Once upon a time, not even a decade ago, the most important place in the world to me was a nondescript building on Washington Road in Princeton, New Jersey. Sitting in the shadow of Princeton University’s vaunted eating clubs, the Center for Jewish Life hosted daily prayer services, kosher meals, and most of the memorable conversations that made Princeton so formative for me.

We Jewish Tigers were legion, and the CJL was our second home. As our orange-and-black paraphernalia would attest, we were fully Princeton. And why not? With hard work and a dusting of admissions-office luck we had emerged from our childhoods as Jews fit to hobnob with the brightest young people in America and the towering lacrosse players whose names ended in numerals. We excelled academically and socially, and we were self-sufficient enough to downplay the routine ways we were excluded from campus life. Sure, most major social events occurred on Shabbat or revolved around non-kosher food, and the most elite literary clubs and secret societies gave off more than a whiff of secularist chauvinism and progressive anti-Zionism. But we had enough intramural sports and musical groups and campus publications to sustain us—and most of all, our CJL.

There is another Ivy League CJL 230 miles northwest of Princeton, in Ithaca, New York. It was Cornell’s Center for Jewish Living that was in the news this past October after an undergraduate threatened to “shoot up” the building, “stab” and “slit the throat” of any Jews he saw there, rape any Jewish women he encountered, behead any Jewish babies, and “shoot all you pig jews.”

Whatever danger this deranged young man posed was averted, but his threat—and the clear cues it had taken from those campus darlings, Hamas—put a fine point on the major dilemma American Jews must now confront. Are the Ivies our Promised Land or, in the post–October 7 era, a place where we might be gathering for annihilation?

Not in the sense that Hitler tried to annihilate us, of course, nor even quite in the same sense that Charles Krauthammer warned of when contemplating Israel’s ingathering of the exiles: “The Jews have necessarily put all their eggs in one basket, a small basket hard by the waters of the Mediterranean.” No psychotic Cornell undergrad, or even Hamas supporters wielding bullhorns and bureaucracies, has the power to do that. But are the Jewish centers on elite campuses, nearly all of which have been tagged with anti-Semitic graffiti or protested for supporting Israel in the last half-year, still serenading American Jews with their siren song, according to which Jews can still enjoy the campus golden age of the past half-century; Jews are welcome among America’s cultural elites; and if you drink from the Ivy fount of knowledge, you can go and improve the Jewish-American condition?

The repeated assaults, both literal and figurative, against Jews on college campuses suggest the opposite: Continuing to funnel Jewish talent and ambition to elite colleges may hamper the Jewish future by training the most promising young Jews in America to be cowards. Worse, encouraging our best and brightest to view the Ivy League (and peer schools) as the height of achievement may affirm, for them and the universities they prize, that the anti-intellectual and morally bankrupt ideology that now reigns is the height of sophistication.

Some students have responded to their hostile environs with flaring Jewish pride and righteous reactionism. They are commendable but few. But most avoid confrontation, and understandably so. Young Jews can come to campus with all the talking points in the world about Arab rejectionism and Israeli democracy, but nothing can prepare you to deal with the reality of institutions you want to love tolerating—indeed, cultivating—calls to “globalize the intifada.” In the face of pervasive absurdity, most students do, and always will, choose silence. And surely as our behaviors become our habits become our personality, they glide toward complacency, moral confusion, and shame.

This undeniable dynamic raises the question of whether Princeton and Cornell—to say nothing of those beleaguered Ivies Harvard, Columbia, and Penn, and high-ranking non-Ivy hubs of anti-Israel extremism beyond—deserve to maintain their exalted status in the popular American-Jewish imagination. Even if those campuses became physically safe for Jews, understandably the primary concern for current students and their parents, can they ever be safe for the Jews—for the future of our people? Or is it time to direct our aspirations elsewhere?

The case for Jews withdrawing from elite universities is strong. It presents itself most comprehensively when presidents and bureaucrats, who preen unrelentingly about the importance of making all groups feel safe and welcome, find themselves suddenly tongue-tied when Jews report feeling unsafe. The bureaucrats so quick to wield Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act to railroad students accused of unverifiable discomfort-inducing gender-based comments suddenly misplace their Civil Rights Act when rank national-origin discrimination is captured on camera. This illuminates an embarrassing irony: While elite schools go to great lengths to shield favored groups from words in the name of safety, and launch into action where evidence is scant, they drag their feet when defending disfavored groups’ physical safety in the face of violent assaults (notably at Harvard), false imprisonment (notably at the Cooper Union), and harassment (everywhere).

