On Jews and the University

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Three takeaways from the Katz Center’s virtual series on “Antisemitism, Admissions, Academic Freedom.”

In the wake of last fall’s controversies over allegations of antisemitism and campus protests over the Israel–Hamas war at Penn and other universities, the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies presented a series of virtual presentations this spring aimed at “using insights from history, sociology, education studies, and other fields to help put the present moment into context.” Under the title “Jews and the University: Antisemitism, Admissions, Academic Freedom,” speakers examined subjects including the impact of antisemitism on the writing of Jewish history in the US, campus free speech in the wake of the Hamas terror attack and the subsequent war in Gaza, and whether the sort of antisemitic quotas instituted in the first half of the 20th century by elite institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (but not Penn, let it be noted) have returned in recent years to suppress Jewish enrollments.

According to Pamela S. Nadell, the Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History and director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University—and the witness who joined former Penn president Liz Magill and two other university presidents in front of Congress on December 5—American Jewish historians have been slow to recognize the extent and virulence of antisemitism in the US.

In her presentation, “Past and Present: The Impact of Antisemitism on the Study of American Jewish History,” she recalled being part of a working group convened at the American Jewish Historical Society following the “Unite the Right” riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Feeling a “sense of personal and professional crisis,” the group looked for scholarly work that would aid understanding. They identified a few relevant texts, “but what jumped out was that none of [them] were written by people in that room,” Nadell said. “American Jewish historians had not been paying attention to antisemitism.”

She suggested that this was due to the influence of Salo Baron, “the preeminent Jewish historian of the 20th century” and a professor at Columbia University, who “spent his entire life fighting against historians writing what he called the ‘lachrymose conception of Jewish history.’” Rather than foregrounding antisemitic persecution of Jews throughout history, “what Baron wanted us to write about was the vibrancy of Jewish life and to talk about how Jews had been creative, how they’ve been actors on their own,” she said. “So as American Jewish historians, we had really left the writing of antisemitism in American history” to others.

While working on her 2019 book American Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today, “I didn’t really think I was writing about antisemitism,” Nadell admitted. She later looked back and realized that “in every single chapter, I ended up talking about how American Jewish women had encountered antisemitism.”

In 2020, Nadell began teaching a freshman seminar on the history of antisemitism. Assignments included oral presentations on current events in which students “were asked to find four news stories about antisemitism and then to share those with the class,” she said. Even then, she remembered thinking, “Maybe there won’t be anything,” and wondered if she’d end up jettisoning that from the syllabus. “Well, of course, that didn’t happen,” she added. “Antisemitism since the spring of 2020 has just gotten worse and worse in America and around the world.”

In the face of the growing extremism of anti-Zionist, and arguably antisemitic, rhetoric on campuses in recent years, supercharged by the October 7 massacre and Israel’s harsh response, Sigal R. Ben-Porath, the MRMJJ Presidential Professor of Education and director of the SNF Paideia Program at Penn [“Creating Civil Citizens,” this issue], explored ways to regulate such speech on campus that would be content-neutral and without resorting to censorship. She called on scholars to separate activism from education and make room for all students and opposing views in their teaching.

In the talk “Campus Free Speech After October 7,” Ben-Porath, whose most recent book is Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy, identified a need for “further reflection about the relationship between activist effort for justice—however one perceives justice—and teaching,” while recognizing “that the two are not always clearly distinguishable.”

Ben-Porath said that her own set of beliefs “leads me to march for democratic causes both in Israel and in the US. It leads me to focus on democratic citizenship in my research, teaching, and leadership work.” However, she added, she works to “maintain a distance between political partisan goals, for which I march in my life as a citizen, and the inclusive, open-minded, fact-based, and broad goals and views to which I introduce my students and which I entertain in my research.” While acknowledging that her practice isn’t perfect, “I make sure to include perspectives and voices of those who disagree with me in my classes, and to entertain them in good faith in my work,” she said.

Separating personal advocacy from scholarly activity is critical to maintaining universities’ integrity and defending higher education against attacks intended to undermine its legitimacy. And colleges should be able to set standards around what is acceptable on campus—and what isn’t, Ben-Porath said. “There is a difference between criticizing the occupation and justifying murder,” she said. “The former is a legitimate political view, and the latter is illegitimate and immoral—even if it’s protected by American law. Campuses do and should have ways to condemn such expression, limit its reach, and to prioritize fact-based, disciplinarily sound, and morally grounded vision.”

