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A brief history of antisemitism in U.S. higher education

The first Jew to be hired as an instructor at a U.S. college was Judah Monis. He had earned a Master of Arts degree from Harvard College in 1720 — the only Jew to receive a college degree in America before 1800 — and then was given a job two years later by Harvard to teach Hebrew, but on one condition: that he convert to Christianity. 

He did so a month before starting the job, but his conversion was seen as suspect by Jews and Christians; he was never embraced by his Harvard colleagues despite marrying a Christian; and his students reportedly disliked him throughout his nearly 40 years there.

And ever since then, Jews on U.S. college campuses have faced discrimination of varying degrees — both institutional and social — depending on the era, with one surprising result of a major antisemitic explosion in higher education a century ago.

Today, a sharp and sudden wave of antisemitism has erupted at numerous schools across the country — including at some of the most elite — in reaction to the Israel-Hamas war, putting administrators on the defensive for failing to protect Jewish students and reviving concerns among Jews that they aren’t welcome.

In the first 16 days after Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7 and killed at least 1,200 people — leading to an Israeli military retaliation in Gaza that has already killed more than 10,000 people, according to the World Health Organization — there was a reported spike of nearly 400 percent in the number of cases of assault, vandalism and harassment against Jews in the United States. Some of the most visible took place on college campuses. Anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked too, including the fatal stabbing of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy in Illinois.

Administrators at a number of colleges, including Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, are now pledging to do more to make Jewish students feel protected after initial criticism that they had failed to even as campuses are being roiled by protests. Last week, the U.S. Education Department issued a letter reminding U.S. schools and colleges of their legal obligation to fight “an alarming rise” of antisemitism and Islamophobia with “renewed urgency.”

What administrators are being pressed to do today is far different from what their predecessors did at the at the turn of the 20th century when Jewish students were enrolling in elite colleges in increasing numbers and faced antisemitic sentiment on campus. Instead of protecting Jewish students, administrators moved to solve what they called “the Jewish problem” — unofficially defined as too many Jews on campus — by implementing measures to restrict Jewish enrollment. In an example of unexpected consequences, what they did created what we now recognize as the modern admissions process.

Virtually every major part of the selective college application process — the freshman class cap, the interview, an emphasis on outside interests and character, the desire for geographical diversity, the legacy preference — were put into use in an effort to cut down on the Jewish student population. Columbia University in New York City, followed by Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities, found novel ways to cut back on, and then keep down, Jewish enrollment that stemmed from a historic wave of Jewish immigration beginning in the late 19th century, historians say. Hundreds more schools over the decades restricted Jewish enrollment, too, with quotas and other measures, some of which remained in force until the 1960s, historians say.

“These universities that had basically been finishing schools for Protestant boys who had come from elite boarding schools all of a sudden became engines of social mobility for aspiring dreamers from Jewish immigrant families,” said Mark E. Oppenheimer, vice president of Open Learning at American Jewish University and host of a podcast called Gate Crashers about the history of Jews in the Ivy League. “The character of the campus began to change. Jewish boys were going to school not to participate in a cappella singing and fraternity pranks and intramural sports but to study hard and get a leg up, and this changed the culture in ways that were threatening to the gentry who had considered these schools their own playgrounds.”

To be sure, Jews were not the only students discriminated against; there was, for example, anti-Catholic sentiment amid strong Catholic immigration. Still, historians say, Jews were the primary target because the Catholic Church encouraged its members to enroll in Catholic colleges. “Meanwhile, leaders at many elite schools in the Northeast thought that Catholics — being Christian and mostly Irish — were more assimilable than Jews. … Thus, Ivy League schools did not feel as inundated by Catholic applicants, and those Catholics who did apply to these schools did not encounter the same limitations as Jewish applicants,” according to a 2011 academic paper on the origins of legacy admissions.

“Of all the immigrant groups streaming into the United States, none aroused greater antipathy than the Jews of Eastern Europe,” Jerome Karabel, a University of California at Berkeley sociologist, wrote in his 2006 book, “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Not only were they seen by nativists as socialist proselytizers, but Jews were also seen by some Americans as being members of a genetically inferior race. In some elite social circles, Jews were tagged as crude and unacceptable.

