Harvard and Haredi Racism

letter-447577_1280

It took the United States a century and a half to tell itself that it had meaningfully rid itself of discrimination against African-Americans. Even so, few people really believe that anti-black sentiment has been removed from our society with the election of Barack Obama.

It may be profoundly disappointing to many of us, but it should not surprise us that Israel has not purged itself entirely of prejudice against Sefardim in much less time. To their great credit, there are subgroups and institutions that seem to have banished such prejudice entirely. It still exists in many places, including as many have pointed out, on the Supreme Court, where only one justice of fourteen is of Mizrahi origin.

People who tell television cameras that there is no prejudice against Sefardim in the haredi world because we study Rambam play the rest of Israeli society for fools. The prejudice is palpable and institutionalized – although far from uniform There have always been Torah figures who have opposed it. The most common forms of it that I have heard – and heard often – are two. One of them argues that cultural differences are potent enough that Ashkenazim and Sefardim simply shouldn’t have to live in too close proximity. It’s not that they are bad people, mind you. They just lack some of the subtle refinement that the rest of us enjoy. We shouldn’t have to mix. That doesn’t mean that we hate them, or don’t value them.

The other kind is even more deferential to Sefardim. We would love to accommodate them in our school, and personally have nothing against them. We look at each student individually, and see the Sefardic candidate in front of us as a unique individual. Alas, however, not everyone is as enlightened as we are. If we admit him/her, those benighted others will think that we are second-rate, that we have lowered our standards. For the good of our institution and all of its students, we are compelled to set strict quotas on the number of Sefardics we can admit.

Both of these forms of discrimination are much more elevated than the coarser prejudice elsewhere in Israeli society. They are both imported Ivy League.

Abbott Lawrence Lowell served as Harvard’s president in the early decades of the twentieth century. Although less than 3% of the country, Jewish representation at Harvard had climbed to 21%, tripling from 7% at the beginning of the century. At two of NY’s City Colleges, Jews amounted to 80% of the student population; at Columbia, they were a mere 40%.

Lowell argued that Harvard would suffer greatly if too many Jews were admitted. It would drive away other qualified students. Moreover, their overrepresentation was the reason for growing resentment, and therefore growing prejudice. Jews would be better off if they took a lower profile, and did not give cause for others to hate them.

In 1922, Lowell proposed a quota on Jewish admission. Intense public scrutiny – and an outcry from other minority groups in Boston like the Irish and African-Americans – caused the attempt to fail. Lowell did not give up. While Harvard had previously selected students from all parts of the country as long as they finished in the top seventh of their class, Lowell pushed for the consideration of letters from teachers and interviewers that would report on “character” and “aptitude.” He knew that they would also include important biographical details that could be used to weed out the undesirables. He was successful, and by the time he stepped down in 1933, the Jewish population at Harvard had declined to 10%.

Interestingly, Lowell also fought to have black students purged from the Freshman Halls dormitories, although they had lived there for decades before. “For the colored man to claim that he is entitled to have the white man compelled to live with him is a very unfortunate innovation which, far from doing him good, would increase a prejudice which, as you and I will thoroughly agree, is most unfortunate and probably growing.”
“We have not thought it possible to compel men of different races to reside together.”

Lowell does not seem to have been a bad person, and may not even have been anti-semitic or anti-black. Harvard – and America – moved on, ultimately rejecting his thinking. “Tolerance,” wrote Harry Starr, the Jewish student at Harvard who battled against the impostion of quotas, “is not to be administered like castor oil, with eyes closed and jaws clenched.”

Even with a hechsher.

You may also like...

17 Responses

  1. Debra says:

    I have always worried about how my daughter would fare if we we were to make aliyah. She has a Sephardi last name. It has been suggested that she take on my Ashkenazi maiden name. What a haval that I should have to worry about being discriminated in my homeland.

    And Esther, I’ll answer your question in good Jewish fashion:”Why should a Sephardi be excluded from an Ashkenazi school?” I hope in the spirit of the nine-days you get the point.

  2. One Christian's perspective says:

    Ori: One Christian, calling oneself a Christian is a negative with many people on the left, as well as the lunatic criminal set. However, it is a positive for social conservatives.

    Ori, I am not sure how to respond to your comment any more than Rabbi Oberstein’s comments. In my narrow and uneducated perspective, I feel that both social liberals and social conservatives could both be self-righteous in their view of life because while God is out of their picture, man is in the drivers seat as the agent for change. They are both wrong. God is and has always been Sovereign over creation. Man is but a vapor.

    I have close Christian friends. Surprisingly, some are: liberal and vote Democratic, conservative and vote Republican, independent and vote outside of a party affiliation, one was a hardened criminal who did jail time but has since met the living God and denounced his gang affiliation to his gang members at the risk of his own life because there was no going back to the former life and others were former atheists. I suspect our voting record may illuminate our fears, weaknesses and idols more than anything else. However, faith that is active and alive defines who we are by trusting God in all things, – in the end and after all our struggles – we recognize He is all we have and all we need above all things.

