American Jews have an important stake in the nation's system of higher education. For second- and third-generation Jews college was…
American Jews have an important stake in the nation’s system of higher education. For second and third-generation Jews college was the major channel of upward mobility, and among young Jews today college attendance is practically universal. In addition, Jews are heavily represented among faculty in institutions of higher learning. According to recent surveys conducted by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, Jews, who comprise 3 per cent of the national population, are 9 per cent of the faculty in the nation’s colleges and universities. In the seventeen ranking universities, the proportion of Jews is 17 per cent, and among faculty in such fields of traditional Jewish concentration as medicine, law, and social science, the proportion of Jews runs as high as one-third. In certain institutions near Jewish population centers, the figures are even higher.
These achievements are largely a result of two trends since World War II. The first has been the tremendous expansion of higher education, especially of state universities. The second has been the lowering of discriminatory barriers that once limited Jewish access to many private colleges, including some of the most prestigious colleges in the nation.
More recent trends, however, threaten to alter the structure of educational opportunity for Jews. First of all, cutbacks in government funding of higher education have brought an abrupt end to a quarter-century of steady growth, and this will inevitably influence the educational chances of Jews and non-Jews alike. Other changes will affect Jews selectively. In recent years many state universities have adopted percentage restrictions against out-of-state students. Others discourage out-of-state applicants by charging higher fees or by demanding higher qualifications than apply to residents. Since the great majority of Jews are concentrated in just a few states, these restrictions are bound to affect them disproportionately.
While primarily a response to economic conditions, in at least some instances geographical restrictions have had anti-Jewish motives. A view widely shared both within and outside the university is that many radical students come from the East and that many of these students are Jews. Acting on this assumption, at least two universities have singled out areas of high Jewish concentration as deserving lowest priority in the recruitment of students. In one instance a quota was specifically aimed at students from the New York City metropolitan area. This trend could severely restrict Jewish access to some of the largest universities in the nation.
If geographical restrictions are new to state universities in the West, they are longstanding practice in private colleges in the East. Since the 1920’s, when these colleges were flooded with Jewish applicants, their policy has been to strive for a “regional balance” by giving preference to applicants from outside the East. This practice originated as a device for preserving the upper-class and Protestant character of the elite Eastern colleges. In contrast, the quotas adopted in recent years are designed to increase the representation of disprivileged blacks. One can only speculate on whether this will significantly diminish educational opportunities for Jews. It is just as plausible that the increasing black enrollment will be at the expense of those students who previously were admitted less for their academic qualifications than because they had the “right” family credentials or came from the “right” preparatory school. The process of eliminating privilege from Eastern colleges was initiated by Jews and may well be advanced one step further by blacks. Nevertheless, many Jews are alarmed by the introduction of unofficial quotas favorable to black applicants. As a small minority, Jews are obviously threatened by the concept of “proportional representation.” Indeed, the very idea of quotas is anathema to Jews. They have the memory of the numerus clausus that restricted Jewish access to universities in Russia. And, more immediately, in America the first quotas established in higher education were aimed specifically against Jews.
The immigration of several million Jews from Eastern Europe drastically changed the character of the American-Jewish community, as well as its relation to the larger society. Prior to the East European immigration, American Jews had been a small, inconspicuous, and highly assimilated group. Most were either descendants of early settlers or recent German immigrants. In all they numbered roughly a quarter of a million in a population of sixty-three million, or just six-tenths of one per cent. As Nathan Glazer comments: “. . . before 1880 or 1890 there were too few American Jews for them to constitute a question.”
More than small numbers was involved. Given their German origins, Jews blended in culturally with the American mainstream. By 1880 the great majority had entered middle-class occupations. The prevailing mood in the Jewish community was to abandon “outmoded” beliefs and customs, and to seek ways to reconcile historical Judaism with the demands of modern society. This was the period during which the Reform movement flourished and reached its most radical expression. In 1885, a group of leading Reform rabbis adopted a statement of principles that rejected whatever in Mosaic law was “not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”
A small Jewish population, its integration into the class system, the absence of sharp cultural differences between Jews and non-Jews, the mood of accommodation in the Jewish community—these factors contributed to a low level of religious conflict during most of the 19th century. However, beneath the surface of religious harmony was a layer of anti-Semitic beliefs and stereotypes handed down from the past. As one historian, John Higham, writes: “. . . the Jews in early nineteenth century America got along very well with their non-Jewish neighbors although American conceptions of Jews in the abstract at no time lacked the unfavorable elements embedded in European tradition.”
The presence of anti-Semitic conceptions, however inert, did not augur well for the immigrants from Eastern Europe. Even before their arrival, upwardly mobile Jews with German origins confronted social barriers erected by a nervous Protestant upper class. It was largely in response to this development that, as Oscar and Mary Handlin put it, “after 1880 the longings for exclusive, quasi-aristocratic status increasingly found satisfaction in associations with an hereditary basis.” Yankee ancestry became a condition for respectability, and the old class sought refuge in exclusive societies and resorts. Discrimination also became the practice in prestigious clubs, including some university alumni clubs.
