Are the Doors to Elite Universities Still Open to Jewish Students?

BDS Israel

Fifty years ago, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published a celebratory article with the title: “Doors of Ivy League Colleges Reported Wide Open for Jewish Students.” Reporting that in 1967, “40 percent of the students at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania are now Jewish. At Yale, Harvard and Cornell, the Jewish student number between 20 and 25 percent, while between 13 and 20 percent of the students at Dartmouth, Princeton and Brown are believed to be Jewish.” These were indeed very good days for the Jewish community.

Times have changed. According to Hillel International’s “Annual List of the Top 60 Schools by Jewish Population,” in 2018, only 17 percent of Penn’s student body identifies as Jewish. Similar declines are evident at other elite colleges and universities. An article published last year in The Tablet entitled “The Vanishing Ivy League Jew” reveals significant drops in Jewish attendance at Harvard, Yale, Penn, and Princeton. While Harvard reported that Jewish students were 21 percent of their total enrollment in 1962, only 6 percent of the incoming Harvard class of 2020 identified as Jewish. The Jewish presence at Princeton University had fallen to 10 percent, from a high of over 18 percent in the early 1980s.

We do not have the data to claim that anti-Semitism is keeping Jewish students out of elite college and universities. But, historically, a drop in Jewish attendance at these institutions has always indicated deliberate action. It is an ugly history. In 1922, responding to alumni and donor pressure to “limit” the number of Jewish students at Harvard, then-President Abbott Lawrence Lowell responded that he had “foreseen the peril of having too large a number of an alien race and tried to prevent it.” According to The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, by UC Berkeley Sociologist, Jerome Karabel, Lowell began judging Harvard applicants by surnames and photographs to determine if they were Jewish. Lowell’s admission scheme—which imposed quotas on Jewish students—classified applicants as J1, J2, or J3 to identify whether they were conclusively Jewish, probably Jewish or maybe Jewish.

Harvard’s President was successful. As Shira Telushkin points out in her Tablet article on “The Vanishing Ivy League Jew,” while Jewish students were over 25 percent of Harvard in 1925, the fast-growing Jewish population in America dovetailed with nativist movements, and criteria were introduced that reduced Jewish representation to 15 percent for the following three decades—with similar unspoken quotas at Yale, Princeton and elsewhere. Since the 1960s when such criteria were dropped, Jews flourished on Ivy League campuses. Until recently.

Some blame increasing competition. According to The Tablet article, the applicant pool at elite schools has broadened and become more diverse, including, not just more Americans but more international students too. It may not be that fewer Jews apply to Ivy League schools, or are less likely to identify as Jewish, or are even less worthy candidates, but simply that as a representative from Penn told Telushkin, “It’s really hard to get into college today.”

It seems especially hard for Jewish students to enroll in elite universities today. Increased competition for limited spaces is not the full story. The recent news about the changes to the SAT scoring to include an “adversity score,” which will assess student applicants not just on their math and verbal skills, but also on their educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, will favor some and punish other.  Students who have faced adversity in terms of coming from impoverished families, single-parent families, poor neighborhoods, and low-ranking elementary and high schools will receive higher scores—and advantages in the applicant pool. This will certainly disadvantage middle-class students who come from intact religious families. While the adversity rankings will not affect the numerical score on the SAT in math or verbal portions, the scores will be forwarded to the colleges and universities that the applicant designates to receive them. In some ways, this move by the SAT is just formalizing or institutionalizing the “adversity scores” that colleges and universities have already been using to “diversify” their institutions. For more than a decade, colleges and universities have been requiring students to submit essays about how they have overcome adversity in their lives.

Applicants have long known that an emotional essay that demonstrates an ability to overcome adversity like homelessness, poverty, or a parent in prison will give them an advantage. As members of a successful minority group—more likely to emerge from strong families and excellent schools–Jewish students have been disadvantaged in the adversity arena. The Pew Foundation reported in 2016 that twenty-five percent of American Jews earn yearly incomes greater than $150,000, compared to 8 percent of the general U. S. Population.  Forty-four percent of Jews live in households with incomes of at least $100,000. One-third of Jewish adults hold postgraduate degrees. Jews have won 115 times the number of Nobel prizes in the sciences than their proportion of the population would predict, and 55 times as many Nobel prizes in the sciences than their proportion of the population would predict, and 55 times as many Nobel prizes in literature.

A recent essay in The Tablet points out that it’s not just that the number of Jewish students in the Ivies is plummeting, it’s that the universities themselves, responding to a host of larger cultural, social and political trends, have divested themselves of the values and practices that have made them mighty engines of American intellectual and economic growth as well as springboards for striving Americans, Jews, and non-Jews alike. It appears that the culture of many elite colleges and universities have become especially hostile to Jewish students. New York University—once one of the most hospitable universities in the country for Jewish students—has become one of the worst.

