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.
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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.
It was especially dismaying to witness the responses of my Jewish faculty colleagues. Court Jews reflexively aligned themselves with their Wellesley benefactor, even when it discriminated against their own people. Jewish universalists, passionately committed to every worthy liberal cause, could not bear to identify and condemn discrimination only against Jews.
Self-hating Jews, inclined to identify themselves only in order to legitimate their criticism of Israel, endlessly reiterated the complexity of the issue, the better to evade the stark reality of anti-Semitism. Mostly, there were the Jews of silence, who could not rouse themselves to utter a word in public against anti-Semitism.
Wellesley’s Jewish problem persisted. The Religion Department, which had never granted tenure to a Jew, denied it to a young Jewish scholar with exemplary qualifications. Only when he threatened to sue the college did the president intervene to assure his promotion.
In the English Department a young woman hired to teach Yiddish and Jewish literature was informed by colleagues, “loud and clear, that work in Yiddish wasn’t valuable.” Her American literature syllabus was criticized for including Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, and Bernard Malamud. She was advised to eliminate the Jews, refocus on early modernism, and add Nathanial Hawthorne and Henry James. She soon resigned her position.
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By the nineties, Wellesley, like so many academic institutions, had made a strong commitment to affirmative action and multicultural diversity. The special admissions consideration that once was confined to Christian applicants now was reserved for African-American, Latina, Asian and Native-American students – and, as always, the daughters of alumnae. A small Jewish Studies department was established. But Jewish students, with every reason to anticipate the benefits of heightened tolerance, found themselves marginalized as members of the white majority who were available as scapegoats for the grievances of other minorities.
In the spring of 1993 Tony Martin, a tenured member of the African-American Studies department, assigned for student reading an anonymously written volume published by the Nation of Islam titled The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews. A farrago of false claims, it asserted that Jews, united “in an unholy coalition of kidnappers and slave makers,” had played a “disproportionate” role, amounting to “monumental culpability,” in slavery and the slave trade – “the black holocaust.”
Martin’s department chairman accurately described the book as “patently and scurrilously anti-Semitic.” Martin responded by calling his colleague a “handkerchief head.”
To Martin, the explanation for the instant outcry against his assignment of the book was simple: “The long arm of Jewish intolerance reached into my classroom.” He was, he loudly proclaimed, the victim of “a classic textbook case study of organized Jewish intimidation.” In a college ruled by polite decorum, the vehement tirade of an angry black man was frightening and threatening.
Adding fuel to the fire, Martin self-published a venomous tract later that year titled The Jewish Onslaught: Despatches [sic.] from the Wellesley Battlefront. The self-described victim of a “Jewish onslaught,” he denounced allegations of his anti-Semitism as “a clever smokescreen for a burgeoning Jewish intolerance of truly Stalinist proportions.”
Hallucinating a Jewish cabal aligned against him, he noted that the dean of the college, chair of the Board of Trustees, head of student government, “a goodly portion” of the tenured faculty, and “sundry other persons in high positions, were all Jews.” Martin raged against “all the dirty Jewish tricks” used against him.
The college president, evidently terrified of confronting Martin, ignored his rants; said nothing about his teaching of scurrilous lies about the role of Jews in the slave trade; and responded with an impassioned plea for polite manners. That Martin was teaching anti-Semitic fabrication as historical fact did not seem to concern her.
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After the 9/11 terrorist attacks the battleground for Jews at Wellesley shifted. The president forcefully reminded the Wellesley community to show respect for Muslim students, lest they be held guilty by association with Muslim terrorists. But she said nothing to reassure Jewish students, who encountered malicious allegations, on and off campus, of Israeli responsibility for the terrorist outrages, accompanied by mendacious claims that several thousand Jews, forewarned of the attacks, had not reported for work at the World Trade Center that day.
Not long afterward, a swastika was painted at a bus stop near the college. The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, the center of college multicultural sensitivities, sponsored a three-faiths panel discussion about Jerusalem – which it scheduled on Yom Kippur. Blatantly anti-Semitic e-mail postings by Muslim students infuriated their Jewish classmates: an anti-Israel poem repeated centuries-old anti-Semitic canards about Jews as “Judas,” while a photograph of three Israeli soldiers bore the caption “Three Jewish Animals.”
The president cautioned against “hateful or harmful speech” at a time of anti-Semitism “and other ancient hatreds.” No other “ancient hatreds” were identified.
