Israeli Life: Smart Circle
The Israeli chapter of the international Mensa organization has a very simple goal: to use its members’ brains and creativity to help themselves and the world.
At a recent meeting at a restaurant, 30 Israeli members of Mensa, an international organization for the highly intelligent, tried to arrange the seating so they could all see each other. Each proposed a sophisticated method, and for an hour they shuffled tables. The exasperated waiter insisted it couldn’t be done. a “The solution was simple,” says Roy Daya, national chairman of Mensa Israel. But the person who came up with the answer had to wait the entire hour to get the attention of the others, who were wrapped up in their own proposals.
Sometimes mensans get carried away and miss seeing the answer to an everyday problem, says Daya, 32. “Their social skills are not always as developed as their intelligence,” he adds.
Yet he believes that their collective intelligence can and should be harnessed. “Mensa was established to contribute to society,” he says. In this, Daya echoes the charismatic Frank Luger, a Canadian immigrant and convert to Judaism who revived Mensa Israel in 2002 with a vision of helping “our people and the world…because this is our calling.” Daya is also echoing an official goal of Mensa International: “to identify and foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity.”
Who are the Mensans? They are the top 2 percent of the population—that is, 1 in 50, as determined by the Raven’s Progressive Matrices intelligence test, which is Mensa’s entrance examination. Some, like Daya, are above the 99.9th percentile, or 1 in 1,000. “When you put people like that in a room to solve a specific problem, they think very quickly and can bring experience to bear from a variety of fields,” he says.
Daya is following a business model as well as Luger’s lead in guiding the Israeli chapter, which has had a rollercoaster existence since it was established over a decade ago. “I come from the business world,” he explains. “I have to do things that have an impact.”
Israeli Mensans are modeling themselves on the United States-based Mensa Process (www.mensaprocess.com), a company that offers organizations the benefit of Mensa members’ combination of brains and creativity. The Israelis have already teamed up with Systematic Inventive Thinking, an Israeli company that has developed a method for helping individuals and organizations become more innovative.
Daya, who is the chief executive officer of digital-Clay, a software firm in Jerusalem, has arranged for Mensans to act as a think tank for a cellular phone company on such topics as the effects of radiation and the social impact of cell-phone use. His goal, he says, is “to show that we can be involved in the market, the economy and society, to push society in the direction of excellence.”
Israeli Mensans also lecture on career development and personal enhancement for the population at large, specifically targeting women and minorities. These lectures grew out of Daya’s own efforts to help people find work.
Mostly, however, Israeli Mensans talk both face to face and in online forums—about science, mathematics, politics, education and religion. And when they talk online to Mensans around the world, they lead the discussions on Jewish themes.
“There was an active debate about the history of rabbinic authority in Judaism,” says Pennsylvania native Shel Bassel, 51, a Torah scribe and father of eight who lives in Jerusalem. “The people who participated were all Jews, and the debate was led by the Israelis.” Nevertheless, he estimates that no more than 10 percent of Israeli Mensans are religiously observant.
One of the most popular debates was on the existence of God. Another discussed interpretations of the Torah. “I was arguing that the rabbinic interpretation is well grounded and justified, based on strict grammatical readings,” Bassel says, “and [someone else argued] that it was random and arbitrary.”
About 500 israelis have passed Mensa’s entrance requirements; the 200 who have joined represent a cross section of Israeli society. One of them is Eli Nahum, 61, a Tel Aviv electrician. Born in Libya, he came to Israel when he was 3 and grew up in a very traditional family. He never had a chance to attend college, though he read widely on religion, philosophy and history. To fit in with friends, he had to learn to talk at their level.
Five years ago, he read about Mensa Israel, took the Raven’s Matrices test and scored at the highest level. “Knowing that stabilized me emotionally,” Nahum says. More important, he began meeting people with whom he could share his ideas.
“What fascinates me in the get-togethers is that when two people meet there is an exchange of energy, and the smarter they are, the more noble the energy,” he says. Encouraged by his peers, Nahum finished a book he had been working on for three years and self-published it in Hebrew and in English (translated by a Mensan). He says his goal in writing The Age of Divinity Is Ending! was “to warn humanity that we have to cut ourselves off from our dependence on God and to believe in our ability to run ourselves and the world.”
Today, he is the Mensa social coordinator for central Israel, one of two regions where the organization is active (the other is Jerusalem). Half of the Mensans are women and about 30 are in the youth section (ages 16 and up). Mensa International has about 100,000 members in 100 countries, 50,000 of them in the United States.
Like Nahum, Bassel craved the company of peers. He had graduated from high school in the United States at 16 and studied in an Israeli yeshiva. Though accepted by two universities, he never attended college. Working as a scribe in Jerusalem, he spent hours hunched over a Torah scroll and had few social contacts.