By 1924, the year that immigration quotas were imposed, the nation’s Jewish population had increased to approximately four million. Moreover, Jews were heavily concentrated in the urban centers of the Northeast, where they did in fact constitute a significant portion of the population. The Jewish population of New York, the port of arrival for most immigrants, grew from 80,000 in 1880 to 1,225,000 in 1910. From a practically invisible minority of 3 per cent, by 1920 Jews constituted 30 per cent of the city’s population.
Even more important than the increase in numbers was the social character of the newer immigrants. Impoverished, refugees from persecution, natives of an alien and sometimes backward culture, adherents of pre-modern religious beliefs and customs, the East European Jews were a new factor in American life. The “new immigration,” as it was called, made Jews visible as a group for the first time. The spectacle of over one million Jews clustered in New York City aroused the predictable xenophobic reaction. America now had a “Jewish problem,” and American nativism a new target.
The essence of the “Jewish problem” was how to control the influx of Jews into areas of social activity that were predominantly Protestant. By 1920 a pattern of anti-Jewish discrimination had become established, and was being sustained by an upsurge of anti-Jewish propaganda, especially in the Northeast where the Jewish settlements were located. Discrimination became commonplace in neighborhoods, clubs, resorts, and private boarding schools, and was making headway wherever else Jews turned in large numbers. The Eastern colleges—elitist, tradition-bound, repositories of Puritan values and upper-class standards—could not remain untouched by these trends, especially when their enrollments contained increasing numbers of Jewish students.
“The Jew undergoes privation, spills blood, to educate his child,” boasted an editorial in a 1902 Jewish Daily Forward. “In [this] is reflected one of the finest qualities of the Jewish people. It shows our capacity to make sacrifices for our children . . . as well as our love for education, for intellectual effort.” While the Jewish passion for education is easily romanticized, the fact is that Jewish immigrants did place high value on education and sent their children to college in disproportionate numbers. As the Forward’s editorial observed: “You don’t find many German, Irish, or Italian children in City College. About 90 per cent of the boys there are Jews, and most of them children of Jewish workers.” What the Forward neglected to mention was that, according to one early report, “as the percentage of Russian-Jewish boys in attendance increased, the families of Anglo-Saxon, Dutch, German, and Huguenot descent, who had been accustomed to register their boys in the College in the old days, sent them elsewhere for a college education.”
As more and more Jews enrolled in City College, it acquired a reputation for being a “Jewish school.” Indeed, by 1920 both City College and Hunter College had become between 80 and 90 per cent Jewish. A number of other Eastern colleges showed rapid increases in their Jewish enrollment. Before Columbia instituted restrictive quotas after World War I, it had a Jewish enrollment of 40 per cent. The figure for New York University was probably higher; the figure for Harvard was 20 per cent. Without its pejorative implications the notion of a “Jewish invasion” would not be inappropriate for describing the trends in these institutions prior to World War I.
The high rate of college attendance among Jews is easier to understand against the background of conditions in the secondary schools. During the early 1900’s American society did not place much value on a continuing education. The vast majority of Americans were employed in occupations that required few skills, especially of a kind that comes with formal education. For most people anything beyond a rudimentary knowledge of the three R’s had little practical value, and the tendency in the schools was to emphasize “life adjustment” rather than intellectual development with an eye to college preparation. The individual who graduated from high school was the exception, not the rule. Those who did complete high school came mostly from the economically advantaged strata of society. They alone could afford to postpone employment and could see in a high school or college education some prospective utility and economic benefit.
Nevertheless, the common school did provide an opportunity for those in the lower classes with sufficient ingenuity or will to obtain free education for their children. Jews availed themselves of this opportunity with greater frequency than most other groups. A 1922 study of one Eastern high school found that the academic record of Russian-Jewish students was surpassed only by children of German or Scandinavian parents. In comparison to other ethnic groups, including native Americans, Jewish children were more likely to reach high school, more likely to finish high school if they entered, and more likely to enroll in college preparatory rather than commercial or technical courses.
From a historical perspective it makes little sense to explain Jewish academic success in terms of a special aptitude or brilliance on the part of Jews. It was enough that Jews placed high value on education, that they were more often willing to undergo sacrifices, and that their children had the motivation and perseverance to stay in school when most of their contemporaries had liberated themselves from academic routine and discipline.
Nor did it demand any special talent to gain admission to college, even a prestigious college. Fifty years ago the gates to most of the nation’s colleges were open to anyone with only minimal academic credentials. In 1922 admission to Harvard was guaranteed to anyone with the appropriate high-school training who passed an entrance examination. The fact of the matter is that Jews did not face intense competition from non-Jews, at least not on the scale that is characteristic today. With determination, average intellect, and modest financial resources, a student could make his way through the academic system.
