Is the university good for the Jews? With Mark Oppenheimer

Did you ever think, in your wildest imagination, that the events of October 7 would lead to an all out culture war that would involve every sector of American intellectual and academic life?

Did you ever think that the war that started in the south of Israel, and would move to Gaza would come home to the campuses of the most elite colleges in America, if not the world?

Did you ever imagine that the war in Gaza would also be waged in the quads, classrooms, and dormitories of American universities?

Did you ever imagine that anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities on college campuses would bring three college presidents to a joint hot seat in front of Congress?

Did you ever think that the sentence “It depends on the context” would be an answer to the question about whether it is acceptable to call for violence against Jews and the Jewish state?

Me neither.

And yet, here we are — with the result that many American Jews are now questioning the role of the university in their lives, and in the life of the Jewish community.

Sidebar: I have spent the last few weeks ruminating on this topic, and I want to offer a cautionary statement.

Jews and others have every right — in fact, the duty — to criticize a problematic intellectual environment that sees “context” as an answer to an outbreak of anti-Israel activity — activity that focuses on Jews.

But, be careful. Rep. Elise Stefanik has espoused some very problematic views, like the Great Replacement Theory, which puts her squarely in the camp of the tiki-torch wielding guys in Charlottesville.

Moreover, the attack on the universities is part of a much broader movement towards anti-intellectualism. To sign onto such a societal trend would be disastrous for Jews and Judaism.

To help us discern the depths of the university and the Jews, check out the podcast — a conversation with Mark Oppenheimer. He has been writing about American religion for more than 25 years. From 2010 to 2016, he wrote the “Beliefs” column, about religion, for “The New York Times,” and he created “Unorthodox,” the world’s most popular podcast about Jewish life and culture, with over 7 million downloads to date.

He is the author or editor/co-editor of five books, including “The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything In Between” and “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.” He holds a Ph.d in religious studies from Yale University; has taught there, at Stanford University, Wesleyan University, and New York University, and currently serves as the vice-president of open learning at American Jewish University,

We have a wide-ranging conversation — most of which is about the experience of Jews in the Ivy League.

There is a history here, and it is not a pleasant one. For decades, there were restrictive policies regarding the admission of Jews to the Big Three — Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, among others.

As Jerome Karabel chronicles in “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton:”

Harvard, Yale, and Princeton admitted students almost entirely on the basis of academic criteria for most of their long histories. But this changed in the 1920s, when the traditional academic requirements no longer served to screen out students deemed socially undesirable. By then it had become clear that a system of selection focused solely on scholastic performance would lead to the admission of increasing numbers of Jewish students, most of them of eastern European background. This transformation was becoming visible at precisely the time that the nationwide movement to restrict immigration was gaining momentum, and it was unacceptable to the Anglo-Saxon gentleman, who provided over the Big Three (and this included Columbia and Dartmouth).

Those schools were, in large measure, finishing schools — factories for the ideal WASP gentleman (with the emphasis on “gentleman”). That gentleman was to everything that eastern European Jews were perceived as not being — athletic, suave, well-mannered.

It is no surprise that those universities produced such a large number of men who would go on to become presidents of the United States.

Again, Karabel: “The centerpiece of the new policy would be character, a quality thought to be in short supply among Jews, but present in abundance among high status Protestants.”

In fact, the very idea of “geographic diversity” in college admissions was to be a code term for “let’s make sure that we limit the number of Jews from the Northeast.”

(Mark is a great conversation partner on this topic — largely because of his podcast, “Gatecrashers,” which tells the story of that Ivy League exclusion).

Our conversation began with October 7 — the worst day in Israeli and world Jewish history since the Holocaust. It ends with the worst day in American Jewish history: the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.

But, true to Jewish form, we do not focus on death, but rather, on life. I admit to my “urban crush” on Pittsburgh, especially on the unique “shtetl” of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, in which Tree of Life is located.

Which brought me back to a memory — of walking along the main shopping street of Squirrel Hill, weeks after the murders, and seeing posters with the photographs and names of the victims in every store window.

As photos of the hostages greet those who are arrive at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.

(Please enjoy my new book — the first book to outline what a post-Oct. 7 American Judaism will look like — and how we can restore communal obligation to liberal Jewish life. “Tikkun Ha’Am/ Repairing Our People: Israel and the Crisis of Liberal Judaism.”)

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