So when his then-wife saw an advertisement for Mensa, she encouraged him to join. Scoring high on the Raven’s Matrices test gave him an ego boost, he says. But more important for Bassel, who has served as membership chairman and as editor of Mensa Israel’s journal, Ilui, has been meeting “a couple of good friends I would not have met except for Mensa,” he says.
Edna Oxman, 65, a longtime Mensa member in the United States with a long list of academic degrees, had a varied career as a pharmaceutical research assistant, systems analyst and practitioner of Oriental medicine. In 1999, she began a new life and career in Israel, settling in Beersheba and becoming an academic copy editor. Socially, however, she was isolated. Then she joined Mensa, serving for a while as social coordinator for the southern region (which is no longer active). Her personal Mensa network stretches as far north as Haifa and as far south as Dimona.
Even among these Mensans there is an elite. The highest scorers on the Raven’s test, like Daya and Nahum, are eligible to join the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry, whose 650 members worldwide are in the top one-thousandth of the population; Nahum is the only electrician among them.
Naturally, intelligence is a subject that fascinates Mensans. And Jewish intelligence is a topic on which some Israeli members have a lot to say, though the organization takes no stand. Some members say that Jews—and particularly Jewish Israelis—are more intelligent than others.
Even the former national chairman of Mensa Israel, Dutch-born Jochai Rubinstein, says that results from a particular test show that “Israelis are smarter than most peoples, [though] not smarter than the Dutch.”
Apart from the disproportionate number of Nobel laureates who are Jews, a 2005 document titled “Jewish Distinctiveness in America, A Statistical Report” contains evidence that explains why people might perceive Jews, at least in the States, as being smarter. The author, Tom W. Smith, is the director of the General Social Survey, the largest and longest project in the United States monitoring changes and consistencies in American society.
Smith found that Jews are better educated and thus have more prestigious jobs and higher income than any religious, ethnic or racial group in the country. They transmit that edge from generation to generation, Smith adds, because “Jews have tended both to have well-educated fathers and mothers and to marry well-educated spouses. This helps to cement and transmit the benefits of education in particular and to promote high socioeconomic status in general.”
But are jews certifiably smarter, as measured by I.Q. tests? And if so, why? These questions make academics uncomfortable.
Until 20 or 30 years ago, when ethnic groups were more distinct and it was possible to compare them, Jews in the United States (most of whom are of East European descent) scored highest on I.Q. tests.
“And most studies show that I.Q. is highly heritable,” says Richard Ebstein, a behavioral geneticist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. That is, genes account for about 60 percent of the differences in human intelligence. On that basis, it could be claimed that Jews are born with higher potential to be intelligent. But Ebstein is quick to point out that American Jews’ I.Q. scores could also be explained by a culture of learning and hard work.
With regard to Jewish Israelis, however, the picture is different.
“It’s a very complex question,” says Naomi Gafni, director of research and development at the National Institute for Testing and Evaluation, Israel’s equivalent of the Educational Testing Service in America. “A lot of this is a matter of opinion, and anyone can present data that support his view.”
Intelligence tests are validated against achievement tests, and in international school achievement tests in math, science and language, Israel is only average or below average. “At the top are China, Korea, Japan, Singapore,” Gafni says.
In any case, being smarter does not guarantee social success, especially in youngsters, according to Meital Gannot, former head of Mensa Israel’s youth division. Not only are super smart children envied for their abilities, they tend to have little patience with other children, feel bored in most social interactions and are pressured by parents’ and teachers’ unrealistic expectations.
High intelligence can be a curse for adults, too. “They have social problems because they get bored very soon and because they understand too quickly what other people say,” Rubinstein says. As a result, some may withdraw. “Mensa breaks through this isolation,” he adds. “The big advantage is that you talk to other Mensans and even if they don’t understand you, they will try.”
When youth members get together, they often watch a movie and chat. “The idea is for each young member to find someone who will understand him emotionally and intellectually,” Gannot says.
At adult group meetings, one of the members gives a talk. Bassel has spoken twice on the history of the Bible and once on the Mishna.
Intelligence comes up again and again. It was the topic of the keynote speech at a March 2005 nationwide Mensa Israel conference. Erez Ben-Ari, who works in high technology, presented a historical survey of intelligence tests. He sees a link between I.Q. and success, at least in most fields.
Rubinstein, however, disputes this. Mensans are, he says, at best, “medium successful. Most are unsuccessful career wise.”
Nevertheless, Daya, bristling with energy, is certain he can succeed in leveraging the Mensans’ precious commodity. “We have the potential to make Mensa Israel a very strong organization,” and that strength, he says, will come through a connection to projects in service of the community.