Antisemitism at Harvard: New or Old?

Antisemitism at Harvard: New or Old? 

The past year’s controversies aren’t the first tangle America’s oldest university has had with antisemitism.

Credit: cdrin

Not every critic of Israel is antisemitic, but the clown that Harvard chose to co-chair its new task force on antisemitism certainly is. The only question post–Claudine Gay is whether the university is fully incompetent on matters like this, or historically antisemitic.

The new co-chair of the task force on antisemitism (a sister task force was set up at the same time to combat Islamophobia) is Harvard professor of Jewish history Derek Penslar. Penslar said of antisemitism at Harvard, “Outsiders took a very real problem and proceeded to exaggerate its scope” in apparent reference to deposed Harvard president Claudine Gay’s tacit acceptance of calls for genocide and other acts of violence as allowed under Harvard’s student conduct code.

Antisemitic? Penslar last year signed a letter accusing Israel of apartheid and of seeking to “ethnically cleanse all territories under Israeli rule of their Palestinian population.” He extolled the virtues of seeing Israel through the lens of “settler colonialism,” defined as “a system of oppression based on genocide and colonialism, that aims to displace a population of a nation (oftentimes indigenous people) and replace it with a new settler population.” Before the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, Penslar condemned the Israeli government, saying it was determined to “ethnically cleanse all territories under Israeli rule of their Palestinian population.” In a book published last year, Penslar wrote, “Veins of hatred run through Jewish civilization.”

The danger is that, as one writer damningly put it, “from his perch at Harvard, a professor like Penslar can manipulate the discipline of Jewish history even beyond the confines of the Ivy League, simply by telling the non-Jewish academic world what it wants to hear, such as that ‘veins of hatred run through Jewish civilization.’”

It is hard to see Penslar’s task force discovering Harvard is anti-Semitic for believing what the task force is likely to define as normal and acceptable—the same as Claudine Gay’s own conclusion that calls for genocide are only bad in “some contexts.” It seems the fox has been put in charge of the hen house. Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League said of Penslar’s appointment: “Lessons in how not to combat antisemitism, Harvard edition.”

The problem is modern antisemitism did not begin at Harvard with Claudine Gay’s ridiculous remarks, however. Jeremy Burton, of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said the focus on Gay by donors, outsiders, DEI critics, and Jewish activists is a “false context” for addressing antisemitism. “She was president for about a month before Oct. 7, if you count her actual time in office on campus. The problems at Harvard have been building for years, if not decades.” 

Burton cited reports of Israeli faculty and visiting students being harassed, Jewish students in certain departments not being welcome if they are “insufficiently anti-Zionist,” and professors being investigated for hostility toward Jewish and Israeli students.

Antisemitic? Harvard is home to a fellowship and a chair named after a man convicted of crimes against humanity in Nuremberg, Alfried Krupp. Krupp enslaved an estimated 100,000 Jews, including children, to work at his factory in Auschwitz. A Nuremberg prosecutor summed up the inhumanity saying “When they could no longer work, the SS took them away to be gassed.” Krupp’s foundation gave Harvard an initial $2 million (approximately $12 million today, adjusted for inflation) to whitewash his legacy. It worked; the web pages for Harvard’s Krupp fellowship and the Krupp professorship say nothing about being named for a convicted war criminal.

Krupp had his sentence commuted by the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John McCloy, a Harvard Law graduate who freed over two dozen convicted Nazis. McCloy also played a pivotal role in blocking America from bombing Auschwitz. He championed Japanese-American internment.

Imagine the foundations of men tied to black slavery continuing to play a role in modern campus life with nary a whisper of protest; you can’t, it’s been fixed—“I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals [slavery], on Harvard and on our society,” Lawrence Bacow, then university president, wrote. The slavery study he spoke of was heralded as “a long overdue reckoning by an elite institution with its dark past.” Just not for Jews.

Harvard marked its history with the Jews in different ways. The first to be hired as an instructor was Judah Monis. He was the only Jew to receive a college degree in America before 1800, and was given a job by Harvard to teach Hebrew, but only on the condition he convert to Christianity. Not only were they seen by nativists as socialists; Jews were also seen by some Americans as being members of a genetically inferior race. They were crude, and they were unwelcome.

Antisemitism has been a historical issue within the Ivy League. In the early to mid-20th century, some Ivy League universities, including Harvard, implemented admission quotas limiting the number of Jewish students. This discriminatory practice persisted until the mid-20th century.

As author Jerome Karabel explains in The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, from their foundings until early in the 20th century, the Ivies mostly admitted all those who could pass a simple entrance examination. Men who were not of the proper background would generally self-select out. “These universities that had basically been finishing schools for Protestant boys who had come from elite boarding schools all of a sudden became engines of social mobility for aspiring dreamers from Jewish immigrant families,” said Mark Oppenheimer, of American Jewish University, and host of a podcast about the history of Jews in the Ivy League.

More and more sons of Jewish immigrants applied for admission as part of the waves flowing into the U.S. from Eastern Europe. Columbia soon found that 40 percent of its entering class was Jewish. Harvard saw about 30 percent. A popular college song of the day went, “Oh, Harvard’s run by millionaires, And Yale is run by booze, Cornell is run by farmers’ sons, Columbia’s run by Jews.”

These schools responded to the purported “Jewish Problem” by devising ways to block applicants. Starting around 1910, admissions offices were established to screen for Jews, and admittance caps were instituted to block them. Schools began requesting letters of recommendation to gauge the “character and leadership” (but not the too pushy kind) of students, code-words for Protestant background, as Catholic immigrants were also not favored.

Admission offices also started to take notice of geographic diversity, athletic ability, alumni ties, and legacies, and the use of an interview to exclude Jews in the specific and sons of immigrants in general. Jewish students were largely poor and lived at home, with many of them working night jobs, so Columbia started requiring students to live in dormitories on campus. Eventually, Harvard and the others imposed direct quotas on Jews. Applicants were asked for their religion and that of their ancestors, and whether the family name had been changed. With these methods, up to the early 1960s, most Ivies kept Jews to 10 or 12 percent of each freshman class.

“Antisemitism at Harvard is extremely disappointing and a huge problem,” Sam Lessin, running for a seat on Harvard’s Board of Overseers, said. “It needs to be solved but it’s also the canary in the coal mine in terms of a free speech problem.”

The critical thing is to understand the actions of former Harvard president Claudine Gay, or the decision to choose Derek Penslar as co-chair of a committee on antisemitism, are made in context, both modern context and, for Harvard, a historical one.

The post Antisemitism at Harvard: New or Old? appeared first on The American Conservative.

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