NEWS: LOCAL

Jerusalem at Harvard

Stuart Schoffman
The View From Jerusalem
Morning prayers have been held every day at Harvard since 1636. The college was founded in that year in order to provide a "literate ministry" for the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. Harvard's first president, Henry Dunster, was a Hebraic scholar who translated the Psalms into English. Despite the complaints of students—none of whom was Jewish—Hebrew was a required subject at Harvard until 1755.

In 1722, a Sephardic Jew named Judah Monis, born in 1683 in either Italy or Algiers—sources differ—was publicly baptized in College Hall and promptly appointed instructor in the Hebrew language. (One cannot help but recall Harry Golden's quip, when Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964: "I always knew the first Jewish president would be an Episcopalian.") Professing Jews were not only unsuitable for the Harvard faculty but for citizenship in Massachusetts. A very rare exception was the Jewish merchant and philanthropist Aaron Lopez, who in 1762 was granted citizenship in the Colony and permitted to omit the words "upon the faith of a true Christian" from his oath.

During Harvard's first 250 years, according to scholar Nitza Rosovsky, maybe a dozen Jews graduated from the college. But by 1900, 7 percent of the freshmen were Jewish, a figure that jumped to 21 percent by 1922. Whereupon Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, a Boston Brahmin who had served as vice president of the Immigration Restriction League, proposed limiting the number of Jewish students, in order, he insisted, not only to preserve the traditional American character of the university, but to prevent the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment on campus. Many of the Jewish students were immigrants or the children thereof, less gentrified than the normative Harvard Jew.

"The antisemitic feeling among the students is increasing," Lowell wrote to a Jewish alumnus. "When, on the other hand, the number of Jews was small, the race antagonism was small also." As Harry Starr, Class of '22 and president of the Harvard Menorah Society, observed at the time: "We learned it was numbers that mattered; bad or good, too many Jews were not liked. Rich or poor, brilliant or dull, polished or crude—too many Jews, the fear of a new Jerusalem at Harvard, the 'City College' fear." Harvard's "Jewish problem" was debated in the press and by politicians, and the Harvard faculty voted in 1923 not to institute racial or religious quotas. All the same, the proportion of Jews was tamped down to 10 or 15 percent by the early 1930s.

Times have certainly changed. No one has lately suggested openly that Harvard is "too Jewish." A reasonable estimate is that one-quarter of the students are Jewish, the faculty a bit more so. Last year, Lawrence Summers, an affiliated Jew, was installed as president of Harvard, succeeding Neil Rudenstine, an Episcopalian of partly Jewish descent. Summers, a distinguished economist who at 28 became a tenured professor at the university, also served as Bill Clinton's secretary of the Treasury.

At morning prayers on Sept. 17, the first day of classes, Summers delivered a remarkable address at the Appleton Chapel of Memorial Church, in the heart of Harvard Yard. It was a Tuesday: the term had begun a day late owing to Yom Kippur. "I was struck during my years in the Clinton administration," Summers told the assembled, "that the existence of an economic leadership team with people like Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, Charlene Barshefsky and many others that was very heavily Jewish passed without comment or notice—it was something that would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago, as indeed it would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago that Harvard could have a Jewish president."

"Without thinking about it much," continued Summers, "I attributed all of this to progress—to an ascendancy of enlightenment and tolerance. A view that prejudice is increasingly put aside. A view that while the politics of the Middle East was enormously complex, and contentious, the question of the right of a Jewish state to exist had been settled in the affirmative by the world community. But today, I am less complacent. Less complacent and comfortable, because there is disturbing evidence of an upturn in antisemitism globally, and also because of some developments closer to home."

Summers then spoke of the resurgence of antisemitism in Europe, the popularity of Holocaust denial, the promulgation of anti-Zionist propaganda by government media around the world, and the notorious U.N. Conference Against Racism last year in Durban, where Israel was charged with "crimes against humanity" while myriad abusers of human rights remained unchastised.

"But where antisemitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists," Summers went on, "profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are antisemitic in their effect if not their intent." By way of example, he cited the calls to withhold research grants from Israeli academics, and the conflation of anti-Israel animus and the anti-globalization movement. "And some here at Harvard," he pointedly continued, "and some at universities across the country have called for the University to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university's endowment to be invested. I hasten to say the University has categorically rejected this suggestion."

Summers was swiftly bashed in the Harvard community. His remarks were "both disingenuous and divisive," opined the editors of the Crimson, Harvard's daily student newspaper. "While we do not doubt that there are some within the divestment campaign who are anti-Semitic—who are prejudiced against Jews—those represent only the barest minority of its members. Divestment is a political issue, one on which intelligent, open-minded people can disagree. Opposition to policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government is no more an attack on the people of Israel, or on Jews in particular, than opposition to the Bush administration's policies is an attack on the American people—and divestment is a way of expressing political dissatisfaction, albeit a particularly strong one."

Faculty members also chimed in. "To lump people who are working for peace in Israel with racists is really unfair," professor of philosophy Richard G. Heck, a supporter of divestment, told a Crimson reporter. "I'm very, very disappointed that the president of the University would have made those accusations." Divinity School professor Paul D. Hanson, a specialist in Hebrew prophecy and literature of the Second Temple period, and also an advocate of divestment, told the Crimson: "This is in no way a protest against the State of Israel, but against the Sharon government, the Bush government and their policies . . . The same moral convictions that underlie my feelings against anti-Semitism underlie my position on the right of the Palestinians to their own land."