For Jewish students, Wellesley often provided their first bitter encounter with anti-Semitism. After Angela Davis roused a campus audience with an impassioned endorsement of the vicious hostility directed at Israel and Jews at the Durban Conference against Racism (2001), a Jewish student wrote pointedly in the College newspaper: “I did not come to Wellesley expecting to learn what it felt like to be hated or demonized because I was Jewish,” while college administrators “stand idly by.”
One year after 9/11, Amiri Baraka – formerly the militant black activist Leroi Jones – was invited by the Africana and Art departments, and by African-American student groups, to speak at the college. Baraka had achieved national notoriety for his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” suggesting that Israel had advance knowledge of the terrorist attacks. He wrote: “Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day.” (The correct answer, of course, was no one.)
Jewish students were outraged that college funds were spent to import anti-Semitism to the campus – on the Jewish Sabbath, no less. Picketing his speech, they were less concerned with displaying good manners than confronting the anti-Semitism in their midst.
The college assertively proclaimed its commitment to multicultural sensitivity but racial, religious and ethnic animosity continued to fester. Jews, perceived as privileged white Americans, were excluded from its concerns. Jewish students, encountering anti-Semitism and the indifference of college authorities to it, felt vulnerable and often battered.
In 2007, at the invitation of a pro-Israel Jewish student group, Nonie Darwish, the controversial founder of Arabs for Israel, spoke on campus. After Muslims in the audience raucously interrupted her defense of Israel, Darwish was forced to leave the auditorium under police protection. Yet even strongly identified Jewish students, who were deeply attached to Israel, felt the need to apologize abjectly and publicly for extending an invitation that had offended their Muslim classmates.
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By the turn of the century, traditional anti-Semitism – at Wellesley as worldwide – had begun to morph into the delegitimization of Israel. Students whose Jewish identity had been battered by their encounters with anti-Semitism at the college, and by the indifference of college authorities to their plight, now confronted the newest expression of an ancient hatred.
With American Jewish history and the history of Israel already embedded in my teaching program, I could provide safe space for the expression of student ideas – and anxieties – about Jewish history and identity. In extracurricular meetings I tried to provide a secure forum where Jewish students, who had dutifully internalized Wellesley’s Jewish problem as their own, could express their pain and apprehension without censure.
They lived, one student revealed, in “a culture of fear in which the Jewish students were afraid to stand up for themselves for fear of being blacklisted or disliked by their friends and classmates.” A student leader explained, “We wanted to be accepted by our peers. We didn’t want to rock the boat or have our classmates dislike us.” In the face of persistent hostility, another student confided: “I’m scared and confused and wonder if maybe…I’m doing something wrong by being Jewish.”
Jewish students assuaged their discomfort by internalizing their hurt. One student was astonished to discover “how lonely Jewish students were feeling.” Another confided: “After banging my head against the wall, tiptoeing around, walking on eggshells avoiding stating any of my beliefs so as not to make anyone uncomfortable, to find out the fact that I am religious offends someone else was too much.”
Torn between their Jewish identity and their desire to belong at Wellesley, it was difficult for Jewish students to realize that when Wellesley made them feel uncomfortable, frightened or confused about being Jewish, it meant that something was wrong with Wellesley, not with them.
Looking back, as historians are trained to do, it was not difficult to discern the strong connection between centuries of irrational hatred of Jews and the contemporary eruption of loathing for the Jewish state. Israel had become the despised national embodiment of the long reviled Jew. In its own distinctive way, Wellesley College – if always politely and decorously – reflected the transformation of anti-Semitism into anti-Zionism.
At least I was spared the folly of my own alma mater, Oberlin College, renowned for its liberalism ever since it became the first American college to admit female and African-American students. The school’s Students for a Free Palestine led a campaign to divest from companies “that profit from the occupation and oppression of Palestinians.” Support came from La Alianza Latina, the South Asian Students Association, the Queer Wellness Coalition and the Center for Women and Transgender People. Oberlin, proclaimed one proud student (without discernible irony), “lives up to its progressive history and reputation.”
Progressivism (i.e. liberalism), anti-Semitism, and the delegitimization of Israel had converged. Although I resisted the Wellesley tide, I could not reverse it. One way or another, the college continued to isolate and demean its Jewish students. After forty years of wandering in the Wellesley wilderness, with my bad Jewish manners on public display, it was time to leave.
By now, “Israel Apartheid Week” (observed during the last week of February) has become the annual rite of Jewish loathing and Israel-bashing on American campuses. It is for a new generation of Jewish college students to confront this obscene spectacle that demeans its anti-Semitic perpetrators far more than its targeted Israeli villains.
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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