  3. Ori says:

    One Christian, calling oneself a Christian is a negative with many people on the left, as well as the lunatic criminal set. However, it is a positive for social conservatives.

  4. One Christian's perspective says:

    L. Oberstein
    June 23rd, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    “Let us for a moment look at the plight of two Indian-American Conservative Republican politicians,Governor “Bobby” Jindal of Louisiana has to loudly proclaim that he is no longer a Hindu but a Christian. “Nikki” Halley of South Carolina has to go out of her way to deny her Sikh heritage and go overboard to proclaim what a totally believing Christian she is. Otherwise, they would never have gotten where they are. I feel sorry for Nikki’s mom and dad who know in their hearts that Nikki is not really ashamed of them and their heritage but is doing what she has to in order to be accepted in an intolerant world.

    Back in the olden days, Disraeli’s father had his son converted to Christianity so he could get ahead (and because he had a fight with his shul).”

    Rabbi Oberstein what you have just shared makes absolutely no sense to me and I suspect to many Christians who share my faith.
    In today’s culture, it is not acceptable to be called Christian in many circles at the risk of persecution and even loss of your own life. In the USA – Columbine and the Amish in Pa. comes to mind because they made the news. Others are silently passed over for promotion because they are Christian and their values are outside of the norm of today’s society. Christians, in the public eye, who confess their faith are ridiculed in other ways by the media. I find it amazing that you even think that confessing you are a Christian is going to win you votes today.

  5. dovid says:

    My compliments to RYA and to Commenter “dovid.”

    Which dovid? There are two by now.

  6. Mike says:

    Chaval. I read Esthers post and almost wept. Is this what how bad things have become?
    So when you see these protesters who think they are “mikadash shem shamayim”, we
    need to tear keriyah at how low things have gotten. As to the question why would
    a sephardi want to go to an Ashkenazi institution, its like asking why would
    a black in America want to go to a “white” college. We are supposed to have outgrown
    this.

  7. L. Oberstein says:

    Esther, may I seem to digress for a moment to deal with the crux of your question. Let us for a moment look at the plight of two Indian-American Conservative Republican politicians,Governor “Bobby” Jindal of Louisiana has to loudly proclaim that he is no longer a Hindu but a Christian. “Nikki” Halley of South Carolina has to go out of her way to deny her Sikh heritage and go overboard to proclaim what a totally believing Christian she is. Otherwise, they would never have gotten where they are. I feel sorry for Nikki’s mom and dad who know in their hearts that Nikki is not really ashamed of them and their heritage but is doing what she has to in order to be accepted in an intolerant world. Don’t you see that some “Sephardim” feel that they must do the same to provide a better future for their children. I have heard that some change their last names to get into ceratin schools. In the olden days there was a movie called “Imitation of Life” about a very light colored African American who passed as a white. Back in the olden days, Disraeli’s father had his son converted to Christianity so he could get ahead (and because he had a fight with his shul).
    What is sad is the fact that we so called religious Jews have this stain on our souls. Remember that the people who don’t like “Frankim”(sephardim) don’t like a lot of other groups. I have long felt that it is fortunate that in the USA, Jews are considered to be white. In Israel, being Jewish doesn’t make one white.

  8. dovid says:

    woops – when i wrote “If you speak with the charedim in Emanuel” – I meant “sefardim,” not “charedim.” freudian slip???

  9. Esther says:

    On a different thread, R’ Dovid Landesman comments with this story:

    A young man of Sefaradic background came for a bechinah to one of the prominent roshei yeshiva in EY. At the end of the bechinah, the RY asked him why he was so interested in learning in that specific institution given the differences in minhag et al. He replied “because”I want to be in an Ashkenazi yeshiva.” The RY replied: “So do I and therefore I cannot accept you.” I asked the RY why he had rejected the young man and he told me point blank that if he accepted more than 25% Sefaradim, his Ashkenazi bochurim would leave the yeshiva.

    Theoretical Conclusion: If the RY accepts this bochur, he won’t have this Ashkenazi yeshiva to go to, because the Ashkenazi bochurim would leave the yeshiva.

    Quetion: Why do Sephardim want to go to Ashkenazi schools?

  10. YGB says:

    My compliments to RYA and to Commenter “dovid.”

  11. Bob Miller says:

    “The other kind is even more deferential to Sefardim. We would love to accommodate them in our school, and personally have nothing against them. We look at each student individually, and see the Sefardic candidate in front of us as a unique individual. Alas, however, not everyone is as enlightened as we are. If we admit him/her, those benighted others will think that we are second-rate, that we have lowered our standards. For the good of our institution and all of its students, we are compelled to set strict quotas on the number of Sefardics we can admit.”

    The above type of thinking has also been used to bar non-elite students from some American Jewish day schools. It can happen that the only day school in an area, or all day schools in an area, reject a student for this same reason, leaving that student nowhere to go except public school. That results in part from each school’s total independence, in the absence of true community kehillot that take responsibility for the entire student population.

