Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning Yiddish writer, once described his fellow Jews as “a people who can’t sleep and won’t let anybody else sleep, either.” But of all the speculations, complaints and laments rifling through my yiddishe kop, I confess that one possibility for last week went uncontemplated: an apology from Stanford University, my alma mater, for restricting the admission of Jewish students in the 1950s.
“Who asked for it?” another Jewish alum remarked to me. If Jewish parents were to compile their top 20 issues with U.S. colleges, the lack of apologies for old quotas wouldn’t make the list. First would be the same issue everyone has: outrageous tuition, for which college presidents and administrators might feel ashamed if they weren’t so convinced of their moral superiority.
Next on the list would come the treatment of Israel. Why is the dissemination of Soviet-vintage anti-Zionist propaganda the perennial preoccupation of student activists, egged on by radical professors? In my freshman year, the Students of Color Coalition, the dominant campus political machine, organized a broad coalition of student groups in favor of divestment from Israel. Alongside the old calumnies, it hyped to Hispanic students that U.S. Border Patrol uses some Israeli technology. To black students it played up minor training sessions that some U.S. police receive in “apartheid Israel,” as if that’s why we have police shootings. It’s called intersectionality: Each group is given its own reason to blame the Jews.
Nineteen student groups were arrayed against Israel, and only Jews and conservatives defended it. Liberal Jews, throughout their time at Stanford, were pressured to choose: Turn your back on Israel and the Jewish people, or lose your standing as progressives. Jewish parents worry about that dynamic.
Wokeness itself is often a concern because of its structural antagonism to the Jews. If group disparities are evidence of racism, and merit is a fraudulent concept used by the powerful to perpetuate their domination, then how to explain disproportionate Jewish success? In their 1997 book, “Beyond All Reason,” law professors Daniel Farber and Suzanna Sherry conclude that the “radical theories inescapably imply that Jews and Asians enjoy an unfair share of wealth and status.” They exceed their quotas.
Without appeal to merit, the achievements of these small minorities can’t be explained other than by bigoted reference to their scheming or exploiting, or at least their collaboration with the power elite and assent to white supremacy. That’s why Asians get called “white adjacent” and Jews are treated as worse than white, itself used as an insult.
Many Jewish parents also worry, privately, that admissions officers will treat their kids the same way the activists do. As whites, they’ll be disfavored—not because of ’50s-style de facto quotas, but because of today’s. Stanford proudly uses racial preferences as “one part of the individualized review of student applications for admission.” Whatever that means, race and ethnicity are again being used to engineer student populations. Yet no apologies are forthcoming this time. At every opportunity, Stanford submits friend-of-the-court briefs in defense of the practice, lately rallying behind Harvard. Probably it is easier to apologize to dead Jews than to treat living Asians fairly.
It wasn’t uncommon at Stanford for non-Asian students to remark, in quiet moments of candor, that they were glad affirmative action kept down the number of Asian students, even if they couldn’t justify it in acceptable terms. Otherwise, “Stanford wouldn’t be Stanford.” It would be too competitive, less social and a worse experience all around if the Asian student population got too big. In years past, many WASPs said the same about the Jews.
By the way, Jews did change those schools, just as Asians may change them now. So what?
I was first alerted to Stanford’s apology by a campus Jewish center: “On behalf of Hillel at Stanford, I want to lift up President [Marc] Tessier-Lavigne’s apology as a notable example of institutional teshuvah—an acknowledgment of past wrongdoing and clear and specific commitment to ensure a supportive and bias-free experience at Stanford.”
Usually, you do teshuvah for your own sins. That’s why it’s so difficult. In this case, the Stanford president is repenting for actions of his long-dead predecessors. That’s why it’s so easy, pushed in press releases that whisper: We’re better than those who came before us. They mistreated those poor, old Jews, and we own up to it.
Yet I wouldn’t call that generation of American Jews victims. They were blessed to live in the U.S., not Europe. And while many were kept out of elite bastions to which they had earned entry, their brains and drive helped them leave the stuffy elites in the dust. Looking back at this period in 1970, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded: “The Jews were everywhere, doing everything. In New York . . . they simply outclassed their competition, which was Protestant in business, professional, and intellectual circles, and Catholic in the political ones.”
Hard as it is for academics steeped in the ideology of affirmative action to understand, Jews made it without Stanford and Harvard. Some think we’d be wise to do so again.
Read the full piece at The Wall Street Journal here.