Efforts to restrict Jewish enrollment began in New York City, where the largest population of Jewish immigrants in the United States resided, historians say. By 1920, Jews made up some 30 percent of the city’s population, and the student bodies of local colleges, including the City College of New York, were mostly Jewish. At the elite Columbia University, Jewish enrollment had swelled to 40 percent by 1920, according to a paper by Oliver P. Pollak, who taught at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and co-founded the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.

The beginning of a college song at the time explains why Columbia was the first elite school to try to restrict Jewish enrollment, according to Karabel:

Oh, Harvard’s run by millionaires

And Yale is run by booze,

Cornell is run by farmers’ sons,

Columbia’s run by Jews.

Jewish students were largely poor and lived at home, with many of them working jobs at night to pay their tuition, so Columbia started requiring students to live in dormitories on campus. Columbia also began limiting scholarships to applicants outside New York. Columbia and then Harvard began recruiting from states without large numbers of — or with no — Jews in a diversity move that is seen today as having value. Economic conditions also fed into a desire for more geographic representation, but “its roots were anti-Semitic,” Oppenheimer said. “They sent admissions officers to Montana and Washington state and Michigan, where they could find boys of Protestant stock.” Columbia also began interviewing students face-to-face, Oppenheimer said, so that university representatives could detect accents or other telling signs that a Jew was applying if the name wasn’t a clear giveaway.

Pamela Nadell, director of American University’s Jewish Studies Program who is writing a book on the history of antisemitism in the United States, said Columbia began to see Protestant students start going to other schools because they did not like the changing culture at Columbia. “These were the future business and government leaders who were children of White Anglo-Saxon elite who came out of the prep schools that had been feeders to the Ivy League schools, and they started deserting Columbia,” she said. Within two years, Columbia cut its Jewish student population nearly in half.

Harvard University’s president at the time was Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who became what historians Deborah L. Coe and James D. Davidson called “the most significant proponent of restricting Jewish admissions.” He saw what was happening at Columbia and feared that the Jewish population — which hit 19 percent in 1919 and 21.5 percent by 1922 — would keep growing at Harvard and the school could sustain a similar reaction from traditional Protestant students.

“By the 1910s, Harvard enrolled 85 percent of the sons of the Boston upper class, whereas just 52 and 6 percent of their counterparts in Philadelphia and New York matriculated at [the University of Pennsylvania] and Columbia,” Karabel wrote in “The Chosen.”

“Harvard, moreover, enjoyed a close relationship with the upper class of New York City, which in recent decades had come to dwarf Boston in economic importance; in the 1910s, nearly a third of the sons of New York’s elite enrolled at Harvard. To Lowell, Harvard’s rising Jewish enrollment posed a threat to these crucial relationships, making it imperative to bring the 'Jewish invasion’ under control,” he wrote.

At the time Jewish enrollment was rising, academic performance was the only criteria for college admission. At the turn of the 20th century, applicants began taking the first standardized admissions test, which was meant to bring some order to rather messy applications processes. While the exam was not meant to keep out Jews, its first incarnation was designed around the curriculum at the tony boarding schools filled with White Protestant students, who learned Greek, Latin and other classic subjects not taught in the urban public schools immigrants attended. Here’s a sample question from the 1901 College Board admissions test:

1. Write the rules for the following constructions and illustrate each by a Latin sentence:

(a) Two uses of the dative.

(b) The cases used to indicate the relations of place.

(c) The cases used with verbs of remembering.

(d) The hortatory (or jussive) subjunctive.

(e) The supine in um.

Jews were not expected to do well on the test, Oppenheimer said, but it turned out that they did, and Jewish enrollment began rising at elite colleges.

So restrictions began. Dartmouth, Williams and Amherst colleges as well as Princeton University moved to cap the size of their classes — with what were effectively quotas — as did Harvard, while Dartmouth, Yale and other schools introduced legacy admissions to favor Protestant boys whose fathers had attended, Oppenheimer said.

Schools also began to require applicants to write essays to declare their extracurricular interests, as well as letters of reference from prominent people. Sociologist Stephen Steinberg wrote in a study of Jewish quotas in higher education that the most common method for restricting Jewish students was the introduction of character and psychological exams.

