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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Exclusive Q & A With Steven Silbiger, Author Of The Jewish Phenomenon (Part I)


Steven Silbiger had already sold 200,000 copies of his classic, The Ten-Day MBA. But that success did not fully prepare him for the reaction he received for his follow-up effort, The Jewish Phenomenon, wherein he broached the "taboo" subject of Jewish success and wealth, disproportionate in terms of the community's relatively small population size - in America and throughout the world. The back cover of The Jewish Phenomenon gets right to the heart of the matter promising to answer why : 1) Jews make up only 2% of the total U.S. population, yet 45% of the top 40 of the Forbes 400 richest Americans are Jewish 2) One-third of all American multimillionaires are Jewish 3) The percentage of Jewish households with income greater than $50,000 is double that of non-Jews while on the other hand, the percentage of Jewish households with income less than $20,000 is half that of non-Jews 4) 20% of professors at leading universities are Jewish 5) 40% of partners in leading New York and Washington D.C. law firms are Jewish and 25% percent of all American Nobel Prize winners are Jewish.

The subject has been so "off-limits" that Mr. Silbiger was greeted with scheduled media appearances cancelled; and journalists and editors who knew him from his first effort (which has now sold 300,000 copies) informing him that they could not write about his book or publicize it in reviews because it was just too controversial. National Public Radio (NPR) even canceled a scheduled show featuring Mr. Silbiger and Black conservative intellectual John McWhorter out of fear that a discussion involving The Jewish Phenomenon would alienate NPR's numerous Jewish benefactors. Only John McWhorter appeared on the radio that day.

Earlier this month, BlackElectorate.com Publisher Cedric Muhammad met with Steven Silbiger just outside of Philadelphia for a lunch meeting to discuss his controversial book and exactly what it is all about. The two men engaged in a frank, stimulating, informative and wide-ranging discussion regarding the 7 keys to Jewish success that Steven Silbiger has identified; ethnic discrimination; Black-Jewish relations; Marcus Garvey; race and sports; Africa; and the history of how the Jewish community has excelled at marrying its capital and talent.

Today we run part one of the exclusive conversation. Next week we will feature the second portion.


Cedric Muhammad: You were telling me some interesting anecdotes that we were discussing over lunch regarding how your book, really, for lack of a better description, hasn't gotten the best reception from journalists, media outlets and opinion leaders in the Jewish community. Could you elaborate more on the nature of this - the reasons for it as you were telling me earlier?

Steven Silbiger: Sure, the people who have read the book enjoy the book, it is very useful but within the media there has been an almost silence about the book because they would rather the book not create any discussion. A lot of the book reviewers and people in the main press don't want to cover the book because the subject of Jewish success in America is more controversial than anything else. Because the idea is that if you publicize Jewish success and the reasons for it, then it will bring additional anti-Semitism to the Jewish community. I have spoken to Jewish groups, B'nai B'rith, Haddasah - many Jewish groups, and the book has been universally well-received when presented but book reviewers and other opinion leaders would rather not deal with the subject because their downside is much greater than the upside for covering the book. I wouldn't mind negative reviews. But they'd rather not review it at all because of how powerful the message is in this book. From people who have read it that aren't Jewish; African-Americans; Latinos and such; they find the book very enlightening - they didn't know Jews. They knew about anti-Semitism. But this book really provides the reason why Jews are successful in the United States, and after you read the book it is obvious that anybody else could emulate it. It is not a conspiracy among Jewish people. There is no international cabal. It is just a matter of following these principles that I outlined in this book.

Cedric Muhammad: And Steven, would you say that the resistance is counter-productive on the part of some members of the Jewish political establishment and the media? When would they be willing to openly say, 'Ok, let's let everybody know why we are as successful as we are in certain areas'?

Steven Silbiger: When? I would think maybe in the next generation because there is still the older generation of Jews who have experienced the holocaust and really experienced head-to-head racism and anti-Semitism in their lifetimes. Hopefully this next generation will (realize) that they have lived with the fruits of their (the older generations) efforts and haven't experienced as much (opposition). So, in the next generation the idea of expressing this publicly will have been more well-received.

Cedric Muhammad: Steven, please run down the seven principles...

