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September 26, 2016 / 23 Elul, 5776
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Wandering In The Academic Wilderness

Jerold S. Auerbach

Jerold S. Auerbach

In the good old days of what passes for higher education, before the state of Israel was relentlessly pilloried by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movements and professional academic associations, there was only garden variety anti-Semitism.

During much of the 20th century, elite American colleges and universities carefully policed their admission gates to restrict the entry of Jews. Like its Big Brothers – Harvard, Yale and Princeton – Wellesley College, where I taught history between 1971 and 2010, designed admission policy to perpetuate a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite.

This challenge became imperative after World War I, when hordes of socially undesirable candidates with academically superior credentials – in a word, Jews – threatened to inundate the academic citadels of privilege. With Harvard in danger of becoming “Hebrewized,” Yale fearful of being “overrun” by Jews, and Princeton anxious lest Jews “ruin [it] as they have Columbia and Pennsylvania,” the solution was obvious.

Just as Congress enacted immigration restriction laws to curtail the entry of undesirables from Southern and Eastern Europe, so colleges imposed quotas to exclude Jews. Questions about religious affiliation were embedded in the selection process.

So, too, were geographical distribution preferences, personal interviews, and photographs, all designed to filter out Jews. More than sixty years after her graduation, a Wellesley Jewish alumna still remembered an oblivious classmate who had complained: “Isn’t it awful how Jews turn up everyplace and how they have horns.”

Several years before my arrival, two faculty members circulated a petition among their colleagues asking Wellesley trustees to drop the provision in college bylaws restricting the faculty to those who professed Christianity. Half the faculty signed but the trustees, reaffirming their commitment to religious freedom, declined to change the bylaws.

Focused on my teaching and writing, I was largely unaware of Wellesley’s embrace of anti-Semitism. But a litany of student complaints, providing dismaying evidence of persistent insensitivity – if not blatant discrimination – toward Jews at the college, alerted me. It seemed that anti-Semitism infested virtually every sector of Wellesley life.

* * * * *

A decade after my arrival, I introduced a resolution in Academic Council – the faculty governing body – condemning and repudiating “the history and legacy” of anti-Semitism at Wellesley. It quickly became bogged down in a swamp of evasion and avoidance. Would the pattern of discrimination be perceived as institutional, or would it be reduced to the isolated acts of individuals who just happened to be college presidents, trustees, deans, and faculty members? Would discrimination targeting Jews be specifically identified and condemned – or would anti-Semitism vanish amid vapid declarations of universal tolerance?

The Boston Jewish Advocate followed my lead and published a comprehensive article documenting the long history of anti-Semitism at Wellesley. Once its dirty linen began to be washed in public – with a sustained flurry of letters in response to the article – the facade of institutional denial finally began to crack.

After hours of excruciating debate stretching across three acrimonious faculty meetings, the faculty (amid thunderous administrative silence) finally decided to decide. It acknowledged and condemned the persistence of anti-Semitism at Wellesley, committed the college to obliterate discrimination against Jews in recruitment, admission, employment, and promotion, and declared that insensitivity toward the obligations of religiously observant Jews was impermissible.

But the Board of Trustees dug in its heels. With cavalier disregard of the history of restrictive admission quotas and bias in faculty hiring, the Trustees denied any history of anti-Semitism at Wellesley. Instead, they fabricated and celebrated a mythical “history of dedication to diversity” – in a college where for many decades only white Christian women had been welcome.

Jerold S. Auerbach

About the Author: Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Jewish State/Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy,” to be published next month by Quid Pro Books.


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