A university’s core commitment must remain to “seek the truth and to educate all of our students in the values of a diverse democratic society,” Ben-Porath said. “Not by proselytizing in the name of a political view that we already hold, but in cultivating and investigating, and continuously being open to diverse perspectives.”

Jews should be part of organizational structures and practices focused on belonging and inclusion, and one way for universities to protect themselves against “outside pressure, or any sort of undue pressure,” is “by taking a clear stance against hatred and bigotry when it is cultivated within our institutions,” Ben-Porath said. “We need to rely on the robust analytic frameworks that are already available to us, on accepted evidentiary practices, to provide alternatives to simplistic and sometimes bigoted thinking in teaching about Israel, about the conflict, and about Jews.”

Although it’s generally agreed that the proportion of Jewish students at Penn and other Ivy League institutions has declined from their peak, the actual number of Jews on campuses is hard to quantify for several reasons. These include steeply rising rates of intermarriage since the 1940s and the likelihood that not all students who are Jewish, or partially Jewish, identify as such on school forms.

But one thing that is clear, said Jerome Karabel—professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and author of The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—is that the decline “has nothing whatsoever to do with an intentional effort to reduce the number of Jews.”

In his talk “Antisemitism in Elite College Admissions: A Brief History,” Karabel pointed instead to broader demographic changes in the US population, along with the impact of the nationalizing and globalizing of admissions in an era of rapidly increasing applications to elite schools.

On the latter point, Karabel noted that both Penn and Harvard had roughly 7,000 applicants in 1967, compared to around 60,000 today. “The admissions atmosphere is entirely different,” Karabel said. “You have students applying from all over the world. You have need-blind admissions. You have both nationalization and globalization, so you have an entirely different applicant pool.”

The passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 set in motion a “remarkable change in the demographic composition of the American population,” Karabel added. “In 1960, there were perhaps five to five-and-a-half million Jews in the United States. And Jews, who were as much as four percent of the population nationwide in the 1920s, were about three percent in the 1960s. Now they are about two percent.”

While the Jewish population has been shrinking, the Asian American population—under a million in 1960, he said, accounting for “one half of one percent of the population”—grew to 3.5 million people by 1980, 10.6 million by 2000, and 20.6 million by 2020. Meanwhile, he noted, the Hispanic population has risen to 18.7 percent (from 3.2 percent in 1960), and the Black population has also edged up from 10.5 percent to 12.4 percent over the same period. “So there’s been a tremendous decrease in the proportion of the population that’s white,” Karabel said, from 88.6 percent in 1960 to 61.6 percent in 2020, according to the US Census Bureau.

“Think of admissions each year as a pie, and different groups have different size slices,” Karabel said. “The Jewish slice of the pie has gotten smaller, as has the white slice of the pie. At the same time, the Asian slice of the pie has gotten much, much bigger.” From “a tiny sliver, about one percent of the students at Harvard and Penn” in the 1960s, Asian Americans today represent “just in the vicinity of a third of the freshman class.”

Even so, Jews still represent a significant portion of the student population, given their overall numbers in the US, he contended. As a “very rough estimate, I would say that a good third of Penn freshmen are white,” Karabel said. Hillel puts the percentage of Jewish students at Penn at 17.6 percent, and another source says 16 percent, he noted. “If either of those figures are right, and the estimate of about one-third white is right, that would mean that about half of the white students at Penn are Jewish. And I have to say this would hardly constitute an example of the reimposition of restrictions and quotas on Jewish students of the sort seen in the 1920s.” —JP

Other sessions in the series looked at Jewish sororities and at antisemitism in admissions at Stanford University. All can be viewed in their entirety on the Katz Center’s YouTube channel.

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    1 Response

    1. Jane Maxwell Twitmyer

      I can only hope that Penn follows the path that Brown took. Brown “university leaders said they would discuss, and later vote on, divesting funds from companies connected to the Israeli military campaign in Gaza”.
      The focus of the news has been on the protesters acts of trespass. Evidently, like activists before them, the students have chosen to break the campus rules in order to be heard about an issue they feel is important enough for them to pay the consequences for their rule breaking. Bringing in the police and possible expulsion is over the top for pitching a tent on the lawn in order to have your voice heard

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