Psychology professor Patrick Cavanagh wrote an irate letter to the Crimson: "University President Lawrence H. Summers is either uninformed or a dupe to equate our anti-Israel petition with anti-Semitism. We have not unjustly singled out Israel for criticism. Sharon's policies deserve every bit of criticism we direct at it. If Summers wants to lend Sharon the support of Harvard, let him do so openly and not hide behind slurs against faculty members exercising their right of political expression. Summers' ill-considered statements only show again how unsuited he is to lead Harvard. Israel's security lies in withdrawing from the occupied territories, not in continuing the attempt to occupy them fully. If Summers has nothing constructive to say, he should say nothing at all."

This sentiment was harshly echoed by Eileen McNamara, a columnist for the Boston Globe, in a piece entitled "Paranoia at Harvard": "Ascribing bigotry to those with whom you disagree is the last refuge of cowards. It is especially offensive from a university president."

Finally, here's what Danny Fox, an assistant professor of linguistics at MIT, said to the Associated Press. (The divestment campaign is a joint effort at Harvard and MIT.) "He's a Jew. He's concerned about anti-Semitism. I'm a Jew. I'm concerned about anti-Semitism . . . I think it's bizarre to relate the actions like the divestment campaign to anti-Semitism, and it's also dangerous. I don't quite understand what he means by that."

Professor Fox, let me help you understand. He means it's high time that privileged, principled, supremely well-educated Americans stopped playing footsie with those who lump Israel and Jews with all that's bad and unjust in the world. Anyone concerned with antisemitism ought to be alarmed at what happened at Durban, where anti-Jewish propaganda scarcely seen since the day of Goebbels was freely circulated under the aegis of the United Nations, and thousands of well-intentioned humanitarians raised not a peep of protest. How do such things happen? They happen because sloppy sloganeering on campus, online, and elsewehere turns Israel—the Jewish state—into something that folks of correct conscience need to be against, along with torture and genocide, global warming and child labor.

Sharon's policies, as Cavanagh argued, may well be deserving of criticism. But when Ariel Sharon's policies are criticized by the Bush administration, The New York Times, or Israeli peaceniks, there's no double standard at work. Israel is not being unfairly fingered while other countries are let off the hook. Arab antisemitism and Palestinian terrorism are also sternly taken to task. When, on the other hand, Israel is made into a special target—indeed turned into a pariah state—the consequences can snowball. In the 1980s, South Africa was pressured, by means of a campaign of university divestment at Harvard and elsewhere, to shed its apartheid policies. South Africans the world over were not, as a result, placed in physical danger. But demonizing Israel—which, for all its failings, and the grave inequities between Jew and Arab in the West Bank and Gaza, is incomparably more democratic than the bad old South Africa—inevitably has the effect of demonizing Jews. The past year has seen a shocking rise in antisemitic incidents not only in Europe but on American campuses—most recently the scrawling of swastikas on a sukkah on the campus of the University of Colorado.

Putting Israel in the same category as South Africa implies, at the very least, that Zionism is a form of racism. This may not be the "intent" of the supporters of divestment, but it is, as Summers suggested, the "effect" of their campaign. Herein lies the greatest danger. If the very existence of Israel is predicated on racism, it loses its legitimacy. Israel is, alas, as Summers observed, a country that has never been able to take its existence for granted. Indeed the editors of the Crimson, for all their criticism of Summers, had this to say, a week later, in a piece called "Israel's Inalienable Right": "As the U.S. prepares to go to war in Iraq, it must also keep in mind that Israel is the only modern, democratic nation in the Middle East. Instead of pressuring Israel to stay out of the conflict when it is irrevocably a part of it, the U.S. should work collaboratively with Israel toward the ultimate goal of defeating Saddam Hussein."

I was a Harvard undergraduate in the late 1960s, when Egypt, Syria, and Jordan tried and failed to wipe Israel off the map. At the same time, the Harvard campus roiled with protest against the Vietnam War. In 1969, the year I graduated, left-wing students shut down the campus, citing a litany of grievances against the university. Political protest is a venerable tradition at Harvard, and it is perfectly reasonable for students and faculty to voice their opposition to Israel's policies. It is absurd to suggest that slamming Sharon is tantamount to antisemitism, and that is not what Summers said. What he did say is that due care must be exercised, because one cannot ignore the fallout of one's anti-Israel activity in a world in which antisemitism has been newly unleashed.

Listen closely to his words: "I have always, throughout my life, been put off by those who heard the sound of breaking glass in every insult or slight, and conjured up images of Hitler's Kristallnacht at any disagreement with Israel. Such views have always seemed to me alarmist if not slightly hysterical. But I have to say that while they still seem to me unwarranted, they seem rather less alarmist in the world of today than they did a year ago."

The world of today is very different from that of A. Lawrence Lowell, but perhaps not so distant after all. Some months back, in a much-publicized flap, the African American academic Cornel West called Summers "the Ariel Sharon of American higher education." Summers had suggested that West, one of Harvard's 14 distinguished University Professors, devote more energy to scholarly production and less to recording rap music and off-campus politicking. West decamped for Princeton, but the flavor of his slur lingers on. Lawrence Summers has shined a spotlight on a sensitive and controversial subject that needs to be confronted squarely on the nation's campuses. He is to be commended for his candor, his courage, and his willingness to appear "too Jewish"—still a risky business at Fair Harvard.
Posted: 11/7/2006 11:36:47 AM
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