Steven Silbiger: Great, number 1 is : "Understand that real wealth is portable; It's knowledge". It shows that Jews have highly valued education all through the centuries and that education translates into higher incomes and Jews not only pursue education for income but also just for education's sake. They like to be informed. They just venerate knowledge and if somebody is an artist, they become the best artist they can; if they become a social worker; just anything; they just go and get a great education and pursue it to the best of their ability. Number 2 is: "Take care of your own and they will take care of you". Jewish people give the largest percentage of their income twice as much as the average to charities. But when they do so they support causes that affect their community as well as the issues that affect their community and the general population. When it comes to charities and taking care of their own community they have set up social welfare systems, not only in Europe but here in America, so that when government is lacking or Jews are in need and have problems where they may be fleeing a bad situation like in Argentina recently or in Russia in the past; they can come here and get a good start and the community will support them. Number 3 is: "Successful people are professionals and entrepreneurs". Again, it relates to getting the best education you can. Obviously becoming a doctor, lawyer or businessperson involves education. And where possible, and in the face of discrimination, Jews have gone in areas that other people didn't want to be. So, when they were barred from becoming a post office worker or working for General Motors they found their own ways for being creative. When the big law firms in the nation did not want Jews in their ranks, Jews went into parts of the law that were distasteful to other lawyers - tax law; labor law; securities law; while the other Protestant, Anglo-Saxon types, they pursued other places. So we as Jews created opportunities for ourselves...

Cedric Muhammad:...that others didn't want...

Steven Silbiger:...yes, that others didn't want! And where needs are sought. To be able to be supported by a family or pursue a dream and not be shot down. It is ok to not work a 9-to-5; it is ok to pursue your dream to invent something to go the other way. And the book is replete with situations and stories of people who went the other way and that is why Jews have been so successful. We have been good at inventing things out of nothing. Number 4 is : "Develop your verbal self-confidence". If you are confronted with a situation and you don't agree with it, you just don't take it; you speak up and are forceful. If ever there is a defacing of a synagogue or a form of discrimination, you had better believe that Jews are going to be the first ones out there. We are not going to bite our tongue or be inarticulate. Number 5 is: "Be selectively extravagant but prudently frugal". That means, when you are making money, you need to spend your money where it is most important. You can't spend it on everything but if education is really important, well, then you will spend a lot of your money on education. If golf is important, that is great but you can't have everything at the same time and the whole idea of delayed gratification is one that Jews have done well with for a long time. If most of the Jews in a country were first or second generation they made sure that the third generation would not be in the same situation. Jews didn't immigrate with a great deal of wealth themselves. They actually created it by saving it and realizing that they needed to go their own way. Number 6 is: "Encourage individuality and celebrate creativity". For Jewish people it is ok to stand out and it is ok to be different and it is ok to pursue different ideas and different careers. Some of the greatest successes come from people who have gone their own way. Number 7 is: "Have something to prove: a drive to succeed". Jews feel that as outsiders to the mainstream Christian society they have a freedom and objectivity to be themselves and accept that it is fine to stand out and that it is ok to be different. And because they were outsiders, Jews have felt this pressure to want to belong to the United States' general mainstream but to do that they've pursued different areas that have brought them great success, like for instance, Ralph Lauren, which represents the epitome of what White Anglo Saxon Protestant country-club living is all about; Ralph Lauren's real name is Ralph Lifshitz. He is a Brooklyn boy. He is the one from the perspective of an outsider who saw what it really is to be in a country club set. So he packaged it, marketed it and sold it, you know. And that is all possible when coming from an outsider's standpoint. If you goto different areas - whether Gap in jeans, or Calvin Klein, or if you are looking at some of the major brands of Levi's you are going to find Jews there in the fashion industry and they concentrated themselves there in the fashion industry as designers. But when the Jewish immigrants were coming over to America and didn't have jobs in the fashion industry, and designing was going on; they were also in the garment industry so that the wealth that they created in the industry by being fashion designers wasn't given to somebody else, because the money that was in the entire garment industry was kept within the Jewish community. So they weren't creating wealth for other people - they were creating it for themselves.