Aside from the hypocrisy, elite universities have revealed how degraded and morally inverted their “education” has become. Academic babble about identity and oppression provided the conceptual scaffolding for administrators and professors to excuse—and occasionally celebrate—the inexcusable. With each tenured Ivy League academic exclaiming his elation over Hamas’s massacre of children—because there are no innocent “occupiers” in the minds of cutting-edge academic theorists—the treason of the intellectuals becomes clearer. Top universities are not bastions of Jew-hatred despite being at the vanguard of progressive enlightenment but because of it.

While these universities claim to be about high principle and deep thought, their very sophistication has led them to the basest conclusion imaginable: aiding in-groups and punishing out-groups. Just as universities inculcate the belief that so-called powerless groups can be heroes for committing atrocities against “powerful” Jews in Israel, favored groups on campus are immune from consequences and are fêted for their social-justice activism when breaking campus rules (and even state law). For Jewish Americans, whose names adorn the buildings on which “glory to the martyrs” was projected, recognizing that the Jew had somehow become the enemy in yet another viral ideology, for little more than thriving when we weren’t supposed to, has been perhaps the most difficult part of all.

That is not to downplay the significance of the threat of physical violence on campus. Even where brazen assaults (such as the October 18 incident at Harvard, in which a Jewish graduate student was shoved to the ground by an editor of the Harvard Law Review) are absent, Jewish students are told that their schools will go only so far in guaranteeing their freedom from harassment and violence. Years of campus reluctance to enforce security measures against rule-breaking protesters trying to “deplatform” conservative speakers culminated in a mind-boggling exchange at Penn, where Jewish students allegedly were told to “not wear clothing/accessories related to Judaism” because the university was, in that slimy refrain of bureaucratic cowardice, unable to guarantee their safety.

“Unable” means “unwilling.” Universities can identify and expel every single person responsible for making Jews unsafe on campus. They choose not to, even when those same people flagrantly violate school rules against vandalism, disruption, harassment, and occupying buildings. The reasons for this are varied but not terribly complex. Partly it is not hatred of Jews but love of Mammon: It would be painful to part with all those Qatari riyals. As Neetu Arnold revealed in Tablet, “At elite universities…international students make up almost 25% of the student population” and “disproportionately pay full price for tuition and housing.” Many have been imported from the biggest Jew-hating countries around the world and would have to return there if expelled. MIT admitted it wouldn’t punish rule breakers subject to deportation if the students were found to be in violation of campus rules. Another hesitation is surely the poor optics of expelling these disproportionately “diverse” students.

And what of the white leftists, many of whom do not pay full tuition or boost diversity numbers? Put simply, they are allies of the mob, not enemies. Elite universities are proud to host dozens of identity-based social-justice clubs, full of radicals who will soon take the helm of our politics, or left-wing organizations such as the ACLU or the New York Times.

It is no coincidence that people gleefully calling for Israel’s destruction are vastly overrepresented on college campuses relative to the general population, even if administrators never meant to flood their campuses with open Jew-haters. This state of affairs is simply the natural consequence of molding the “campus community” in a certain image: ethnically diverse, moneyed, oriented not toward knowledge but social justice, prizing the pseudosophistication of the campus protest over the seismic potential of intellectually curious young people confronting Aristotle, Einstein, and da Vinci. At the most prestigious schools, where admissions officers can handpick the cleverest and most dedicated activists, these patterns are only more acute. Prestige and radicalism are now positively correlated and mutually reinforced.

There is some good news in this analysis, and some bad. The good news is that violence against Jews, while not something anyone should have to endure, is not that hard to address. Lawsuits, negative media attention, and public shamings like the one visited upon the infamous university presidents in December can whip universities into shape when they discriminate against Jews by refusing to protect them from harm. The physical threats are awful but likely to abate before too long. In any case, it is bad policy for Jews to leave a place due to threats of violence. Jews have not abandoned Brooklyn despite relentless street violence; we will never leave Jerusalem, no matter how many bombs target buses or cafés. As long as we have tenable means of defending ourselves, staying and fighting such threats is a near-imperative of Jewish self-respect.

