Atonement in the Ivy League
Jews are thriving at America’s top universities, but they are increasingly reluctant to come to Israel’s defense.
This past April, a diverse group of powerful people congregated outside a neoclassical building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to ring in a centennial. Banners decorated Broadway in a show of celebration and pride. But this unique event had dueling purposes: It was meant to honor a gift that led to a legacy – as well as to correct the misnaming of a building, gone untitled for 100 years because its original donor was Jewish. Columbia University was about to fix that mistake. When Joseph Pulitzer bequeathed a school of journalism to Columbia in 1912, the school’s president was Nicholas Butler, a man who made little effort to hide his anti-Semitic views. Under his leadership, Columbia enforced an admissions quota on Jews and disqualified them from board membership until the very end of his tenure. He had struggled with Jewish donors in the past, and to this day, various buildings on campus given by Jewish donors – remain effectively nameless (the main university library, however, prominently displays Butler’s name). Pulitzer’s name survived in part because his journalism prize, given out by the school, has become a huge success. But that wasn’t enough. To mark the centennial, Columbia was to carve Pulitzer into stone. “We went back and got every piece of paper regarding the naming of the school, and there was no smoking gun,” notes Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, who himself is Jewish. “But it certainly felt like the right thing to do.”
Columbia has come a long way. The university’s Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life, housed in a stunning new facility that cost over $10 million, counts nearly 3,000 undergraduate Jewish students at Columbia and its affiliates, and roughly 5,000 graduate students. A large percentage of Columbia’s deans and tenured faculty members are Jewish, and there are consistently at least seven Jews represented on its board of trustees.
The truth is that today, a group that represents less than two percent of the American population occupies over a third of the population at the country’s most elite universities. By this measure, and by many others, it is a golden age for Jews in higher education.
That accomplishment is even more significant when taken in historical context. Jews were not only subject to discrimination through quotas less than a century ago; indeed, the entire admissions process we know today can be traced back to the desire of these schools to limit Jewish presence on campus. “Rather than relying on academic numbers alone,” says Joie Jager-Hyman, author of Fat Envelope Frenzy, a look at young adults applying to college, “admissions officers decided to also require recommendation letters, personal essays and interviews in their evaluations” to better determine a candidate’s background.
Yet anti-Israel sentiment continues to make its presence felt on Ivy League campuses, and American Jews, who have grown comfortable in their successes, are now faced with identifying with and defending an Israel that often seems foreign and detached. Cases have come to the fore at Princeton, Yale and Columbia universities in recent years. And the most notable of these instances have revealed a widening divergence in the Jewish community.
In Westville, a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut, Charles Small is trying to sell his house. Two years ago, Yale’s decision to close his institute on the study of anti- Semitism left him moderately famous – and out of a job.
As he prepares coffee and completes a travel booking to Israel on his laptop, he brushes aside the media reports that framed a simplistic, one-dimensional narrative around what happened, and asserts that his story has, in fact, never been told.
“I was told by Yale not to study anti- Semitism in the Middle East, point blank,” Small tells The Jerusalem Report. “I was told I could stay at Yale as long as I wanted as long as I don’t touch this issue.”
The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, or YIISA, was a unique enterprise. Small was motivated to study the topic after a surge of anti- Semitism in the Muslim world following the September 11 attacks. He believed it was a pressing matter of study with consequences that applied to real world events. And he was comfortable walking the thin line between advocacy and scholarship, because to him, the truth he sought was in dire jeopardy of being ignored at a critical juncture in history.
Yale, however, was uncomfortable with Small’s high-wire act, and accused his institute at a five-year review of not being academically rigorous. He claims this was a cover for something much more sinister, noting accurately that the university was eying a campus in the United Arab Emirates and a significant gift out of Saudi Arabia, all the while hampered by complaints from the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s ambassador to the United States that YIISA was a “platform” for Islamophobia.
Small acknowledges a divergence of logic here. The idea that Yale would close down YIISA to kowtow to Arabs with deep pockets seems far-fetched, not just because Yale can reasonably be presumed an institution with a semblance of self-respect, but simply because of the university’s demographics. Yale’s current president, provost and college dean are all Jewish; it is estimated that over a fifth of the community overall is Jewish.
Edward Kaplan, a professor at Yale School of Organization and Management since 1987, worked with Small on a statistical analysis of anti-Semitism in Europe. Kaplan says Yale’s efforts to globalize aren’t limited to any one part of the world – and that Yale actually views Israel as a rewarding academic partner, with its status as the “start-up nation.”
“It’s an important question to ask whether anti-Semitism is being masked in anti-Israel sentiment, and I just don’t feel that at Yale,” says Kaplan. “There are no barriers keeping people out anymore. It’s not just a golden age for Jews. It’s a golden age if you’re capable.”
After YIISA’s closure, Yale’s faculty pressed the administration for a new institute on the same topic, which resulted, only weeks later, in the founding of the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism (YPSA). Maurice Samuels, its director and a Yale professor for six years, appreciates a certain irony in the mission of the new program: to examine how the historical context of this phenomenon dictates current events.
