Picture this: A London cafe, February 28, 2001, me with a cappuccino and the International Herald Tribune. I turn to the editorial page, read a column by Richard Cohen of the Washington Post. I scan the rest and instantly realize that Jews wrote five of the six columns: Cohen, Stephen Rosenfeld, Robert Kaplan, Ellen Goodman and Thomas Friedman.
The sixth columnist is Professor Han Sung-Joo. Five Jews and a Joo — a Jewish newspaper headline-writer’s dream.
As far as I know, that day was the only day such a Jewish event happened in any major secular newspaper and this column is the first time it is being reported. So, today, I give you not only the headline but also two questions: How did it happen, and what does it mean in these times, when heads of state like Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad feel free to publicly charge Jews with ruling the world?
How did it happen? I assume serendipity; that is, just by chance the op-ed editor had manuscripts about current news events on his desk by writers who happened to be Jewish.
For argument’s sake, and it seems to be true if you look at many publications, let’s say that a disproportionate number of columnists are indeed Jewish. So what? A disproportionate number of professional football and basketball players are African American. A whole lot of restaurant owners are Greek; hotel owners are often Indian or Pakistani, and many Lebanese and Koreans own small grocery shops.
Very understandable historical, sociological, economic and even genetic reasons explain the passing phenomena of a disproportionate number of a particular racial, ethnic or religious group entering a particular job, business or professional situation. I suspect that a thousand Jewish college students switched to journalism in the years after Carl Bernstein became famous in the Watergate investigation, wrote two best selling books and was portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in “All the President’s Men.”
And before you yell at me because you think I said that all the individuals in those groups are genetically predisposed to be hotel or restaurant owners, I only mean genetics when it comes to physical or intellectual prowess. For example, while some 90% of African Americans don’t have what it takes to become a big-league athlete, enough possess genetic physicality to win disproportionate representation for the ethnicity in professional sports.
So why would it be any different for Jews? Jews always revered rabbis and teachers who spent a lifetime arguing about words and sentences in the Talmud as they helped produce a dozen children dedicated to the same life tasks. What were Rabbis Hillel and Shammai if not two of the earliest op-ed writers?
We probably have somehow incorporated opinionated and argumentative genes into our DNA. Otherwise, how do you explain that continuing truism: Find three Jews on a desert island and you will find two or three synagogues, political parties and newspapers?
Should any reader let their ethnic pride overshadow rationality, I caution that things can change. Greeks once owned the patent on the philosophical mind; while there are still Greek philosophers today, they are a far cry from the thinkers who spewed wisdom during the heyday of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
There are those, usually vicious antisemites, who argue that a Jewish cabal controls America’s media in order to further “the Jewish agenda.” My time would be wasted answering them, but to you, dear reader, I will mention that Jewish participation in journalism and column-writing is just like that old desert island story. Jewish writers are all over the political, economic and social map — from the National Review and The Wall Street Journal on the right to the Progressive, The Nation and others on the left. No cabal; just opinions and arguments.
Now, as for the mysterious Joo who made my headline possible — it turns out that he is more learned and famous, and surely as opinionated, as his five fellow op-ed writers.
Han Sung-Joo returned to the United States this year to become South Korea’s ambassador to the United States. He was South Korea’s minister of foreign affairs from 1993 to 1994 and a member of the United Nations’ Rwanda Genocide Inquiry Commission in 1999. He also happens to hold a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, has authored 10 scholarly books and is professor and acting president of Korea University.
I don’t want to hear any groans when I tell you that the ambassador’s mother has praised her son for his “success as a scholar and diplomat in these very difficult times while at the same time remaining a very nice Jooish boy.”
Dov Burt Levy, a former political science professor in Israel and United States, is a columnist for the Jewish Journal North of Boston.