Jews Revolutionized the Universities. Will Asians Do the Same?

In 1905, Harvard College adopted the College Entrance Examination Board tests as the principal basis for student admission, a blind test that favored intelligent applicants even if they lacked poise or polish. By 1908, Jews—most the children of immigrants—constituted 7% of the school’s student population—double the percentage of Jews in the U.S. general population. By 1916, Jewish enrolment was 15%, and by 1922 it was more than 21%.

Harvard’s president, Abbot Lawrence Lowell, became alarmed by what he perceived as a serious problem. This was not because (or not only because ) Lowell harbored anti-Semitic views. As he wrote to a colleague in 1922, “The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate, not because the Jews it admits are of bad character, but because they drive away the Gentiles.” (His observation was not incorrect—although he was wrong to assume that Jews in universities would have the same off-putting effect as in hotels.)

Today, we are watching what may well be a reprise of this scenario, with Asian-Americans as the targeted group: Harvard stands accused of “racial balancing” by keeping Asian-American admissions at or under a 20% threshold, and of using a bogus “personal rating” as a back-door method of keeping out Asian applicants who are stereotyped as bland workaholics.

For its part, Harvard does not deny that it weighs its entrance scales to favor groups it considers more disadvantaged than whites or Asian-Americans—namely blacks and Hispanics—but defends such measures on the grounds that “colleges and universities must have the freedom and flexibility to create the diverse communities that are vital to the learning experience of every student.”

The historical parallel between Jews and Asians is striking for a number of reasons—including the fact that both cases involve an explicit rejection of the idea that academic merit alone could be a tenable basis for admission. Like today’s affirmative-action supporters at Harvard, the gentiles of a century ago also started poking into applicants’ personal lives to discover what their “character” might be. And what a weasel word that turned out to be.

The winnowing campaign a century ago began with a request for personal essays by candidates, describing their activities and interests, and promoting their leadership abilities. Fine: That sort of thing still goes on now. But then, the universities also began asking for photographs (wink, wink). By the fall of 1922, Jerome Karabel wrote in his 2005 book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, “applicants were required to answer questions on ‘Race and Color,’ ‘Religious Preference,’ ‘Birthplace of Father,’ and ‘What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully).’”

Finally, a personal interview assumed importance, Karabel writes, “to ensure that ‘undesirables’ were identified and to assess important but subtle indicators of background and breeding such as speech, dress, deportment and physical appearance.” By 1933, when Lowell’s term ended, he had achieved his goal of a 15% cap on Jews.

When these histories are told today, men such as Lowell take their natural role as a villain. And it is true that he, along with his counterparts at other schools, effectively acted as enforcers for a sort of gentleman’s anti-Semitism. Yet we must grudgingly acknowledge that these men were correct to predict that Jews would change the character of their universities—though scarcely in the way they imagined. For while the intellectual Brahmin of the day fretted about the individual“character” of incoming men, it was in their collective intellectual force that Jews changed the political and ideological face of education over the last century—and not always in ways that I, or other Jews, would applaud.

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In the 1920 novel, This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hero looks to Princeton University as the ideal campus, “with its atmosphere of bright colors and its alluring reputation as the pleasantest country club in America.” Knowledge acquisition was certainly part of the Ivy League tradition in those days, when its student population was almost entirely white, Christian and upper class. But the more important task of elite universities was to provide a final, shiny social-networking lamination to the characters of well-groomed students with expectations of leadership roles to come. Norman Podhoretz, similarly, once described Columbia University in its virtually all-WASP days as “the college of Old New York society—a kind of finishing school for young gentlemen who would soon enter the governing elite of the nation.” Upscale young women received a similar message. In 1936, Wellesley described its program as conceived for “girls of fine character, mental keenness and qualities of leadership.”

In his 2012 book, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture, conservative Yale professor David Gelernter illuminates the transition of American universities from centers of social networking that taught the western canon—“society colleges”—to “intellectuals’ colleges,” where left-liberal ideas and theories became the standard against which all learning was judged: “As the old social and schoolmasterly missions lapsed, elite colleges took up a new mission: to become centers and sounding boards for the theories of intellectuals; to become intellectualized; to renounce WASPdom.”

Gelernter, a former senior fellow in Jewish thought at the Shalem Center, took no pains to disguise his contempt for the new breed of campus authorities, who, he says, see themselves as “separated by a cultural Grand Canyon from the nation at large, with Harvard and The New York Times and the Boston Symphony and science and technology and iPhones and organic truffled latte on their side—and guns, churches and NASCAR on the other.” (He is describing former President Obama, the first president to have been wholly educated under the reign of the intellectuals he derides. The full subtitle of his book included the bracketed words “and Ushered in the Obamacrats.”)