The fact that the Jewish entry into institutions of higher learning began with second- rather than third- or fourth-generation Jews was of utmost significance. Jewish college students during the 1920’s carried the mark of their immigrant culture. The editorial in the Jewish Daily Forward could take pride in Jewish students marching off to City College with clothes that were “mostly poor and old.” But they were greeted with indignation and hostility by their upper-class schoolmates, especially in the elite Eastern colleges. A writer in a 1923 edition of the Nation put it bluntly: the upwardly mobile Jew “sends his children to college a generation or two sooner than other stocks, and as a result there are in fact more dirty Jews and tactless Jews in college than dirty and tactless Italians, Armenians, or Slovaks.”
No matter how strong the Jewish penchant for education, no matter how deeply rooted in Jewish religion and culture, it would have mattered for little if room had not existed in the colleges. It was fortuitous that the tide of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe coincided with a period of unprecedented expansion in American higher education. Between 1890 and 1925 college enrollments grew at a rate nearly five times faster than the population.
Just as important as the physical expansion of the university were the related qualitative changes. For several decades a revolt had been gaining momentum against a curriculum that consisted principally of Latin, Greek, rhetoric, mathematics, and natural philosophy. By 1880 the attitude that all knowledge must begin with the classics gave way to demands for practical education. Behind this changing conception of higher education was the advancing industrial and scientific revolution, which created a need for an educated managerial class as well as trained professionals and technicians. Thus Latin and Greek were no longer required for admission to most colleges, the “elective principle” was instituted to free students from traditionally required subjects, and it was generally conceded to be compatible with the ideals of a college to train students for careers in business, engineering, scientific farming, the arts, and a variety of new professions such as accounting and pharmacy that made their appearance in American colleges for the first time. Thanks to their penchant for education and their determination to succeed, Jews availed themselves of the newly created opportunities more than did other groups. Thanks to the basic structural changes in society that transformed American higher education, the opportunities existed in the first place.
One writer in 1910 observed that in colleges there were “two classes, the one, favored according to undergraduate thinking, holding its position by financial ability to have a good time with leisure for carrying off athletic and other showy prizes; the other class in sheer desperation taking the faculty, textbooks, and debating more seriously. Each class runs in the same rut all its life.” Second-generation Jews obviously did not have the economic resources or the social standing to participate in the collegiate “leisure class.” For them a college education was less a mark of status than a vehicle out of the lower class, and this inevitably gave Jews a sense of purpose lacking elsewhere.
Numerous writers during the early 1900’s commented on the outstanding academic record of Jewish students. According to one observer: “At every university and college that I have visited, I have heard ungrudging praise of the exceptional ability of the Jewish, especially of the Russian-Jewish, students.” Even those uneasy about the influx of Jews rarely denied their enterprise as students. One comments begrudgingly: “History is full of examples where one race has displaced another by underliving and overworking.” Indeed, Jewish academic success, and the willingness of Jews to violate the “taboo on scholarship” (as one Yale professor called it), was a source of considerable resentment, and constituted no small part of the “Jewish problem.”
Nothing more need be said about the class of students who took faculty, textbooks, and debating seriously; they were not very different from the contemporary college student with serious aspirations, a competitive spirit, and a respect for scholarship. Jews evidently possessed these qualities long before they became established as norms in the better universities. Early in the century, the prevailing mood in the American college, especially the prestigious Eastern colleges, was anything but one of seriousness and devotion to learning. According to Laurence Vessey:
The undergraduate temperament was marked by a strong resistance to abstract thinking and to the work of the classroom in general, by traits of practicality, romanticism, and high-spiritedness, and by passive acceptance of moral, political, and religious values taken from the non-academic society at large.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the extent to which honor societies, Greek-letter fraternities, eating clubs, and sports dominated undergraduate life. “The cultivation of gentility,” as Thorstein Veblen called it, was pursued to the exclusion of virtually all other values. The prevailing attitude toward scholarship was at best one of indifference, as symbolized by the concept and reality of the “gentleman’s C.”
The class origin of students in these prestigious universities was of central importance. Recruited largely from upper-class families, their route to college typically traversed the private preparatory school. In 1909, for example, 78 per cent of Princeton students, and 65 per cent of Yale students came from prep schools. Significantly, the figure for Harvard was lower—47 per cent. In these colleges upper-class students established a clubby atmosphere and patterns of expensive and frivolous habits. Veblen bluntly called them “gentlemen’s colleges” where “scholarship is . . . made subordinate to genteel dissipation, to a grounding in those methods of conspicuous consumption that should engage the thought and energies of a well-to-do man of the world.”
It was no doubt as a reflection of class formation elsewhere in society that higher education assumed the features of a caste system. At the top of the hierarchy stood Harvard, Yale, Princeton, with Columbia struggling to retain its elite position. Within each institution was a wealthy class who dominated social life and set patterns imitated throughout the system of higher education. The leading institutions were measured more in terms of these status characteristics than by standards of scholarship or academic achievement.
The important thing to be said about Jews is that they threatened this respectability. They did so, first of all, because they were lower class, and frequently exhibited ethnic characteristics that violated what Veblen called “the canons of genteel intercourse.” Secondly, the seriousness and diligence with which they pursued their academic careers not only represented unwelcome competition, but implicitly called into question the propriety of a “gentlemen’s college.” Finally, Jews were unwanted simply because they were Jews, and it was feared that their presence might diminish the social standing of the college and its students.
