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Higher education vs. the Jews

Are colleges and universities squeezing the Jews out?

A smartphone showing the logo of Harvard University. Credit: g0d4ather/Shutterstock.
A smartphone showing the logo of Harvard University. Credit: g0d4ather/Shutterstock.
Naya Lekht
Naya Lekht
Naya Lekht is a scholar of contemporary antisemitism. She holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, where she wrote about Holocaust literature in the Soviet Union, where she was born.

The Jewish people are no strangers to exclusion. A long history of what historian Salo Baron calls a “lachrymose” Jewish narrative reinforces a pattern of entry-denial into the top echelons of societies. Among many things, the Jewish diaspora experience included limiting the mobility of Jews, as in the case of ghettos in Renaissance Italy, shtetls in the Russian Pale of Settlement and later mandating quotas on Jewish entry into the best universities and professions.

America, on the other hand, provided Jews the unprecedented opportunity of integration and assimilation. It is not for nothing that upon visiting America for the first time, famed Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem wrote that “no people are as honored and glorified [in America] as the Jew. There a Jew is a big shot. It’s a mark of distinction to be a Jew. On Sukkos you can meet a Jew carrying an esrog and lulav on Fifth Avenue.”

Aleichem’s accolades did not always reflect reality, as American Jews were barred from entry into top universities during the era of segregation in America. And yet, despite the institutional racism and antisemitism, American Jews did indeed “make it in America,” as evidenced by their high representation in many highly regarded professions and industries.

Today, however, the success of America’s Jews seems to be catching up with them. Professional and economic achievements are now used to penalize them for the stigma of “privilege,” predicated upon the phenomenon of “white passing.” Nowhere is this as striking as in what Armin Rosen calls the “Ivy League Exodus”—a remarkable drop in the number of Jewish students attending Ivy League universities.

It is easy to blame this decline on institutional antisemitism. But in truth it may have much more to do with a shift in what top university administrators look for in stellar applicants. If a decade ago, high SAT scores and a strong GPA could all but guarantee a spot at an elite university, today admissions officers are looking less at academic merit and more at a student’s record of social action, as well as loosely expressed definitions of diversity and equity.

The numbers speak for themselves: According to data from Hillel International, measured by Jewish attendance, the top ten list of private universities do not include a single Ivy League school.

To help explain the decline in numbers, it may be helpful to look at the role college counselors play in advising students on how best to position their applications for acceptance.

“When applying to UCs,” a Jewish student who requested anonymity said to me, “my college counselor highly recommended that I not state that I am Jewish or involved in any pro-Israel organizations.” When I asked the student why, the student remarked, “Because she said that Jews are seen as white and privileged, and that it wouldn’t help me.”

Another student shared with me his personal statement on the hardships of being an immigrant, but on the advice of a college counselor, he did not specify that his family had come from the former Soviet Union, instead writing how he would fix this broken world by using his (unspecified) immigrant experience to “fight oppression.”

I spoke with college counselors, as well. They did not specifically tell me they would advise a student not to state his or her religious, ethnic, sexual or racial identity. But they stressed that one of the most important things Ivy League universities are looking for is leadership in “social action.”

This, they explained, means showcasing activism that stresses “critical self-awareness as a budding citizen who will continue to fight for social change.”

Some advise Jewish students to be strategic and “play the game.”

“If you are a Jew from North Africa or the Middle East,” a college counselor, herself Jewish, confided in me, “I would say to write about being a ‘Jew of color.’ ”

The prioritization of social justice over academic excellence reflects our modern zeitgeist. In May 2021, calls to remove a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from a building at Oxford were so strong that a special committee was formed to access the figure’s “future” at the university. At Tufts University, a mural depicting the founding of America was taken down. At the University of Pennsylvania, the statue of founder and minister George Whitefield was also removed.

These historic icons have often been replaced with representations of underprivileged minorities, as in the case of “Mama” by Kelly Latimore at Catholic University of America, a reimagined icon of Mary as black and cradling a Jesus represented with the face of George Floyd.

We cannot blame students for getting the message. Take, for example, the “10 Successful Harvard Application Essays” from 2021, published by the Harvard Crimson. In one essay, Ella, a minority student herself, writes that she must “step outside of my Korean American Southern Baptist paradigm because my experiences do not constitute everyone else’s.”

Ella has incorporated the “rules of engagement” belief as espoused by Robin DiAngelo in her book, White Fragility (2018), which argues that people from a specific racial group can relate only to those within the same racial group.

Or take Sophia’s essay from 2022, in which the author simultaneously confesses to the sin of listening to “white people music” and repents by tracing the “origins back to jazz musicians of the Harlem Renaissance.”

Thus the challenge presented by the Ivies’ professed commitment to “diversity” is not limited to Jewish students. It isn’t about antisemitism per se. American Jewish students are not barred from entry into the Ivies because of their religious and ethnic identity, but because they are seen as “white,” privileged and thus born with unfair advantages that need to be remedied.

It is often said that the Jew is the “canary in the coal mine”—that what affects the Jew ends up affecting everyone. The decline of the Jewish role in elite America should be a red flag, suggesting our country has regressed as a result of such “progressive” activism. If “equity” comes at the expense of achievement, America will, in time, lose its leadership in the world in knowledge, science, technology and a host of other fields. It will wither on the vine.

What, then, should American Jewish parents determined to get their kids into the best possible college do? Jewish parents have always seen education as the key to success—and in America, that means getting into a top school. As historian Peter Kenez once told me, “Jewish literacy in the Pale of Settlements surpassed the gentiles. The Jews, with their focus on education, for better or for worse, ensured their perennial success.”

American Jewish parents should never stop wanting the best education for their children. But in light of everything happening, we need to ask: What is the “best education”? Are students really getting it from schools that put “diversity, equity and inclusion” above everything else—or rather at other colleges, perhaps less prestigious than the Ivies, that still celebrate free thinking and achievement?

Today, it is not hard to find wonderful schools where Jewish students thrive. Perhaps the one exception to the Ivy League pattern is Brown University, With an acceptance rate of 5.5%, Brown is a place where “visible Jews” stand tall and proud.

In the South, Tulane University ranks third among the top sixty private universities by Jewish population. It is also one of the only universities formally to reprimand a student for writing antisemitic content.

Another often overlooked school is Indiana University, which hosted the largest Jewish gathering in IU Bloomington’s history, with over 500 students in attendance. IU is also home to the highly esteemed Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism.

There are many other such colleges, and high school counselors across the country are well aware of them. Jewish parents assisting their kids in the high-anxiety process of college applications would be wise to seek them out.

This, it seems, is where the future of Jewish higher education lies—just as when, a century ago, places like City College of New York benefited from a huge influx of top-notch Jewish minds who were barred from entry to Harvard and Yale. Once again, our students will find welcoming places to study, which in turn will gain in prestige as a result.

Whatever happens, Jewish parents will continue to do whatever it takes to ensure that our children will always be able to make it in America. America will be better for it.

Originally published by Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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