Once again anti-Semitism has roiled Wellesley College. The recent abrupt firingof the Hillel director and chaplain, and the relentless denigration of Israel by Muslim students and supportive faculty, have triggered concern about festering prejudice at the elite women’s college nestled within a sedate Boston suburb.
Postings by Students for Justice in Palestine have invited equations of Zionism with “genocide,” “apartheid,” and “murder.” Jewish students feel under assault, without support from indifferent college administrators or inept Hillel staff. So it was that a student with an Israeli contact provided Haaretz with an opportunity to break the story, which the Boston Globe, the Forward, and The Jewish Advocatehave amplified.
Wellesley College opened in 1875 to educate young women “for the glory of God and the service of the Lord Jesus Christ.” In the sylvan setting of Henry Fowle Durant’s sprawling estate fifteen miles west of Boston, students learned that “Christian character” was “the most radiant crown of womanhood.” There they engaged in “the war of Christ . . . against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Wellesley women were encouraged to live their lives “in humble imitation of Him who ’came not to be ministered unto, but to minister’” (Matthew 20:28).
Like its Big Brothers — Harvard, Yale, and Princeton — and other Seven Sister colleges, Wellesley designed its admission policy to cultivate and perpetuate a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite. This challenge became all the more imperative after World War I, when hordes of socially undesirable candidates with academically superior credentials — in a word, Jews — threatened to inundate the academic citadels of privilege. Just as Congress enacted immigration laws to curtail the entry of undesirables from Southern and Eastern Europe, so colleges imposed quotas to exclude Jews.
To be sure, some Jewish girls were sufficiently respectable to gain admission, but in small numbers. They tended to come from wealthy and assimilated German-Jewish families with meager Jewish knowledge or identification.
Occasionally, if ironically, Wellesley prejudice deepened Jewish awareness. More than sixty years later, a Jewish alumna still remembered the oblivious freshman classmate who had complained to her: “Isn’t it awful how Jews turn up everyplace and how they have horns.”
By the mid-30s, the college maintained precise statistics on Jewish admissions, limited to 9-11% of each entering class. As college president Mildred McAfee evasively conceded: “I presume there is a sense in which it is true that we have a quota.” The president approved “a more searching scrutiny of the credentials of Jewish students than is true of other students” because, she claimed, limiting their presence on campus assured that Jews “can be assimilated as individuals and we can really demonstrate the possibility of Gentile and Jew living together without prejudice.” At Wellesley, tolerance of Jews required discrimination against Jews.
During the 1930s, Nazi sympathies surfaced at Wellesley, as at other Seven Sister colleges. In May 1934, the German battle cruiser Karlsruhe sailed into Boston harbor flying the swastika. Local Jews protested and a Boston rabbi denounced the ship as a symbol of “hate and darkness,” but Wellesley arranged a reception for the German naval cadets on board and welcomed them to the College for a dance.
Wellesley News, the student newspaper, described them admiringly as young blond men, “immaculate in flawless black uniforms,” who were “soft and sincere.”
Throughout the decade, Wellesley maintained active exchange programs with German universities, welcomed German students and, along with other American academic institutions, helped the Nazi regime to burnish Hitler’s image. No refuge was provided for Jewish professors or students.
During the war years, Wellesley maintained its Jewish quota at 10 percent. As its president explained, “Any group characterized by identifiable physical features runs a risk of being set apart.” Therefore, it was College policy “to keep the percentage of Jewish students small enough so that segregation and prejudice will be at a minimum within the College.”
After World War II, when the Massachusetts legislature considered legislation prohibiting colleges from requesting information about the religion or race of applicants, President McAfee Horton testified in opposition to the proposed law. Wellesley, she claimed, “needs and wants” Jewish students. But “in order to avoid segregation it is important to regulate the number of representatives of certain minority groups.” Exclusion, in her tortured logic, prevented discrimination.
After the Fair Educational Practices law was enacted, there was a spurt in Jewish student enrollment to 16-20% during the 1950s. By the early Sixties, Jewish students comprised 14% of the Wellesley population, but there was a steady decline thereafter to their pre-World War quota level of 10-12%. The nationwide trend toward coeducation surely contributed to this reduction.
Wellesley was especially inhospitable to Orthodox students. Molly Myerowitz, admitted in 1960, encountered what she subsequently described as “the peculiarly polite yet inhumane brand of Wellesley anti-Semitism.” Because her religious obligations prohibited her from working on the Jewish Sabbath and holy days, she was compelled to postpone examinations scheduled for those days. The college solution was to incarcerate her in the infirmary for the duration, without access to books or friends lest she benefit from an “advantage” denied to other students. There Miss Myerowitz was served non-kosher food that she could not eat and a nurse was assigned to accompany her to the bathroom. Unable to endure life at Wellesley beyond her sophomore year, she transferred to Radcliffe. Only years later did she finally realize that “the failure was Wellesley’s and not my own.”