Of course, Harvard Yard is not the Holy Land. Indeed, in other good news, the past few months have clarified that top schools are hardly cathedrals of genuine intellectual sophistication or even ability. There is a world of difference between an elite education and what’s on offer at elite schools, which is better characterized as a program to groom young people with elite tastes, assumptions, and vocabularies. This observation helps put our moment in important historical context. The Ivies were not always synonymous with intelligence and mobility. For many years before World War II, they were finishing schools for the sons of American Brahmins. The meritocratic moment, of which I luckily caught the tail end, was an aberration. Harvard has returned to form, but instead of populating white-shoe law firms and government administrations with a certain kind of gentleman, it aims to supply America’s upper echelons with well-regulated revolutionaries and activists. Accordingly, if Jews insist against historical evidence and all logic that elite universities are our only ticket to a stable, successful, bourgeois future, that is our mistake.

The bad news, and what ought to concern Jewish families, is that thanks to this worldview’s ideological capture of the universities, top schools are systemically organized around anti-intellectualism. The rot does not end with cowardly leadership or ballooning DEI administrations. As evidenced by the ubiquity of the inane philosophy of decolonization and the normalization of anti-Jewish discrimination on that basis, it runs to admissions, course offerings, curricula, even offices of student life. Reorienting elite higher education is a much heavier lift than cracking down on its coddled thugs.

Universities are guilty, in particular, of inculcating the moral idiocy of seeing the world through that pernicious lens of friends-versus-foes. This erodes Jewish students’ intellectual curiosity, by demonstrating that sophisticated people are expected to spew the same stupid platitudes about race, gender, and liberating indigenous peoples from heteropatriarchal white-European colonialism. But more profoundly, it runs headlong into Jewish students’ sense of loyalty toward their own people and their own traditions. Because Jews have been recast as “white” colonizers, Jewish particularism, including Zionism, is regarded as a variant of white supremacy. Moreover, the long-standing Jewish approach to analyzing the world, which emphasizes difficult analyses of right and wrong, fair and unfair, rather than shallow observations about power and color, is regarded as bigoted. Jews trying to make it through four years without being ostracized (if not investigated for harmful speech) must either hide or debase themselves.

Until elite universities are gutted and replaced with something socially valuable—training to be good citizens, perhaps, or responsible stewards of great American institutions—this amounts to a compelling case for self-respecting Jews to stop lending their talents, tuition dollars, and social approval to institutions that deserve to be starved of all three.

_____________

For all the corruption in elite schools, an unexpected phenomenon should give us pause. I have spoken to dozens of students from the nation’s best universities in the past few months, and most of them corroborate reports of discrimination, violence, and abuse on their campuses similar to what has been alleged in the legal complaints against Harvard, MIT, and Penn. Yet many of these students insist that overall, their college experience has not been so bad. They still have plenty of friends, traverse campus unmolested, have grown as thinkers thanks to apolitical professors, and have been able to land desirable jobs—all while being openly Jewish, even known as Zionists. They feel safe.

Surely the quad is not the Warsaw ghetto. We should not exaggerate the nature of the situation. But neither should we conclude that students’ “lived experiences” settle the matter. Students are likely unaware of how their time on campus is shaping them in subtle ways. Moreover, a thorough assessment of our question depends not just on how universities affect Jewish students but also on the wider effects of our continued participation in the current system. There are moments of tenderness in almost every abusive relationship. If elite schools are abusing us—taking our tuition money, whispering sweet nothings about Jews’ cherished place in the tapestry of diversity and inclusion, and then systematically advancing an ideology that puts us in the crosshairs—appeals to Jews’ quotidian campus experiences mean little.

Ultimately, the case for Jews sticking with the Ivy League will come down to some deeper questions about trade-offs. Is exposure to highly regarded professors worth tacitly condoning the popularization of anti-Jewish ideas? Is the coveted degree and the chance of landing a better job worth perpetuating an anti-intellectual racket?