Cedric Muhammad: Steven, let me ask you this. As I know, you visit our website and frequently you will see discussions about the matching process, which economist Reuven Brenner has popularized, always talking about this. I always encourage our viewers and now, the students of Black Electorate Economics University to think in terms of physical capital, human capital and financial capital and the whole result of prosperity being the degree or quality with which you match these three in a society or community...

Steven Silbiger: Absolutely...

Cedric Muhammad:...the degree to which you match talent and capital; and I think that hands-down the Jewish community has been the best at matching talent with capital. Other communities have talent and never support it or match it with capital, for a variety of reasons. The result is a brain drain or mass emigration into other communities that do appreciate the talent or have capital to support, develop or invest in it and earn a return. How do you see that in the light of your second principle, "Take care of your own and they will take care of you". In your book you write about the great Jewish Free Loan Societies and how there are systems within the community whereby if a person in the Jewish community has an idea, but maybe no collateral or nothing - that person may be finding financial capital to back them in just the pursuit of a bet on an idea...

Steven Silbiger:...yes, if it is a good idea, that is correct. See one thing that I think Jewish Americans appreciate and understand while others have not is that since they, over the centuries, have had to leave different places because of discrimination; they realize that the one thing that has kept and sustained throughout has been their capital - their financial capital. And, they might hate you - people might hate you or discriminate against you - but when the rubber hits the road it is the money that talks. In the United States that is what talks. So, during the 1950s, 30s and 20s when people, in this country were very anti-Semitic; but Jews were still influential because of their business. So people did not want them at the table, but they had to be there because of the financial capital. And Jews realized that it is not something that government was going to bring to them. It was not going to be handed by them. It is going to be earned. And the means to that in the United States is a great education. And the true financial power of a group relates to its political power and not by numbers; it is simply by political contributions - that is leverage. So whether it be the Jewish community or the Black community, we are big consumers and big spenders but who are the big savers? So that even if you are working for somebody else it brings value to the Jewish community through savings. That is the mindset. You know Marcus Garvey was very much into that but somehow through government activism (and its acceptance by the Black community) his message was really lost to the detriment of the Black cause...

Cedric Muhammad: And J.Edgar Hoover had a lot to do with that...

Steven Silbiger: Right.

Cedric Muhammad: Before we get to Marcus Garvey, I wanted to ask you something. You know, we compare money to blood and a banking system and the branches are like arteries and veins. You may have heard this. There is a saying, an anecdote that a dollar that comes into the Black community stays within the community for about six hours. And that in other ethnic groups like Italians or say the Jewish community - a dollar stays for 30 days, circulating.

Steven Silbiger: Right...

Cedric Muhammad: Now whether that is true or not I don't know, but the idea of keeping a dollar in the community, how do you see that?

Steven Silbiger: Well, like I was talking about in industries like the garment industry, although there were sweatshops and at the turn of the century Jewish people were working in those sweat shops, at least the toil of their labor went to Jewish business owners so that the capital was built within the community. That is the main thrust of it. If you are working for a wage and not saving, you really have no power. In the United States it is all about stored capital. It is a capitalist country and no matter what discrimination there is the dollar talks and the other walks...

Cedric Muhammad: Well, Steven, allow me to isolate this, understanding that we haven't as yet gone into the origins of Jewish banking success but if you are here in America and have financial capital in abundance, you are saying that the first principle of educating, "Understand that real wealth is portable; It's knowledge" results in this financial capital being matched to higher and higher levels of talent, of intellectual capital, so it is really compounding the returns of something that started from very humble origins, like you described with the sweatshops...

Steven Silbiger: Right, absolutely! If you look at the Forbes 400 list at these Jewish-Americans, these people weren't inheriting their wealth from generations upon generations. They were creating it themselves. Whether it be from novel retailing concepts or if somebody has invented something, those people who are listed in the Forbes 400 had created the capital themselves. And, why? Well they were at the right place at the right time and they had a good education, they had verbal self-confidence...

Cedric Muhammad: they were selectively extravagant but prudantly frugal?

Steven Silbiger: exactly (laughter). They were very individualistic they did not take no for an answer. They were motivated to prove themselves.

Cedric Muhammad: But did they have seed capital from within the community or were they like anybody else who has to get money from outside sources?