“There’s a sentiment in the wider community that Yale has to make amends. And I think, to a large extent, it has done so,” Samuels tells the Report, reflecting on Yale’s own history of quotas and other restrictions on Jewish access. “The administration didn’t give me any kind of mandate about what I can talk about and can’t talk about. I certainly wouldn’t have done this if they had.”
But while one of the primary charges against YIISA was that Yale students weren’t attending its events – its largest conference in 2010 happened outside the academic year – the same could now be leveled at YPSA, which has been equally detached from the community. And that speaks to a problem that neither institute has studied seriously: whether American Jews at Yale, or in higher education generally, care enough to take up Israeli causes – or whether their achievements, and assimilation, have set them culturally apart.
“The Israeli now is the unpleasant, problematic Jew for some people on the Upper West Side and Yale,” claims Small. “This is part of contemporary anti-Semitism. The most pernicious form of hatred is the internalization of hatred, and I think that’s part of what has happened here.”
Samuels agrees that a line exists, blurred over time but still legible, where anti-Israel sentiment clearly crosses into anti-Semitism. “Where it gets dangerous is when students feel intimidated on campus,” says Samuels. “I do think it’s a problem if it turns into attacking Jewish students for being pro-Israel, as that is precisely, to me, anti-Semitic.”
Perhaps Jewish students on campus have separated themselves from Israel to avoid feeling the heat of indirect anti-Semitic attacks. But at least at Yale, those sentiments seem scarce and exceptional. “It’s not fair to say that people at Yale feel detached from Israel,” says Leah Sarna, co-president of Young Israel House at Yale, the undergraduate Orthodox community. “To say that we have no buy-in, or that we look at it from a more clinical perspective, is just not fair.”
Sarna notes that the college bends over backwards to make Jewish students comfortable, operating a kosher kitchen and respecting those who observe Shabbat by accommodating student needs to work around electronic keycard access to campus facilities. But her father, a prominent historian of American Judaism who earned his Ph.D. at Yale, appreciates the delicate balance Jews maintain in the modern university.
“Especially in the Ivy League, Jews feel like they are guests, and that has had a certain shaping effect,” says Jonathan Sarna, author of American Judaism: A History. “The concern that these universities don’t turn into Jewish institutions – there may still be some of that residual concern.”
His remarks prepared and in hand, former prime minister Ehud Olmert made the rounds at a small reception at Princeton earlier this year. Ahead of his speech to the community of the Woodrow Wilson School of International Studies, he approached the university president, Shirley Tilghman, with a pressing question. Olmert wanted Tilghman to clarify exactly what sort of atmosphere he should expect from the crowd.
“She was just sort of startled by the question,” says Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the Princeton Center for Jewish Life. “It’s not a question she gets much.” Perhaps not anymore, but Tilghman is certainly familiar with Princeton’s reputation of historical anti-Semitism. With 500 Jewish undergraduates out of some 5,000, Princeton lags far behind its Ivy League brethren in terms of representation. And it has one of the smallest programs in Judaic Studies of any of the eight: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, Penn and Cornell.
“When I was a senior in high school, I almost didn’t apply,” says Ben Jubas, a junior at Princeton and president of Tigers for Israel, the school’s Israel advocacy group. “The idea of atonement has definitely been a topic of conversation here, as if they’re making up for history.”
While Jubas has never experienced anti- Semitism in his three years at Princeton, there have been instances in which that blurred line on Israel have caused muted tension on the manicured lawns of the New Jersey campus. Last spring featured one such instance, when an art exhibit in the campus student center featured depictions by Palestinian children of war conditions in Gaza.
“The drawings themselves portrayed guns, blood and just Jewish stars – only in a negative portrayal – against children,” says Roth. The exhibit literature and signs apparently portrayed Operation Cast Lead as a one-sided, aggressive campaign, and to Roth, that came off as more naïve than anti- Semitic. But what Roth called “emotional” for her, and for students, was the fact that Princeton had sponsored the exhibit with substantial funding.
“The argument has to be about whether free speech is a higher value than the limitation of hate speech, and whether we are going to tolerate it,” Roth adds.
That debate isn’t happening on campus. Every member of the Princeton community interviewed for this article noted that Princeton isn’t the activist campus that Columbia has become, and that its students often live in a bubble of theoretical mind games and exercises. The most heated debate over Israel on campus, which garnered international media attention, was actually waged over hummus. The Princeton Committee on Palestine moved to boycott Sabra hummus from dining halls because its parent company came out in support of the IDF’s Golani Brigade. Their referendum was ultimately defeated, and the greater debate died with it.
“Most Jewish students on campus are benignly pro-Israel, but perhaps the passion isn’t there,” says Jubas. “A lot just shy away from it. There’s no reason to make an issue of it if it’s not a part of your life.”
To Charles Small and his colleagues, Jubas’s sentiment is the kernel of their fears. They ultimately believe that Yale, Columbia, Princeton and the great company they keep in the world of American higher education have succumbed to a powerful ideological consensus: that there are those that have, and those that don’t, and that one is to blame for the other; and that Israel, framed in these terms, is an aggressor that needs to be fundamentally challenged.
The question remains whether the students that are central to it all notice, concur or even consider that charge relevant to their identities as Jews in America.
(Tags: Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Anti-Semitism)