AN EXAMPLE FROM MATHEMATICS
by Doug Ward
In May 2001 I paid a ten-day visit to
Only one sight marred the scenery of this beautiful country for me. At various places during my travels in Poland, I noticed an ugly bit of antisemitic graffiti that was scrawled on walls. It consisted of a gallows from which a star of David was suspended.
I was taken aback by this graffiti, especially when I thought of what had transpired in Poland during the Second World War. There are very few Jews in Poland today because of the work of Hitler's death camps. But here of all places, even after the horrors of the Holocaust, antisemitism remained. Apparently Hitler and his cronies had not done their job well enough to satisfy some twenty-first century Nazis.
Antisemitism is a remarkably persistent force in the world today. It is alive and well in the Middle East, where old lies about the Jews regularly resurface in Arab newspapers. It has flared up again recently in various parts of Europe, not just in Poland. No place in the world seems to be entirely immune from it.
An Ancient Promise
For those who hold antisemitic prejudices, and especially for those who act upon them, the Bible has a clear message. That message begins in Gen. 12:3, where God made a promise to an ancestor of the Jews, the patriarch Abraham. The promise includes these words: ``I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.''
Conservative Christian preachers often quote Gen. 12:3 when advocating continued American support for the modern state of Israel. But is the ancient promise to Abraham actually applicable today? This question was posed recently by columnist Dennis Prager, 1 who stated that while he once was skeptical about literal applications of Gen. 12:3 to modern world affairs, he has become increasingly convinced of the contemporary relevance of this biblical passage. Prager mentioned several examples in support of his case:
· Spain was a world power in 1492, when Columbus sailed for America. But in the same year, it expelled its Jewish population, and it subsequently persecuted many of the Jews who stayed and converted to Catholicism. Spain went on to become one of the most backward countries in Europe.
· Germany and Austria were intellectual and cultural centers before the Nazi period but have never been the same since.
· The Arab nations continue to be backward and poverty-stricken as they oppose Israel.
· The United States, which has a long history of philosemitism, has been the recipient of great blessings.
I can easily add further corroborating details to Mr. Prager's thesis from the history of my own area of expertise-mathematics. Specifically, the current status of the United States as the world leader in mathematical research can be directly linked to American philosemitism.
The Rise of American Mathematics
In the nineteenth century, the world's great centers of mathematical research activity were in France, Germany and England. The new United States, which was busy settling a continent and fighting a Civil War, was not yet known either for its universities or for its mathematicians.
Things began to change in the 1870s, when railroad magnate Johns Hopkins donated funds for the founding of a research university in Baltimore. For the mathematics chair at the new Johns Hopkins University, university president Daniel Coit Gilman wisely chose James Joseph Sylvester (1814-1897), a prominent English mathematician. 2
The fact that a world-class mathematician like Sylvester was willing, at the age of 62, to take a position at a fledgling university in America deserves some explanation. Sylvester had always been underemployed in England, despite his mathematical talent, because he was a Jew. Although he was educated at Cambridge and excelled in mathematics there, he had not been allowed to receive a degree because he would not take the Christian oath that was then a graduation requirement. After working briefly as a physics professor at University College London, Sylvester had spent years as an actuary and lawyer before finally landing a mathematics position in 1855 at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. The substantial teaching duties at Woolwich left Sylvester with less time for research than he would have liked, but at least he finally had a job in his chosen profession.
Sylvester remained at Woolwich until 1870, when he reached the retirement age at the Royal Military Academy. When the job offer came from Gilman, he had been living in retirement in London for six years. He was glad to finally land a research position worthy of his considerable talents.
Gilman's willingness to hire a Jewish mathematician paid off. At Johns Hopkins, Sylvester founded the American Journal of Mathematics, the first mathematical research journal in the United States. He gave his students valuable hands-on research experience, and a number of them went on to earn PhDs. Although Sylvester spent only six years in Baltimore before returning to England, he provided American mathematics with a much-needed boost.
Over the next fifty years, the United States made great strides in mathematical research, but Germany was still the world's mathematical hub. Everything changed, however, when Hitler came to power in Germany. During the 1930s Europe's greatest scientists and mathematicians, many of them Jewish, fled the Nazis and found a place of asylum in the United States. America's universities received the exiles with open arms. These great minds, in turn, rewarded America's hospitality by helping to win the Second World War and training a new generation of scholars. Largely as a result of its hospitality and philosemitism, the United States emerged from the war as the international leader in mathematical and scientific research. Today budding mathematicians come from around the world to study mathematics in America's graduate schools.
The rise of American mathematics stands as a striking example of the continuing relevance of the ancient promise to Abraham. I hope that in the future, more nations and individuals will heed the words of Gen. 12:3. When Israel is blessed by all the nations, then all the nations will be blessed.
1See the article ``Those who curse the Jews and those who bless them ... '', at http://christianactionforisrael.org/antiholo/curse.html .
2See http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/history/Biographies/Sylvester.html for a short biography of Sylvester.
File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.01.On 16 Oct 2002, 19:19.