Some of the flavor of this conflict is conveyed in an autobiographical essay entitled “The Coming of the Jews.” The author, Francis Russell, came from an old-guard Protestant family and attended Boston Latin School, an elite public high school that sent its best students to Harvard. By 1920 it had become over half Jewish. Writes Russell:
My own background was middle-class, Protestant, non-competitive, like that of most Roxbury Latin boys. I had always taken for granted that I should go to Harvard because my father in his time had gone there; and I never doubted the possibility of this any more than I stopped to consider whether I really wanted to or not. That Harvard could be the goal of anyone’s ambitions never occurred to me.
In contrast, Jews
worked far into each night, their lessons next morning were letter perfect, they took obvious pride in their academic success and talked about it. At the end of each year there were room prizes given for excellency in each subject, and they were openly after them. There was none of the Roxbury solidarity of pupils versus the master. If anyone reciting made a mistake that the master overlooked, twenty hands shot into the air to bring it to his attention.
Such a competitive situation does not generate good feeling, especially when the group with superior status takes second place. As Russell says: “It was a fierce and gruelling competition. . . . Some of us in the Gentile rump were fair students, most of us lazy and mediocre ones, and by our position at the foot of the class we despised the industry of those little Jews.” It was just as inevitable that Jews would begrudge the status and privilege of their competitors: “They hated us in return with the accumulated resentment of the past, and because they knew that the way for us was easier.”
The picture that emerges from Russell’s candid essay is of a complacent ruling class living off past achievements and suddenly challenged by talented newcomers, resented all the more because they were Jewish. For the first time the conflict between the status claims of the elite colleges and their educational functions became apparent. As one writer in a 1922 journal put it:
Each student in an American college is there, for some other purpose than acquiring knowledge. He is to be the transmitter to others of ideals of mind, spirit, and conduct. Scholarship is perhaps the most strongly emphasized of these ideals, but it is not the only one, or even the one most generally prized. [Emphasis added.]
No one suggested that Jewish students threatened academic standards. Rather it was argued that the college stood for other things, and that social standards were as important and valid as intellectual ones.
A college song during the 1910’s had these lyrics:
Oh, Harvard’s run by millionaires,
And Yale is run by booze,
Cornell is run by farmers’ sons,
Columbia’s run by Jews.
So give a cheer for Baxter Street,
Another one for Pell,
And when the little sheenies die,
Their souls will go to hell.
A climate of intolerance prevailed in many Eastern colleges long before discriminatory quotas were contemplated by college officials. From the turn of the century anti-Semitism was a common feature of campus social life. Although exceptions were sometimes made, Jews were generally excluded from the honor societies and eating clubs at Yale and Princeton. In 1902 a dormitory at Harvard came to be known as “Little Jerusalem” because of its large number of Jewish residents. In 1913 a fraternity suspended its charter at CCNY because “the Hebraic element is greatly in excess.” Such anti-Semitic incidents checker the history of American colleges after 1900.
However unpleasant, social discrimination was not a serious disability. For one thing Jews tended to avoid campuses like Yale and Princeton that had a reputation for bigotry, and to seek out others—City College, New York University, and Columbia—that offered a less hostile atmosphere as well as proximity to New York’s Lower East Side. Under President Eliot’s administration, Harvard earned a reputation as the most liberal and democratic of the “Big Three” and therefore Jews did not feel that the avenue to a prestigious college was altogether closed. While campus anti-Semitism probably left Jews with a feeling of social inferiority, it was a small price to pay for education and economic advancement. The author of a 1916 article in Harper’s Weekly went so far as to see social discrimination as an asset: “. . . indeed, their exclusion from societies stimulates their education on the intellectual side; and a final judgement on the whole matter would depend in part on the relative importance we give to ‘college work’ and ‘college life.’” His prediction that Jews would pioneer a “new and higher conception of the purpose of university education” may have proved correct in some respects. But frequently the principal result of Jewish exclusion was that Jews formed their own fraternities and social groups. Ironically, this only reinforced the prevalent notion that Jewish students were clannish and unassimilable.
At least some administrators of Eastern colleges shared the anti-Jewish sentiments of their students, hardly surprising since both groups had similar social origins. In 1890 the editor of the American Hebrew mailed a questionnaire to a number of prominent Christians, including several college presidents and professors. Those who replied were unanimous in condemning prejudice as indefensible and irrational, but a question regarding “standards of conduct” elicited some critical comments about Jews. The following from a Harvard professor was typical:
Many Jews have personal and social qualities and habits that are unpleasant. . . . These come in large measure from the social isolation to which they have been subjected for centuries, by the prejudice and ignorance of Christian communities. Most Jews are socially untrained, and their bodily habits are not good.
The president of Tufts University concurred:
The social characteristics of the Jews are peculiar. The subtle thing which we call manners, among them differs from the manners of Americans generally.