Here, in both a chicken and egg way, is where the Jews come in. At the beginning of the counterculture movement of the 1960s—which is when this transition from “society colleges” to “intellectuals’ colleges” took place—Jews were not particularly well-represented in North American university faculties, and were entirely unrepresented in the higher levels of administrations, even though they were typically over-represented among students. But that would soon change.

I studied English Literature at the University of Toronto from 1960 to 1964, just before things really began to change. The arts program then was divided among four colleges. Three were denominational: Catholic, Anglican and United Church. The fourth, University College, was non-denominational. So that was where all the Jews went. In my cohort, it seemed to me that at least half the college or perhaps more was Jewish. Yet I don’t remember studying under a single Jewish professor, let alone a Jewish dean, provost or president. As for my English literature professors’ rhetorical style, my experience jibes with Camille Paglia’s assessment of her professors at Yale in the late 1960s: “They were courtly and genteel, a High Protestant middlebrow style. Voices were hushed, and propriety ruled at the Yale department of English: I once described it as ‘walking on eggs at the funeral home.’”

But while the Jewish presence was still negligible among the staff at most North American universities, it was strong at the student political level. One thinks immediately of such intellectual firebrands as David Horowitz (who edited the flagship anti-war voice of the New Left, Ramparts, during his Berkeley tenure in the late 1960s and early 1970s), Todd Gitlin, Mark Rudd, Saul Alinsky, Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman, Allen Ginsburg, Jerry Brown, Michael Lerner, and many others. All were very far left (although of course Horowitz, like the above-quoted Norman Podhoretz, would pivot hard rightward later in life). On the distaff side, the Jewish Betty Friedan produced The Feminine Mystique, which ushered in America’s feminist revolution, in large part thanks to such now-familiar Jewish names as Gloria Steinem, Susan Sontag, Judith Butler, Judy Chicago, Andrea Dworkin, Shulamit Firestone and Phyllis Chesler.

The outsized Jewish presence at the junction of literature, activism, entertainment and academia became so pronounced in the late 20th century that it simply was taken for granted as part of the intellectual landscape. I recently read and enjoyed Michelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, chronicling the (sometimes intertwined) lives and professional trajectories of 10 female American writers, whose high intelligence, rhetorical prowess and/or wit earned them national respect. Over half of the subjects—Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt, Renata Adler, Nora Ephron, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael—were Jewish. The fact of their Jewish identity was noted by Dean in each case; but Sharp did not suggest that the sum of these common facts added up to more than their parts.

Many of these women were of the generation that, by 1970, had begun to make inroads not only as contributors to, but leaders of, intellectual life on campuses across North America. In virtually all cases, Gelernter argues, three attributes marked the most successful Jewish minds: political leftism, extreme admiration for intellectualism, and a polemical style—“expert and aggressive”—that he claims as a particularly “Jewish way of argument.”

As Gelernter’s own example shows, however, there have been right-leaning exceptions to the pattern he sketches out—a category that would include such brilliant Jewish conservatives as Nathan Glazer, the late Irving Kristol, and his son William (editor of the Weekly Standard), along with the Podhoretzes, Norman and John (former and current editors of Commentary magazine). And while leftist Jewish academics have been prominent in shifting cultural values through their access to youthful minds (“We’ll get you through your children,” a frustrated Allen Ginsburg snarled to Norman Podhoretz during an argument), it can be argued that, on balance, Jewish intellectuals who turned rightward have had at least as much political influence as their liberal counterparts. Norman Podhoretz wrote Daniel Moynihan’s clarion speech at the UN that turned the tide on the “Zionism is racism” motion in 1975. And George W. Bush was deeply influenced by the neo-conservative movement, largely conceived by, and densely populated with Jewish intellectuals such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Ledeen, David Frum and Robert Kagan.

Most of the secular left-leaning Jewish intellectuals came by their political views in their homes. Some were products of the “red diaper” syndrome—Jewish children raised by Communist parents—and were completely immersed in Marxist dogmas at Communist-run schools and summer camps, as David Horowitz most famously was, which prepared these Jews from toddlerhood for a life of single-minded political proselytism. (The name of Horowitz’s summer camp, “Wo-Chi-Ca” in Tolland, MA, has an Indigenous ring to it; but it was just a sobriquet for the considerably more lumpen “Workers’ Children’s Camp.”)

Lionel Trilling, who held the distinction of being the first Jew ever hired by the Columbia University English Literature department, worried about his fellow Jews’ fanaticism. He had flirted with Marxism in the 1930s, like almost all the other Jewish intellectuals, but pushed away from it once be observed the appalling rise of Stalinist barbarism. Trilling wrote in a letter to theatre scholar Eric Bentley in 1936: “I live in deep fear of Stalinism.” He goes on to observe that communism was worse than fascism because “it has taken all the great hopes and all the great slogans [and] has recruited the people who have shared my background and culture and corrupted them.” (Horowitz’s parents and their circle, by contrast, never repudiated Stalin and remained faithful to Soviet-style communism to the grave.)