When Wellesley considered coeducation, President Ruth Adams anticipated a novel Jewish problem. She worried that with young men on campus, the likelihood of Jewish weddings in the College chapel would increase. A Religion professor suggested that should Wellesley decide to admit young men, the college would need a Jewish chaplain who would guide the determination of “those parietal hours and sexual relations which were appropriate to the torah observances of different Jewish groups.” There was also the “canopy problem,” the president responded, which required “experience in merchandising so that we can get full value.” An even more worrisome prospect was “the ritual smashing of glassware.” She wondered: “Will the floor of the chapel have to be resurfaced in order to provide the resistant surface on which such breakage can be achieved.”
For nearly a century, the Department of Religion had been the unofficial academic custodian of Christian culture at the College. Until then, Bible study was required of every student — but Jewish scholars were deemed inherently unqualified to teach the New Testament. In 1981 the Religion Department, true to its tradition, denied tenure to an exceedingly promising — and religiously observant — scholar of the Hebrew Bible whose excellent teaching and scholarship even his prejudiced senior colleagues acknowledged. But in a fifty-four-page letter, containing elaborate hypothetical models of departmental structure designed to exclude him, they insisted that his “style of interpersonal relationships” disqualified him.
That fall, the rejected candidate retained as his attorney the son of a retired member of the Religion Department. With ample evidence of Jewish quotas, presidential statements that Jews were incompetent to teach the New Testament, and persistent departmental anti-Semitism, the lawyer carefully documented the “normal pattern of discrimination” against Jews at Wellesley. The young scholar, he asserted, had been rejected only because he was a Jew. With negative publicity and litigation looming, the College Committee on Faculty Appointments overturned the departmental decision. Jon Levenson became the first tenured Jew in the Religion Department in the history of the college. The following year, he departed for the University of Chicago Divinity School, and then to the Harvard Divinity School, where he has since achieved international renown as a Bible scholar.
No sooner had the Levenson tenure issue faded than a litany of student complaints surfaced to provide dismaying evidence that from admission to graduation, anti-Semitism infested virtually every corner of Wellesley life. Admissions officers systematically avoided recruitment at predominantly Jewish high schools. Professors routinely denied student requests to postpone exams and assignments scheduled on Yom Kippur, and openly expressed their displeasure when Jewish students missed class for holy day observance. In dormitory dining halls, Jewish students often confronted forbidden pork products as the only available main course – for both lunch and dinner. When one mother requested that the dietician offer simple alternatives – cottage cheese, cereal – she was told: “My dear woman, if we start providing for the dietary needs of our Jewish students, before long we shall have to provide for Indian girls who don’t eat meat.”
In 1983 the Boston Jewish Advocate published a lead story documenting the long history of anti-Semitism at Wellesley College. Once its dirty linen began to be washed in public — with a sustained flurry of letters in response to the article — the facade of institutional denial finally began to crack.
In Academic Council -– the faculty governing body -– a resolution was introduced condemning and repudiating “the history and legacy” of anti-Semitism at Wellesley. But what seemed so self-evident and necessary to a handful of Jewish faculty members quickly became bogged down in a swamp of evasion and avoidance. Would the pattern of discrimination be perceived as institutional, or would it be reduced to the isolated acts of individuals who just happened to be college presidents, trustees, deans, and faculty members? Would discrimination targeting Jews be specifically identified and condemned -– or would anti-Semitism vanish amid vapid declarations of universal tolerance?
After hours of excruciating debate stretching across three acrimonious faculty meetings, the faculty (amid thunderous administrative silence) finally decided to acknowledge and condemn the persistence of anti-Semitism at Wellesley. To placate universalistic colleagues, who could not tolerate condemnation of anti-Semitism alone, the faculty also dedicated Wellesley College to the eradication of all forms of racial and religious discrimination.
By the 90s, Wellesley, like so many academic institutions, had made a strong commitment to affirmative action and multicultural diversity. The special admissions consideration that once was confined to Christian applicants now was reserved for African-American, Latina, Asian, and Native-American students –- and, as always, the daughters of alumnae. Young Muslim women were attracted to the gendered insularity of a women’s college. A small Jewish Studies department was established. But Jewish students, with every reason to anticipate the benefits of heightened tolerance, found themselves marginalized as members of the white majority and available as scapegoats for the grievances of other minorities.
The college had signaled its new commitment to diversity twenty years earlier, when it hired Tony Martin for the budding African-American Studies department.
In the spring of 1993, Martin assigned to students in his African-American history class an anonymously-written tract published by the Nation of Islam titled The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews. A farrago of false claims, it asserted that Jews, united “in an unholy coalition of kidnappers and slave makers,” had played a “disproportionate” role, amounting to “monumental culpability,” in slavery and the slave trade –- “the black holocaust.”