These men would have been indignant if their remarks had been construed as prejudiced, for they repudiated prejudice as un-Christian and irrational. They were convinced that their opinion of Jews was based not on myth or religious bigotry, but on social reality. As a dean of Columbia wrote in 1904: “What most people regard as a racial problem is really a social problem.”
Indeed, to a certain extent it was a social problem involving real differences in “the subtle thing which we call manners.” It would be simplistic to attribute the religious antagonisms of the period solely to bigotry handed down from the past. But it would be equally naive to assume that class and ethnic differences alone explain the unfavorable attitudes toward Jews that prevailed in educated circles. If not for the history of virulent anti-Semitism and the various stigmas attached to Jews, their cultural characteristics would have received less notice. Besides, even Jews with “proper” manners were victims of social discrimination. The tendency was to think of all Jews in terms of the immigrant, and to think of all non-Jews in terms of the highest standards of gentility and Christian virtue.
During the 1910’s there was increasing pressure in certain Eastern colleges to control the Jewish influx. The Jewish “takeover” of City College, whose student body was by then over 80 per cent Jewish, served as a warning. Other factors were also at work. World War I fanned the flames of nationalism, and a combination of political demagoguery and nativist propaganda heightened anti-Jewish feeling. For largely independent reasons, the mood inside the colleges was also undergoing change. Reaction was setting in against the reforms of the past twenty years—the expansion of enrollment, the subordination of the classical subjects to science and vocational training, and the related trend toward increased class and ethnic heterogeneity in the student population. Soon after his inauguration as President of Harvard in 1909, Abbott Lawrence Lowell complained that Harvard men were not as intellectually or socially rounded as they ought to be, or by implication, as they once were.
From the turn of the century there were colleges that limited their Jewish enrollment. However, beginning around 1920 some of the Eastern colleges that had previously been open to Jews adopted policies designed to reduce their Jewish enrollment. To the public, and possibly to themselves, they maintained the fiction of non-discriminatory admissions. But in fact quotas were instituted, though concealed behind a number of subterfuges. Some colleges set up alumni committees to screen candidates, a device that passed on the responsibility of religious discrimination to agreeable alumni. Other colleges limited their total enrollment and employed waiting lists that permitted a biased selection of students. Still others, under the pretext of seeking a regional balance, gave preference to students outside the East and thereby limited the number of Jews, almost all of whom lived in the East.
The most common ploy for excluding Jews was the introduction of character tests and psychological exams. Before the 1920’s only criteria of scholastic performance were used in the admissions process; now admissions boards began to scrutinize the “outside” interests of students. In addition, school principals were asked to rank students on such characteristics as “fair play,” “public spirit,” “interest in fellows,” and “leadership,” These traits were exactly the opposite of those generally ascribed to Jews. According to the prevailing image, Jews did not use “fair play” but employed unfair methods to get ahead. “Public spirit” and “interest in fellows” were Christian virtues; Jews were outsiders who cared only for themselves. “Leadership” was seen as a prerogative of non-Jews; Jews exhibiting this quality would be regarded as “pushy.” School principals, who were invariably Protestant and middle class, could be expected to reflect these stereotypes in evaluating their Jewish students.
It is not possible to determine precisely how prevalent quotas were during the 1920’s, though writers of the period give the impression that by 1930 most private colleges with a large and growing Jewish enrollment had instituted some kind of restrictive device. The most dramatic reversal occurred at Columbia where the Jewish enrollment declined from 40 to 22 per cent in a two-year period. New York University was also reported to have sharply reduced the number of Jewish students. In 1922 a dean explained their policy of selective admissions in this way:
We do not exclude students of any race or national origin because they are foreign, but whenever the student body is found to contain elements from any source in such proportions as to threaten our capacity for assimilating them, we seek by selection to restore the balance.
By 1920 Harvard’s Jewish enrollment reached 20 per cent; no restrictions were yet in effect. Syracuse was roughly 15 per cent Jewish in 1923, though the chancellor had to fight off an attempt to “rid the hill of Jews.” In 1930 Rutgers admitted only thirty-three Jewish students in order to “equalize the proportion” in the college. Rumor had it that Princeton used a quota based on the percentage of Jews in the United States; whether true or not, the proportion of Jewish students was minuscule. At Dartmouth in 1930 it was just 7 per cent.
It is evident that a tide of bigotry swept college campuses during the 1920’s, just as it did the nation as a whole. Yet the extent and significance of quotas should not be exaggerated. For one thing, they were confined geographically to the East, and what is more important, to private schools. Secondly, as objectionable as quotas were, they stopped far short of excluding Jews altogether. If excluded from the elite Eastern colleges, Jewish students could, and did, go elsewhere. They had the bitter experience of being treated as outcasts, and some had to settle for a less prestigious education. But in the final analysis the quotas of the 1920’s did not constitute a major obstacle to Jewish aspirations.
So long as quotas were administered surreptitiously, they were difficult to combat. Few people, least of all Jews, were deceived by the subterfuges that colleges employed, but they were effective in forestalling public exposure and political agitation. This situation suddenly changed with a terse announcement issued by Harvard University in June 1922. The full text was as follows:
The great increase which has recently taken place in the number of students at Harvard College, as at the other colleges, has brought up forcibly the problem of the limitation of enrollment.