All told, American Jewish intellectuals moved the universities leftward over the last 50 years—even if, as noted, some of the most notable and influential specimens shifted rightward in their older years. Like all Marxists, these Jews, Gelernter writes, encouraged a focus on intellectualism—the idea that knowledge may be derived from pure reason—as opposed to the more conservative model that governed my cohort’s pre-countercultural learning environment, which focused on the accretion of knowledge largely for its own sake. Gelernter claims that “the distinctively Jewish worldview” that spurred cultural change on campuses took root in Jews having spent 3,000 years being “obsessed with literary and religious beauty and social justice and ethics and sanctity and God—which gave them plenty to talk about.”

Persecution throughout those years also played its part in the development of the Jewish style of argumentation. During most of their history, Jews could not defend themselves with weaponry. All they had was their intelligence and their words. Friedrich Nietzsche once observed that Christians felt no need to sharpen their polemical skills because they were accustomed to being believed and trusted, while a Jew always had to make a case for being believed. And in many instances, much more was at stake than winning an argument.

Even to this day, you will find that Jews who have never seen the inside of a synagogue will still, by well-learned cultural reflex, argue in the Talmudic tradition of logic and ratiocination, often in a full-throated manner that is out of step with the modern penchant for safe spaces and staying in one’s lane. As Gelernter writes: “The classic Jewish argument drills and blasts as deep as necessary, or deeper (the essence of Jewish genius is not knowing where to stop); it summons ideas from the ends of the earth to make a point.”

Norman Podhoretz would concur, I think, having once said, “in the world of the ‘Jewish establishment,’ it was almost considered bad form, or a mark of low intelligence, to say anything kind in conversation about any other member of the group.” In his 2000 book Ex Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer, Podhoretz describes the breakup of his friendships with six fellow Jewish intellectuals, all more or less leftists. He explains that intellectuals do not become friends in the first place for the usual reasons of common pleasures, professions or personalities. An intellectual is “someone who lives for, by and off ideas.” And when ideas are debated in the public forum, they can influence a nation’s sense of itself. That, at any rate, was the working hypothesis of intellectuals such as Horowitz and Podhoretz and the leftists they battled with. Anticipating the flame wars of the digital era, they believed a perceived “heresy” could not be disassociated from its perpetrator, and so he or she was liable to be ex-communicated by their “friends.”

And that was the attitude that many Jewish intellectuals took as educators during my lifetime. There were and are, of course, many brilliant non-Jewish intellectuals in the universities. But in my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, they are less likely to display quite the same take-no-prisoners polemical style, and are more wont to adopt an air of disinterestedness or cheerfulness when they argue.

In the world of ideas journalism, I think of Dick Cavett and Tom Wolfe: both gentile, both always droll, bemused, personally detached from the ridiculous human antics they delighted in skewering, even when dealing with grave subjects. Many decades later, I saw this spirit echoed by actor Stephen Fry, who told a Munk Debate audience in Toronto this year that the traditional essence of the high college experience at Oxford and Cambridge is the learned ability to discuss big Ideas in a “playful and graceful” way.

The absolute king of happy warriordom was, of course, William F. Buckley, whose high intellectual seriousness was couched in playful tones—giving the sense that of course the matter under discussion was important, but not so important that one couldn’t have fun with it. Buckley’s eye rarely lost its twinkle. And when it did (as in his famous fight with Gore Vidal on ABC in the run-up to the 1968  Democratic convention), it was such a startling departure from his puckish norm that the incident achieved instant and lasting notoriety. Mark Steyn (who has said that “the last Jewish female in my line was one of my paternal great-grandmothers”) is also brilliant and funny, even when visibly aroused to anger—as for example, in responding to historian Simon Schama on the issue of refugee policy in another Munk Debate (this one in 2016). For Christopher Hitchens, too, polemics generally went hand in hand with socializing. He sometimes even would engage with his opponents while tipsy, a practice, it is safe to say, that is generally alien to the Talmudic tradition.

Jews are stereotyped as argumentative. And there is truth in that. But even so, ideas are not something Jews usually juggle for the entertainment of others. We don’t boast the champagne sparkle of a Wilde or a Buckley. We take pride, rather, in the gloomy tungsten of Spinoza and Allan Dershowitz. Ideas are fascinating to us, but they are not playthings. Throughout history, ideas that have passed in and out of imperial fancy have by turns led us to slaughter, then salvation, then slaughter again.