According to data compiled in 2017 by Hillel International identifying the top 60 schools by the Jewish population, New York University has slipped from one of the top ten universities that Jewish students choose, to number 50 on the list. Unlike 1962, when Jewish students made up 40 percent of the total student population at New York University, today’s Jewish student population at NYU has declined to only 13 percent of the total. This is a dramatic decrease—significantly lower than at any time since the earliest days of the university.  In 1918, Jewish students comprised nearly half (47.5%) of the students enrolled at NYU.

It is not a coincidence that it was at NYU that Chelsea Clinton was loudly denounced by NYU students when she attended a campus vigil for the 50 Muslims killed by a white supremacist in New Zealand. The angry students were responding to a tweet by Clinton which attempted to criticize the anti-Semitic remarks made by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) about undue Jewish financial and political influence in this country and the Jewish “allegiance to a foreign country,” When Omar tweeted that “It’s all about the Benjamins” to refer to Jewish financial influence, Chelsea Clinton simply responded respectfully by saying that “We should expect all elected officials, regardless of party, and all public figures to not traffic in anti-Semitism.” The NYU students—who were affiliated with a campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine—published an op-ed on BuzzFeed that they were “shocked” that Clinton would come to the vigil “given that she had not yet apologized to Rep. Omar for the public vilification against her.”

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a network of pro-Palestinian student groups across the US which disseminate anti-Israel propaganda often laced with inflammatory and at times combative rhetoric. In a report on the activities of SJP, the international Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has issued a report that reveals that although many SJP chapters state that they reject anti-Semitism, they also regularly demonize Jewish students who identify as Zionists or supporters of the State of Israel. In 2014, SJP sent Jewish NYU students fake eviction notices to protest Israel’s policies, and in 2018, two SJP members were arrested after crashing a campus celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, seizing Israeli flags and setting them on fire.

As the twitter feed of the NYU chapter of SJP demonstrates, a main goal of SJP is in organizing the campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. New York University Professors Andrew Ross and John King published an op-ed in the UC Berkeley’s newspaper that promoted an academic boycott against Israel claiming that taking a position against divestment is “due to Jewish donor pressure.”

In attempting to quell concerns that Jews are “under-represented” at the Ivies, Shira Telushkin’s “Vanishing Ivy League Jew” reminds us that “Jews, who are at most 2 percent of all Americans, remain vastly overrepresented on Ivy campuses.” Paula Fass, the author of The End of American Childhood, was cited by Telushkin as suggesting that “It’s a new world, and the Jews have a different place in it than they used to have…the Jewish focus on the Ivies was the product of a historical experience that has now passed.”

It may be true that Jews have a “different place” in the world—but it is not a “better place.” In “Get Out,” an article published earlier this month in The Tablet on the precarious state of higher education for Jewish students, Liel Leibovitz, a former professor at NYU, provides quite a bit of evidence to conclude that “American universities are openly breaking their bonds with the Jewish community by embracing active discrimination against Jewish students and rejecting their intellectual, emotional and moral attachments to the values of equal human dignity, universal rights, critical inquiry, and rational thought.” He points out in his Tablet article that earlier this month, the NYU branch of SJP won the Presidential Service Award, one of the highest honors NYU bestows on members of its academic community. Leibovitz knows—as many of us know—that anti-Semitism is real, and it is growing. We see it in the rhetoric in Congress, in the Park Slope hate-crime assaults on innocent Jewish pedestrians, and in the deadly attacks perpetrated on Jews at prayer in their synagogues in San Diego and Pittsburgh. But, some of the most insidious anti-Semitism is occurring on university campuses. Too often, as was the case in the NYU Presidential Service Award to SJP, it is being rewarded.

Anne Hendershott

Anne Hendershott

Anne Hendershott is a professor of sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education (Transaction Books) and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books). 

5 thoughts on “Are the Doors to Elite Universities Still Open to Jewish Students?

  1. Soon enough antisemites will drag their country into the poverty. It already happened in history. It happened in Soviet Union, it happened in many European countries … Jews are gone – economy collapsed. Good luck socialists!

  2. Universities are also — and have been for some time — breaking their bond with the very concept of education (as opposed to indoctrination), and have replaced intellectual values and achievement with political and social goals. Of course this hurts those who excel academically — as Jewish and Asian students are experiencing.

    1. Daphne is right, and it’s not just universities but PK-12 that has done this.

      It starts now with 4-year-olds. That’s what’s scary.

  3. ““American universities are openly breaking their bonds with the Jewish community by embracing active discrimination against Jewish students and rejecting their intellectual, emotional and moral attachments to the values of equal human dignity, universal rights, critical inquiry, and rational thought.”

    It’s actually the other way around — American academia has rejected the values of equal human dignity, universal rights, critical inquiry, and rational thought and hence is embracing active discrimination against those with intellectual, emotional and moral attachments to said values.

    It is a replacement of Judeo-Christian values with those of the French Revolution — the group rights of fraternity, liberty, & equity have replaced Locke’s individual (God-given) rights of life, liberty, & property. And it’s not just Jewish students being discriminated against and harassed, although they may be the most visible victims of it.

    And it’s not just in the elite universities — it’s pandemic in K-12 as well.

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