  12. Zadok says:

    May one never establish standards in their institutions if those standards that will not include many from a identifiable group who don’t live up to those standards?What is the response to the argument this school would not be good for many (not all) from a specific group due to cultural issues, nor would they be good for the school?

    I frequently hear people complain ‘the system’ or ‘elite schools’ (in America).Inasmuch as these people themselves usually send their own non problem children to ‘system’ type or ‘elite’ schools rather then the ‘all are accepted-little pressure’ schools they advocate, it is difficult to give those people any credence.

  13. dovid says:

    Thank you for posting this. I have been very disappointed with Cross Currents’ handling of the Emanuel affair. It’s all been “Lalom’s a troublemaker and Bagatz hates charedim and the secular media is lying.” This all may be true, but it is only one part of the story – the other part is far less flattering to the Torah community. If you speak with the charedim in Emanuel (I’ve spoken to several of them), you will hear them talk about being bullied by the chassidim there for many years, well before the Beis Yaakov story started. And in affidavits submitted to the High Court, parents of Sephardi girls in the Beis Yaakov reported that the chassidic girls insulted their daughters in front of teachers, who did nothing to stop it. And there are plenty of Sephardi families aournd Israel who will tell you of their problems enrolling children in Ashkenazi run schools. One Ashkenazi ba’alas teshuva told my wife just last week that in the charedi neighborhood where she used to live, it was common practice to “dump” all the Sephardi girls together with the problem girls and girls from baal teshuva families. And, say what you want about Lalom, but he reportedly started Noar Kahalacha because of his own frustrating experiences trying to get a daughter in Beis Yaakov. And Hacham Yaakov Yosef sanctioned the court case because he felt there is a real problem in Israel that has to be addressed, and the batei din wouldn’t help.

    This does not make the division of the Emanuel Beis Yaakov wrong, or the Bagatz’s decision right. But the resentment felt by Sephardim toward the charedi Ashkenazi establishment did not grow in a vacuum. There is a problem, and I am diappointed that the response of the charedim was simply “we’re right, they’re wrong,” without acknowledging that there is a problem which needs to be addressed, albeit not through the medium of Bagatz.

    The Slonimer Rebbe, Aguda, and everyone else responded with a battle cry – “We have to go out and fight.” Wouldn’t it have been far more effective to at least say something about the ongoing mistreatment of Sefardim? Even without admitting to “racism” or “discrimination,” inflammatory buzz words, at least some statement reiterating the establishment’s commitment to all Jews, Ashkeanzi and Sefardi, could have gone a long way – ok, maybe a short way – toward healing the wounds. The fact that 30% of the Beis Yaakov Chassidi were Sephardi is certainly significant, but it does not change the fact that there is a problem in the charedi world of excluding Sefardim.

  14. Bob Miller says:

    “Lowell does not seem to have been a bad person, and may not even have been anti-semitic or anti-black.”

    Rabbi Adlerstein, have you investigated this?

    The following is quoted from a piece by Prof. Alan Dershowitz

    When I raised this concern in a recent debate, my opponent accused me of changing the subject. He said we are talking about Israel now, not Chechnya or Darfur. This reminded me of a famous exchange between Harvard’s racist president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, and the great American judge Learned Hand. Lowell announced that he wanted to reduce the number of Jews at Harvard, because, “Jews cheat.” Judge Hand replied that “Christians also cheat.” Lowell responded, “You’re changing the subject. We are talking about Jews.”

  15. The Contarian says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein

    Like On Ben Peles(t) I have abandonned arguing and for the same reason. It’s not my fight. One is a Contarian(A devil’s advocate who is physically challenged when it comes to typing) for those one believes is his own tribe. But the israeli Ashkenazi Charedim would not consider me a member of their tribe and cetainly would not allow my childern entry into their schiools.

    That beinng said your last line puzzles me. “Even with a Hechsher” antecedent is Tolerance. Are you saying that Even Kosher Tolerance should not be swallowed….? What does that mean.

    [YA – Sorry. The antecedent is “castor oil.” I meant that even when the tolerance has a hechsher, some people are inclined to choke on it. They shouldn’t]

  16. L. Oberstein says:

    You are absolutely correct. Is there any way that this can be published in Haaretz and in the Hamodia. The prejudice is profound in both secular and chareidi Israeli society. I wonder which of the two publications would be more willing to publish an op ed that cogently challenged their societal structure.
    I understand that Rav Efrati is the one who declared that there is no discrimination at all as long as we all learn Sephardi and Ashkenazi meforshim. He is also the main conduit to Rav Elyashiv. Could Rav Efrati please ask Rav Elyashiv to state categorically and issue a kol koreh that there is no discrimination in the chareidi world and that anyone who discriminates is outside of the camp. I am sure every word that comes from Rav Efrati is what he previously clarified with his mentor ,so there shouldn’t be a problem and then the kol koreh will be signed by all the gedolim and rebbes and the problem will cease forever.

  17. Ori says:

    It’s posts like this that really make me miss the Facebook “like” button.