On the subject of modern Israel, in particular, Jews have been tearing themselves to pieces since the 19th century. And it is now simply taken for granted—even among gentiles, who often will act as bystanders to such arguments—that the subject can arouse great spasms of ruthless intellectualism that serve to destroy any conceit of intra-Semitic solidarity.

Here in Canada, for instance, Michael Neumann, a professor of philosophy at Trent University, once declared that Jews bear a special responsibility to speak out against Israel,” and avowed that “I am not interested in the truth, or justice, or understanding, or anything else, except so far as it serves that purpose…If an effective strategy means that some truths about the Jews don’t come to light, I don’t care. If an effective strategy means encouraging reasonable anti-Semitism, or reasonable hostility to Jews, I also don’t care. If it means encouraging vicious racist anti-Semitism, or the destruction of the state of Israel, I still don’t care.” It’s hard to imagine such words levelled at any other minority by a member of his or her own group.

On the other side of this political divide within Judaism is Jonathan Neumann (no relation, to my knowledge), whose new book, To Heal the World?: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel, argues that anti-Zionist Jews have co-opted the liturgical injunction to “repair the world”—rendered in Hebrew as tikkun olam—to advance a number of illiberal causes.

Neumann argues that the Tikkun Olam movement, which has become influential throughout the educational infrastructure of liberal Judaism, goes well beyond traditional debates over Israel, and now seeks to make “social justice” the sine qua non of “authentic” Judaism, full stop. Just as an earlier generation of Jews went all in on Marxist summer camps, today’s progressive Jews have done the same with social justice—so much so that it is now common in Jewish ritual life to reject Jewish particularism in favor of broad universalistic gestures.

According to the Tikkun Olam playbook, for instance, a Passover Seder should not focus excessively on the Hebrew exodus and march to nationhood—except insofar as it may be treated allegorically in a way that raises attendees’ consciousness about the plight of illegal immigrants or transgender youth. The Joseph story, likewise, can’t be about Joseph rising to power in order to further Jewish fortunes; it has to be part of a parable that venerates statist food-distribution policies. And here is Daniel Sieradski, creator of the “Occupy Judaism” branch of the Occupy Movement, channeling a famous question—“Is this the fast I have chosen?”—offered by the Prophet Isaiah: “A real fast—a fast of Isaiah—is one in which you fast from your capitalist lifestyle and pour out love and compassion for your fellow man, putting people over profit.”

I will say one thing for the old Jewish Marxists: They did not read Das Kapital into the Torah. In choosing Communism, the secular Jews of the early 20th century deliberately renounced their burdensome religious particularism, in the (false, but sincere) belief that by plunging into the universalist utopia that they believed Marxism represented, Jews might finally shed their legacy of persecution and join the Brotherhood of Man as equals. And while Jewish intellectuals of the late 20thcentury were less inclined to send their children to communist summer camps, their attachment to the left was infused by much the same universalistic aspirations.

In 1920, when Leon Trotsky, a Jew, né Bronstein, headed up the Red Army, Moscow’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Jacob Mazeh, begged him to command the army to protect Jews from further pogroms. Trotsky reportedly replied: “Why do you come to me? I am not a Jew,” to which Rabbi Mazeh responded: “That’s the tragedy. It’s the Trotskys who make revolutions, and it’s the Bronsteins who pay the price.”

I would argue that, figuratively speaking, pro-Israel Jews on university campuses are today’s Bronsteins. The “Trostskyites” are committed progressives, often allied with anti-Semites, who undermine Zionism and Israel in the name of a Judaism they have tailored from political cloth.

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In the end, however, I would ask readers to look forward, not backward. I began this essay with a sort of tongue-in-cheek apologia for the soft Ivy League anti-Semites of the early 20th-Century. As I’ve shown, their cynical WASP concerns over “character” were indeed prophetic, even if only accidentally so. And the same could well be true of Harvard’s exclusionary policies today: Certainly, it is interesting to ask what effect the recent surge of Asian students will have on the intellectual life of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren—especially if the lawsuit against Harvard is successful, and leads to a wholesale dismantling of similar policies that penalize Asian university applicants across the country.

Both North American Jews and Asian Americans are products of ancient cultures, though with radically different histories. Four and a half billion people rooted geographically in a great land mass, home to dozens of ancient civilizations, most of which have never experienced protracted periods of exile or persecution, will have a different sense of themselves as compared to a tiny people (today, at 11.5 million, fewer than the pre-Holocaust 14 million), most of whose history has been spent in dispersion throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East among largely hostile host nations.

I cannot say how Asians will affect the way North Americans think, write, study and argue half a century from now. But the Jewish precedent suggests that they will change campus life in profound ways. For the intellectual life of a people is part of the larger practice of self-expression. And cultural self-expression lies downstream from historical experience.