To Martin, the explanation for the instant outcry against his assignment of the book was simple: “The long arm of Jewish intolerance reached into my classroom.” Hallucinating a conspiracy by Jewish organizations to silence him, Martin denounced “the ongoing Jewish onslaught against Black progress.” He was, he loudly proclaimed, the victim of “a classic textbook case study of organized Jewish intimidation.” He self-published The Jewish Onslaught, denouncing allegations of his (blatant) anti-Semitism as “a clever smokescreen for a burgeoning Jewish intolerance of truly Stalinist proportions.”
Wellesley president Diana Walsh finally was moved to respond -– as tepidly as circumstances permitted. She quickly segued from Martin’s ludicrous allegation of a “Jewish onslaught” -– from, that is, his anti-Semitic venom — to an impassioned plea for polite manners. It would violate his freedom of speech, she claimed, to silence him. His tenured status would not be adversely affected. Nor would the College even censure him. Evidently fearful of confronting Martin, she had abjectly capitulated in the face of his rabidly anti-Semitic rants.
Martin’s shoddy scholarship was not confined to Jewish subjects. Respected Wellesley classics scholar Mary Lefkowitz noticed that Martin taught a Wellesley course containing erroneous assertions, popular among Black nationalist scholars, about the imaginary Afrocentric origins of ancient civilization. When she complained, the (Jewish) Dean of the College politely told her: “He has his view of ancient history, and you have yours,” a display of intellectual relativism that stunned the classical scholar.
Predictably, Martin counterattacked. Branding Lefkowitz as “a national leader of the Jewish onslaught against Afrocentrism in general and me in particular,” he sued her for malicious libel. Wellesley College was too fastidious -– or fearful — to get involved. Once again, the college declined to defend academic integrity; it was, the same dean told her, “your problem.” So courts, not the college, had the final word on Martin v. Lefkowitz. After nearly five years of costly legal proceedings, Martin’s claim was dismissed. Martin had confronted Wellesley College with a test of its principles. And, a young alumna perceptively observed several years later, “it failed.”
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks the battleground for Jews at Wellesley shifted. President Walsh forcefully reminded the Wellesley community to show respect for Muslim students, lest they be held guilty by association with Muslim terrorists. But she said nothing to reassure Jewish students, who encountered malicious allegations of Israeli responsibility for the terrorist outrages, accompanied by mendacious claims that several thousand Jews, forewarned of the attacks, had not reported for work at the World Trade Center that day.
For Jewish students, Wellesley often provided their first bitter encounter with anti-Semitism. After Angela Davis roused a campus audience with an impassioned endorsement of the vicious hostility directed at Israel and Jews at the Durban Conference against Racism (2001), a rising leader in the Jewish student community (and future rabbi) wrote pointedly in the college newspaper: “I did not come to Wellesley expecting to learn what it felt like to be hated or demonized because I was Jewish,” while college administrators “stand idly by.”
Wellesley embraced a redefinition of “minority” that excluded Jews. College administrators who patrolled the boundaries of multiculturalism and diversity rarely included Jews in their encouragement of tolerance. Racism and Islamophobia were promptly and properly denounced for what they are; but anti-Semitism, blandly labeled “prejudice” or “intolerance,” was routinely stripped of Jewish content. Torn between their Jewish identity and their desire to belong at Wellesley, it remained difficult for Jewish students to realize that when Wellesley made them feel uncomfortable, frightened or confused about being Jewish, that meant something was wrong with Wellesley, not with them.
Jewish students continued to encounter on-line denigration from Muslim and other intolerant classmates, Jew-baiting and Israel-bashing from professors and invited speakers, silent Court Jews on the faculty, and ineffectual Hillel guidance. The recent abrupt (if overdue) dismissal of the Hillel director and chaplain, combined with the relentless castigation of Israel by Muslim students and supportive faculty, triggered understandable concerns about festering anti-Semitism at the college. Stunned by the mendacious public postings by Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish students once again feel battered, without support from indifferent College administrators, passive Jewish faculty, or the now deposed Hillel staff members.
By contrast, Students for Justice in Palestine adherents are enthusiastically led — incited might be more precise — by assistant professor Sima Shakhsari. Her academic specialty is how “biopolitics, necropolitics and geopolitics produce and expend Middle Eastern queer lives in the name of freedom and rights.” She is an eager signee of petitions sponsored by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. At Wellesley, as on campuses worldwide, malevolent Israel-bashers equate repression with academic freedom.
So it was that a student with an Israeli contact provided Haaretz with an opportunity to break the story, which the Boston Globe, the Forward, and theJewish Advocate have now amplified. As anti-Semitism once again roils Wellesley, will the college finally confront and eradicate the poison of discrimination and denigration that is so deeply embedded in its culture? No one familiar with Wellesley history has reason for optimism.