology; in the Viennese joke, “Anti-Semitism was getting nowhere until the Jews got behind it.”
Second, Gilder also wants to make quantum theory “Jewish”: “Flowing around the globe, devoid of the repulsive force of nationality, the largely homeless Jewish intellectuals honed in like neutrons into the nuclei of the most receptive centers of Western science and technology,” he rhapsodizes.
There they galvanized the energies that won the war, shaped the piece, and transformed the global economy and the scientific culture of the age. . . .
With the rise of quantum theory came the ascendancy of Jews in science, led by Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, and Max Born. In the post–World War II era, Richard Feynman became the paramount teacher and interpreter of quantum theory. . . . From quantum theory ultimately issued IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Google, Sony, and Qualcomm. From quantum theory, too, would spring forth—from the wretched wastes of communism and feudal paralysis—the vast new energies of China, India, and the rest of increasingly capitalist Asia.
But there is barely a mention in Gilder’s book of the creator of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg, a protégé of Bohr’s who went on to head Hitler’s atomic-bomb program after receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1932. Leaning on the Jewish mathematician Max Born (who received his Nobel in 1952), Heisenberg in 1927 created the modern matrix formulation of quantum mechanics. That decisively shifted physics away from Einstein’s intuitive aesthetics toward a probabilistic mathematics that had no ambition to portray the world as it really was, let alone to produce aesthetic pleasure. The Bohr-Heisenberg approach became known as the “Copenhagen interpretation,” and Einstein hated it to his dying day.
At the 1927 Solvay physics conference, where the Bohr-Heisenberg interpretation triumphed, Einstein thundered, “God does not play dice with the universe,” to which Bohr replied, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.” Einstein spent the rest of his life in a useless quest to reconcile the probabilistic world of quantum mechanics with the deterministic world of relativity. Heisenberg and Bohr remained friendly until 1941. Bohr (a Lutheran whose mother was of Jewish origin) remained in Denmark until 1943, when his background put him at risk.
Born’s pragmatic approach to matrix mathematics was no more “Jewish” than Einstein’s Platonism. The simple fact is that Jews are represented on all sides of every major debate in twentieth-century science. But once George Gilder falls in love with an idea, no accumulation of facts can quench his ardor. He pursues the idée fixe of “Jewish science” with the single-mindedness of Pepé Le Pew.
Gilder is what the Germans call a Schwärmer, a term for which no adequate translation exists; “raving enthusiast” comes close. Technology is his religion, and he searches for saints. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle transformed theoretical physics, and his mathematical realization of quantum mechanics drove the discoveries about which Gilder gushes. Gilder evidently cannot bear the thought that Heisenberg was a very good wizard, but a very bad man. In his Grand Theory of Everything, science is good, and scientists therefore must be good.
It is nonsense to argue that there is something inherently Jewish in the results produced by scientists of Jewish origin, apart from the general observation that Jews seem to excel at intellectual pursuits. Gilder quotes at length the argument of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in The Bell Curve that Jews are genetically brighter than most other people. The assertion that Jewish racial characteristics give rise to Jewish science is creepy, even if it is meant to praise rather than to damn.
What we do not know about the genetic foundations of human intelligence would fill the oceans. There is no need to resort to such arguments to account for Jewish success. It does not occur to Gilder that a people for whom careful study of sacred texts has a sacramental purpose, and that was governed by scholars for two thousand years, also might develop a cultural affinity for scholarship.
If Gilder’s story has a hero, it is John von Neumann, the Hungarian-Jewish émigré who made foundational contributions to computing, game theory, and economics. Game theory provides Gilder with a fortuitous connection between the heroic era of modern mathematical physics and the modern state of Israel in the person of Robert Aumann, an Orthodox Jew who won the Nobel Prize in economics for contributions to game theory.
Aumann’s rather intricate idea is that players with a long-term interest approach a game differently than do players with a short-term interest. Gilder writes, “If you are not going to have any future relationships or transactions, the rational policy is predatory. The mugger or terrorist can be a rational man.” A cancer victim with three months to live, by this criterion, has rational reasons to rape or steal.
Aumann concludes: “If you want peace now, you may well never get peace. But if you have time—if you can wait—that changes the whole picture; then you may get peace now. This is one of the paradoxical, upside-down insights of game theory.” In other words, if the Palestinian Arabs are forced to wait for peace, they may learn to think in terms of long-term interests and make peace. This does not apply, though, if the Palestinians feel that they are in the position of the cancer patient—in other words, that their society simply cannot endure in the modern world.
The trouble with applying game theory to the problem of existential war is that the players may not expect to be there for the nth iteration of the game. Entire peoples sometimes find themselves faced with probable ruin such that, for them, no peaceful solution appears to be a solution.
Situations of this sort have arisen frequently in history, but never as frequently as today, when 90 percent of the world’s languages are not expected to survive the next two centuries. A people facing cultural extinction typically will choose war if war offers even a slim chance of survival. That is just how radical Islamists view the predicament of traditional Muslim society in the face of modernity. The Islamists fear that if they fail, their religion and culture will disappear into the maelstrom of the modern world. Many of them would rather die fighting.
Paradoxically, it is possible for wars of annihilation to stem from rational choice because the range of choices always must be bounded by the supposition that the chooser will continue to exist. In other words, existential criteria trump the ordinary calculus of success and failure. If one or more of the parties knows that peace implies the end of its existence, there exists no motive to return to peace. That is how the radical Islamists of Hamas view the future of Muslim society. A wealthy and successful Jewish state next to a poor and dysfunctional Palestinian state implies the end of the moral authority of Islam, and the radical Islamists would rather fight to the death than embrace such an outcome.
Gilder refuses to believe that anti-Semitism might represent anything more than simple jealousy of Jewish success. He wants all the things that he likes—religion, capitalism, and technology—to be part of the same Big Good Thing, so much so that he comes close to instrumentalizing Judaism itself.
Jews are unique. Anti-Semitism subjects this uniquely gifted people to a crude and particularly incendiary manifestation of the immemorial hatreds that have afflicted the world for millennia. Judaism, however, perhaps more than any other religion, favors capitalist activity and provides a rigorous moral framework for it. . . . Judaism can be plausibly interpreted as affirming the possibilities of creativity and collaboration on the frontiers of a capitalist economy.
Except in the magnitude of its “genocidal reach,” Gilder adds, there was nothing special about the Holocaust: “Every ethnic group has its own tale of woe, because the entire history of the world is woebegone.” Reducing Judaism to an affirmation of capitalism, and Jew hatred to anticapitalism, sounds like the old anti-Semitism turned inside out.
The book is dedicated to writer and editor Midge Decter. A number of years ago, Decter wrote an article about her time at Basic Books entitled “Editing George Gilder.” The books she edited included his best work, Wealth and Poverty. Evidently it was quite an experience. Gilder should have skipped the dedication and asked Decter to edit this book as well.
David P. Goldman is senior editor of First Things.