We have not at present sufficient classrooms or dormitories, to take care of any further large increase. This problem is really a group of problems, all difficult, and most of them needing for their settlement more facts than we now have. Before a general policy can be formulated on this great question it must engage the attention of the Governing Board and the Faculties and it is likely to be discussed by alumni and undergraduates.
It is natural that with a widespread discussion of this sort going on there should be talk about the proportion of Jews at the college. At present the whole problem of limitation of enrollment is in the stage of general discussion and it may remain in that stage for a considerable time. [Emphasis added.]
Why did Harvard not proceed more discreetly and simply adopt the subterfuges employed elsewhere? The reason is to be found in the personality of President Lowell, perhaps in his New England candor, more likely in his naiveté and underlying prejudice. Lowell believed that he was acting courageously. As he wrote on one occasion: “This question is with us. We cannot solve it by forgetting or ignoring it.” In his commencement address a week later he added a touch of eloquence: “To shut the eyes to an actual problem of this kind and ignore its existence, or to refuse to grapple with it courageously, would be unworthy of a university.” The “problem” was that Jewish enrollment at Harvard had increased from 6 per cent in 1908 to 20 per cent in 1922. Lowell, however, was determined to avoid the “indirect methods” employed elsewhere. The storm of protest that ensued must have given him occasion to question the practicality of such moral rectitude.
Elected officials were among the first to react. On the day after the papers reported the news from Harvard a state legislator from Massachusetts proposed a bill for a legislative inquiry. On the next day, President Lowell traveled to the State House where he conferred privately with the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The Speaker obliged Lowell with a public statement that dismissed the press report as “idle rumor,” adding that “Harvard would remain, as in the past, a great university for all the people. . . .” Nevertheless, the protest in the State Legislature continued unabated. One pending bill proposed to eliminate all reference to Harvard University from the State Constitution, in order to dissociate the State from Harvard’s discriminatory policies. Another proposal called for a review of the tax exemptions that Harvard enjoyed on its property. The Boston City Council passed its own resolution condemning the Harvard administration. Finally, the Governor appointed a committee to investigate possible discrimination at Harvard. The New York Times reported that Harvard officials were “surprised” since they had assumed that “any plan for a State investigation would die a natural death.”
This was an impressive response from the official sector, unusual for the 1920’s. Still the resolute President of Harvard stood his ground. An exchange of letters with a dissenting Jewish alumnus was printed in the New York Times. Lowell’s letter began with the disclaimer that “there is perhaps no body of men in the United States . . . with so little anti-Semitic feeling as the instructing staff of Harvard University.” The letter continued: “There is, most unfortunately, a rapidly growing anti-Semitic feeling in this country . . . fraught with very great evils for the Jews, and very great perils for the community.” Finally the logic becomes clear: quotas were designed not to harm Jews, but to reduce anti-Semitism. They were in the best interests of Jews themselves:
The anti-Semitic feeling among the students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews. If their number should become 40 per cent of the student body, the race feeling would become intense. When on the other hand, the number of Jews was small, the race antagonism was small also. . . . If every college in the country would take a limited proportion of Jews, I suspect we should go a long way toward eliminating race feeling among the students, and as these students passed out into the world, eliminating it in the community.
For President Lowell, restricting Jewish enrollment at Harvard was a way of restricting the gowth of anti-Semitism. His Jewish correspondent was unconvinced: “If it be true . . . that anti-Semitic feeling among the students is increasing, should it not be the function of an institution of learning to discourage rather than encourage such a spirit?”
The criticism that was marshaled against President Lowell and Harvard owes itself in large measure to the political influence that Jews enjoyed both within and outside the university. The Jewish concentration in and around Boston was given further significance by gerrymandering practices that drew political boundaries so as to maximize ethnic homogeneity. As a consequence there were a number of “Jewish districts” that elected Jewish candidates to the State Legislature. This was at least one factor in the strong action that state and city officials took against Harvard’s proposed quotas.
In addition, Jews were strategically located within the power structure of the university. First, there were the Jewish alumni, like the one quoted above, who were outspoken in their opposition to quotas. Secondly, Harvard’s governing body, the Board of Overseers, had one Jewish member, Judge Julian W. Mack of Chicago, who was a leader in the American Jewish Congress. According to one newspaper report, he was “much exercised over the matter.”
A third political resource was the presence of Jews among the faculty at Harvard. When President Lowell appointed a committee of thirteen to review the college’s admissions policies, it included three Jews. All had German names, and judging from the committee’s final report, it is doubtful that they did much to defend Jewish interests. But the very presence of Jews on the faculty and through the ranks of the college made it all the more difficult to justify the sudden imposition of quotas.
Student opinion at Harvard was divided. A professor of social ethics asked his class to discuss whether religious restrictions were ethically justified. In the class of eighty-three, forty-one defended religious quotas. Thirty-four, including seven with Jewish names, held that such a policy was not justifiable; the remaining eight were undecided.