Steven Silbiger: In most cases it was not the Jewish community per se that provided the capital. The force of their ideas created the capital.

Cedric Muhammd: You speak of Marcus Garvey in your book in very glowing terms as do we, at BlackElectorate.com. What was it that you saw in Marcus Garvey? How did you stumble upon Marcus Garvey, maybe you knew of him in the past, but how did your opinion of him grow to the point where we see what you wrote about him in the book?

Steven Silbiger: When I first started investigating Jewish relations with other communities I saw things with Henry Ford, who was very anti-Semitic, at the turn of the century. I saw Mark Twain was very complimentary of the Jewish community through the years. And then I saw some things about Marcus Garvey and what he had preached were many of the same factors that I talk about in my book. Although he had attained some popularity at the beginning of the century most of his views were ignored afterwards because government activism was seen as the way top overcome problems while he was more into self-reliance within the community. And he made mention of the Jewish community as a model to emulate but he also taught that if there is to be true independence for Black people it would have to come through their own efforts. And what I write about in the book is the same blueprint that he had provided 70, or 80 years ago - that anybody can emulate.

Cedric Muhammad: Your accessibility argument is a theme that runs throughout your book - that anybody can access these principles. Where do you differentiate in saying that the source of these ideas is the Torah, our relationship with God? To what degree do you connect these principles to divine revelation and to Moses?

Steven Silbiger: Well, if you look, the beginning of the book does deal with the Jewish religion per se and obviously a faith in God would help anybody in any walk of life but what the Jewish religion and Jewish culture has had within. It is that it is ok to disagree, it is ok to debate, it is ok to pursue things that are different. Some of my friends who are Catholic don't have that same upbringing. You are supposed to agree, you aren't supposed to debate, you are supposed to accept whole-heartedly. Well the whole Jewish experience is about debate, turmoil and being articulate. Those types of skills have directly translated into success in the United States. So if it would be years of suffering or the years of suffering that Jews have experienced as a group or experienced in different countries, that "outsider-mentality" has helped us immeasurably in the United States to pursue different goals.

Cedric Muhammad: I guess what I am trying to isolate is this: Is your argument regarding Jewish success framed as economic determinism with religious trappings or is it the power of superior knowledge that comes from divine revelation in a religious community producing economic benefits and byproducts?

Steven Silbiger: I think it is economic determinism for self-survival, with its roots in a culture that celebrates creativity, celebrates individuality, being different and being vocal about it.

Cedric Muhammad: So you think there wasn't necessarily a leapfrog in terms of progress that derives from what the Prophets of God may have taught your community as much as it is that you have an environment and a culture juxtaposed to this experience where 'we are suffering and are having to work together and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps'.

Steven Silbiger: Right, it's that, as well as the whole idea that the written word is important that knowledge for its own sake is important...

Cedric Muhammad: ...stemming from growing up studying the Talmud and studying the Torah...

Steven Silbiger: Right, and the whole idea that you are able to question things. So, if you are thinking of looking for a group to be inventive in a secular way or to create new ways or new novel ways of doing things, this group through centuries of acculturation sets the stage for all of this and just happens to be in the United States, the first country in history where they were really given the freedom to pursue those, all at the same time. Now, will the Jewish religion be as powerful or successful in the next century? Probably not. Why? Because some of the things that affect us, the discrimination, the outsiders affecting our community, has dissipated, so that mentality that has driven a lot of very successful people in the 20th century does not exist in this century, because there isn't that impetus or that drive. The trends are that in 50 years half the Jewish population won't be Jewish anymore because we don't have that outside siege mentality anymore and the religion has not been that important.

Cedric Muhammad: Do you think that these principles would have been disseminated with the intermarriage and the assimilation that is taking place with other groups?

Steven Silbiger: I think that they would be dissipating and that is why I wrote the book. Because I think that as intermarriage occurs we are further away from the immigrant population that Jews really are, over the last 50 years. Yeah, these principles will be lost. And I can see that in my own life and the people I grew up with whose parents were first-generation Americans, struggled, worked hard and then the second generation who are the beneficiaries of that aren't working so hard anymore. That's happening now.


End Of Part I


Wednesday, January 29, 2003

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