“Before the 1920s only criteria of scholastic performance were used in the admissions process; now admissions boards began to scrutinize the ‘outside’ interests of students,” Steinberg wrote. “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.”

Hundreds of schools around the country followed, imposing what was effectively Jewish quotas. In the 1950s, Stanford University did so, but didn’t acknowledge it until October 2022, when officials there publicly apologized for what then-President Marc Tessier-Lavigne called “appalling anti-Semitic behavior.” One way they did it was by cutting acceptances from a few Los Angeles high schools that had large Jewish populations. Beverly Hills High School was one of them. Stanford Jewish studies professor Ari Y. Kelman said in an interview that the university not only restricted Jews but then denied it for decades. “For many people that was almost as harmful as the initial action,” he said. “We don’t really know how many years the restrictions were in place.”

By the 1970s, however, Jewish quotas were seen as a thing of the past and Jewish enrollment in U.S. higher education rose. In 1967, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Ivy League colleges — the very ones that had started Jewish quotas — were enrolling Jews in larger numbers than ever (though counting students by religion is never an exact science). Columbia University’s Jewish population was back up to 40 percent, where it had been when restrictions started earlier in the century.

Though percentages of Jews began to drop on college campuses when schools began to broaden their student diversity, Jewish students in the last part of the 20th century were largely comfortable on campus, with overt antisemitism displayed by administrators largely a thing of the past.

That doesn’t mean, however, that antisemitism had disappeared on U.S. college campuses.

Even when institutionalized antisemitism was seen to be a thing of the past in the United States, there were still problems for some Jews on some campuses. In the last 20 years of the 20th century, Holocaust deniers pressed public campaigns — including visits to colleges and universities and advertisements in student-run college newspapers — to spread their ideas. In 1997, the Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish advocacy group, said in a report:

Jewish students and faculty are found in great numbers at elite universities which once resisted their presence. A majority of Ivy League universities and many others now have or have had Jewish presidents. There are few if any positions in American higher education that are not open to Jewish talent. Therefore, it is paradoxical that the American college and university campus recently emerged as one of the major sites for the expression and dissemination of antisemitism.

At hundreds of institutions of higher learning, the concepts of academic freedom and student activism (which have been part of the Jewish success story on campus) have been invoked to shield hatred. No longer the ivory towers they were once considered, colleges and universities are proving all too porous to the prejudices emerging in our society. In recent years, campuses have become a new proving ground for the tactics of all manner of extremists, forcing some colleges and universities onto the frontline in the fight against extremism and anti-Semitism.

In 2001, a campaign to use economic leverage against Israel emerged from the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in South Africa, and what became known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement began putting pressure on higher education institutions to disinvest from Israel and boycott Israeli academics. Supporters said it was an effort to help Palestinians, including the right of return to homes and properties they owned before the establishment of Israel in 1948. Many Israelis saw it is an effort to destroy Israel. On U.S. college campuses, student governments at dozens of schools held votes to support BDS. Most failed, and the movement seemed to lose momentum in recent years.

Criticism of the Israeli government’s policies is not necessarily antisemitic, but on some campuses support for BDS left many Jewish students feeling isolated and even targeted for harassment. In 2005, a U.S. Civil Rights Commission report said:

American college campuses are generally considered welcoming places for Jewish students. Life on campus is often enhanced through a number of opportunities for Jewish students. Despite this positive environment, many experts agree that antisemitism persists on college campuses and is often cloaked as criticism of Israel.

Jewish students began increasingly reporting incidents on campus where they felt deliberately targeted. A report on antisemitism in the United States by the American Jewish Congress released early this year found that more than a third of current or recent Jewish college students reported feeling uncomfortable or unsafe at a campus event because they are Jewish. Some say that it is what is referred to as “social antisemitism” driven by other students rather than institutional antisemitism, although many feel they have been unprotected by their administrators for too long.

Harvard President Claudine Gay recently admitted as much regarding school leadership and its silence on antisemitism, saying, “For years, this university has done too little to confront its continuing presence,” she said. “No longer.”

Valerie Strauss