Some students who defended quotas expressed resentment of Jewish academic success: “They memorize their books! Thus they keep the average of scholarship so high that others with a high degree of common sense, but less parrot-knowledge, are prevented from attaining a representative grade.” A second criticism was that Jews were clannish and did not fit into student life: “They do not mix. They destroy the unity of the college.” “They are governed by selfishness.” “Jews are an unassimilable race, as dangerous to a college as indigestible food to a man.” Other responses were not explicitly anti-Jewish. A few expressed the view that Harvard’s founding fathers “wanted certain traditions maintained and it is a duty to maintain them. . . .” A more common argument was that “Harvard must maintain a cosmopolitan balance.”
As these comments suggest, the arguments in defense of quotas were basically of two kinds. One pointed to objectionable traits of Jews; the other pointed to desirable traits of the university that were presumably endangered. The latter argument did not accuse Jews of any objectionable behavior, but assumed the absence of qualities necessary for the preservation of the institution’s special character. This view was expressed by some of the leading journals of the day. One writer commented that Jewish immigrants “had little training in the amenities and delicacies of civilized existence,” and if the proportion of Jews at Harvard increased to 40 per cent as President Lowell warned, “this means that its character would be completely changed.” Another journalist was more forceful:
It is one of the severest and most distressing tasks of college authorities today to exercise that discrimination which will keep college ideals and atmosphere pure and sound and yet not quench this eager spirit. . . . Racial and religious oppression and prejudice have no place in America, and least of all in academic environments. But the effort to maintain standards against untrained minds and spirits is not oppression or prejudice.
Even the Nation, in commenting on the genteel tradition at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, conceded that “the infiltration of a mass of pushing young men with a foreign accent accustomed to overcome discrimination by self-assertiveness would obviously change the character of any of these institutions and lessen its social prestige.” However, the Nation’s editorial did not defend quotas. It was resigned to the inevitability that “some of the beauty of the aristocratic tradition” would be lost, but argued that America should not imitate the methods of “the most backward in Europe.” As might be expected, Jewish opinion challenged the legitimacy of judging applicants in terms of character as well as intelligence. As one Jewish writer put it: “We think that a university which keeps a man out because it doesn’t like his character is almost as benighted as the one which would sift him out because he is a Jew.”
“Almost as benighted.” It was difficult to deny the difference between rejecting applicants on sheer religious grounds and rejecting them because they lacked a preferred set of social characteristics. Advocates of quotas did not question the right of Jews to a college education. Rather the issue was the right of certain Eastern colleges to preserve their unique character, which was Protestant and upper class. The problem was not simply that Jews were displacing upper-class Protestants. More important was the effect that this had for the reputation of the college. City College was stigmatized as “the Jewish University of America,” and the University of Pennsylvania was said to have “the democracy of the streetcar.” As these colleges lost prestige, they ceased to attract students from prestigious families.
One might assume that the President of Harvard was motivated by a sincere desire to preserve Harvard’s historic identity, rather than by anti-Semitism. After all, was he not the President of an institution with a reputation for liberalism and tolerance? Was this not the A. Lawrence Lowell who in 1902 warned his predecessor of the “great danger of a snobbish separation of the students on lines of wealth” and who, in his own administration, had constructed compulsory freshman dormitories and commons? And had he not, in the same commencement address in which he defended his proposal for selective admissions, also expressed the view that “Americanization does not mean merely molding [foreigners] to an already settled type, but the blending together of many distinct elements . . . [each] with qualities which can enrich our common heritage.”
However, considerable doubt is cast on Lowell’s motives by an incident that occurred on Christmas day, 1922. Traveling on the New York-New Haven railroad, Lowell was engaged in conversation by a man—Victor Albert Kramer—who, unbeknownst to Lowell, was both Jewish and a graduate of Harvard. Several weeks later, at a synagogue forum on discrimination against Negroes, Kramer described his encounter with Lowell. Thanks to the presence of a New York Times reporter, the event was reported in the press.
According to Kramer, Lowell predicted a worsening of conditions for Jews so long as they remained apart and resisted intermarriage. Jews had outworn their religion, he believed, and must give up their peculiar practices if they expected to be treated with equality. The man who, in his commencement address six months earlier, had extolled the contributions each immigrant group could make to the evolving American, now in private conversation asserted that a Jew could not be both a Jew and an American. Finally, he expressed satisfaction in the fact that New York University had reduced the Jewish enrollment and took credit for Harvard’s plan to do so likewise.
Lowell never denied the encounter on the train, though a statement issued by his office claimed that the newspaper report “grossly misrepresents his views.” The statement continued sanctimoniously: “His earnest desire is to see anti-Semitic prejudice and Semitic segregation abolished in this country, and he believes that Jews and Gentiles should work together to this end. . . .” In Lowell’s view “Semitic segregation” stirred up latent anti-Semitic prejudice. A ceiling on the number of Jews at Harvard was therefore in the interest of both groups.
While President Lowell disapproved of “Semitic segregation,” he was of a different opinion with respect to Negroes. Even before becoming President, Lowell expressed his dislike for the residential separation between Harvard’s wealthy students, who lived in lavish apartments known as the Gold Coast, and the less privileged students. His construction of compulsory freshman dormitories won him a reputation as a champion of democracy. But it was also Lowell who instituted a color ban in these dormitories. For the handful of Harvard’s black students, it was compulsory to find living quarters elsewhere.
Like the proposed religious quotas, the color ban became a cause célèbre. Negro civil-rights groups agitated against it, and 149 Harvard alumni signed a protest petition. But to no avail. As Lowell said in a letter to the father of one of Harvard’s black freshmen:
. . . I am sorry to have to tell you that in the Freshman Halls, where residence is compulsory, we have felt from the beginning the necessity of not including colored men. To the other dormitories and dining rooms they are admitted freely, but in the Freshman Halls I am sure you will understand why . . . we have not thought it possible to compel men of different races to reside together.
Ironically, Lowell’s correspondent was himself a Harvard graduate and his son had received his previous schooling at fashionable Exeter Academy. Therefore it could not have been in response to a conflict between two cultures that Harvard chose to discriminate. The basic truth is that racial and religious prejudice was one of the underpinnings of upper-class society. On the surface upper-class Protestants may have been protecting their status prerogatives and their cultural symbols. But prejudice was a factor in the very definition of status, just as it was a factor in the choice of cultural symbols. Harvard was elite not simply because it was upper class and genteel, but also because it was predominantly white and Protestant. In the final analysis, the class origins and ethnic peculiarities of Jews were only of secondary importance. As Horace Kallen wrote in 1923:
. . . it is not the failure of Jews to be assimilated into undergraduate society which troubles them [President Lowell and his defenders]. They do not want Jews to be assimilated into undergraduate society. What troubles them is the completeness with which the Jews want to be and have been assimilated.
Practically all the political agitation over quotas was confined to a five-day period that began with the Harvard announcement raising the possibility that they might be instituted and ended with a decision by the college’s Board of Overseers to refer the issue to a special faculty committee. When the Board dramatically met in emergency session and announced that no changes in the college’s entrance requirements would be made until after the committee had reported, the opponents of quotas probably assumed that the administration was on the retreat. Whether by design or not, however, the committee functioned as a protective screen for the administration. It removed the issue of quotas from the public arena and insulated Harvard’s officialdom from public scrutiny and political pressure.
The six-page report issued by the committee after almost a year had passed was unequivocal in repudiating quotas as inconsistent with Harvard’s tradition of “equal opportunity for all regardless of race and religion.” Indeed, the authors of the report seemed to go out of their way to avoid any proposal that might even be construed as prejudiced by suspicious minds: “Even so rational a method as a personal conference or an intelligence test, if now adopted here as a means of selection, would inevitably be regarded as a covert device to eliminate those deemed racially or socially undesirable. . . .”
The report did not stop here, however. The committee’s assigned task was not simply to study religious quotas, but to review all of Harvard’s admissions procedures. This the committee did with apparent good conscience. It announced its opposition to the policy of giving preference to the sons of graduates, and recommended several minor changes in the college’s entrance requirements that were intended to upgrade the student body. These reforms, the report asserted, “would solve one part of our problem.”
The report continued: “The other part of the problem, namely, the building up of a new group of men from the West and South and, in general, from good high schools in towns and small cities, is more difficult.” The difficulty was that students from these regions did not receive a high-school education that, in quality or substance, prepared them for Harvard College. As a consequence they were unable to pass Harvard’s entrance examination. The committee’s solution was to waive the entrance examination for students in the highest seventh of their graduating class, if they had completed an approved course of study and had the recommendation of their school. The committee reasoned that such students had demonstrated their fitness within their own schools, and that “the best product is likely to succeed in college better than the poorer portion of the group admitted under our present examinations.” On this dubious assumption the committee felt confident that Harvard’s standards would not be lowered by accepting students who could not pass the usual entrance examination.
The men who drafted this proposal must have been aware that, if implemented, it would drastically alter the religious composition of Harvard’s undergraduates. Jews were overwhelmingly concentrated in the urban centers on the Eastern seaboard, and “to raise the proportion of country boys and students from the interior” would obviously reduce the Jewish representation. Other Eastern colleges had already employed this as a strategy for excluding Jews (between 1920 and 1922 Columbia instituted regional quotas, with the result that the Jewish proportion at the college was cut in half, from 40 to 22 per cent) and although no comparable figures are available for Harvard, there is no reason to think that its motives were different. It was not until the influx of Jewish students that Eastern colleges began to worry about achieving a “regional balance” and it was not until the crisis over Harvard’s proposed quotas that a student’s geographical background was deemed relevant to his admission to the college.
A policy of recruiting nationally can be, and often is, defended on legitimate grounds. It is said to increase the quality of the student body, to diversify and enrich student culture, and to extend the influence of the college at the same time opportunities are extended to deserving students outside the East. Whatever merit these arguments have, the concept of “regional balance” unquestionably originated as a rationale for discrimination and may well continue as such today.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
How Jewish Quotas Began
Must-Reads from Magazine
Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.