One common answer is, yes, it is all not just worthwhile but necessary: We must send our best warriors to fight from the inside, use the credential for good, and generally maneuver like Esther in Ahasuerus’s palace to thwart our enemies. Yet American Jews have devoted woefully few resources to setting our Esthers up for success, having focused almost exclusively on substance—talking points, arguments, ideas—rather than on procedure, such as how to blow the whistle on misbehaving student groups, pester school administrations, gather information for lawsuits, and generally dedicate years to an extracurricular program of Jewish defense. All while still passing organic chemistry.

If all that sounds like too much for even the most ambitious and dedicated Jewish college student to bear, that’s probably because it is. Getting people to show up to anything in college is hard; getting them to do so consistently, in a way that will make them unpopular and interfere with their GPAs, is nearly impossible. A few student leaders end up carrying the torch while their peers wish them well, attend a few events, and slide into quiescent habits that will earn them a prestigious degree. Schools feature grateful Jewish students in brochures to prove that concerns are overblown. Student plaintiffs begin to look like the crazy ones.

What a strange message this sends to young Jews. First, they learn that elite schools are where they will encounter the best that is being said and thought. Then, we expect them to believe that their classmates, professors, and administrators are moral idiots who must be ignored or fought. We pour hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours into ensuring that our kids will fit in at Harvard, often sacrificing a thorough Jewish education in the process. Then, they are supposed to believe that moral courage on behalf of their people is more important than social acceptance. It doesn’t take a perfect SAT score to see why this fails to build exceptional Jews or change universities one iota. The myth of our young warrior-scholars is little more than rationalization.

Let us address the trade-offs with candor, admitting that what draws us back to the Ivy League is its prestige. We need not be embarrassed about that. I am not ashamed to admit that I was once a young Jew far too concerned with being validated through a Princeton acceptance letter. I also wanted to know that the hard part was over—the ungodly hours I spent on my studies and extracurriculars in high school would soon pay off in the form of high-prestige, high-income, secure jobs. Like so many high-achieving students are now, I was motivated by a combination of the noble aspiration to use my abilities and credentials for good and the vainglorious desire for recognition.

What was and remains true of college applicants writ small is true of the Jewish community writ large. We want those credentials and high-paying jobs for altruistic reasons: We can give more tzedakah and defray the costs of Jewish education; advocate for our people in every arena; develop technologies that enhance human life; access leadership roles at large organizations to steer them in the direction of the good and righteous. But we are moved by more than altruism. A chip remains on our collective shoulders and accounts for our hesitancy to give up on brand-name schools at the top of the rankings. As a people, we still seek validation. Tell us we are as good as everyone else. Please, affirm that we are a light unto this nation.

This Diaspora mentality of perpetual outsider status only grows as elite schools play hard to get. But it is not necessary. The American people—not the sliver represented in the Ivy League, but the vast millions—do not need us to prove our worth before they will treat us as equals.

Put differently, the universities are not the only ones who have changed. We Jews have changed, too. In every way but mentality, we are no longer immigrants wary of overstaying our welcome. We are, in the eyes of our countrymen, full-fledged Americans who rightly believe in George Washington’s promise that we are not merely tolerated here. We have “made it” in America, not in the sense that we have shattered all glass ceilings or no longer need access to the engines of social mobility, but in the sense that if we want to go through our lives fully Jewish and fully American without explanation or apology, there are states and institutions happy to facilitate that. In Florida, Texas, and several other states, new programs are forming a nascent constellation of genuinely elite educational institutions dedicated to learning, not finishing. Rather than doing so by profiting off Jewish success, they seek our genuine partnership.

Pivoting to non-brand-name institutions will doubtless feel like a major risk for Jewish parents who have invested so much time, money, and hope in their kids taking the elite-education route to success. It will be cold comfort to note that abandoning elite schools is a small sacrifice for the greater good of our people. It certainly pales in comparison with what 18-year-old Jews in Israel do. Perhaps more comforting is that older generations can help set these young Jews up for success by no longer treating Ivy League degrees as a golden ticket in their professional lives, and by redirecting donations from old elites to promising upstarts. Elite status is socially constructed. It currently does not reflect objective merit. We can—and should—deconstruct it.

Ditching elite schools is still a gamble, on ourselves and on a future in which civilization prevails over barbarism. But it can be self-fulfilling. Done conscientiously, our exodus can send a message to the next generation of Jews: The Ivies need us more than we need them. We don’t need the old badges of prestige to prove we are smart, or to reach the top of STEM, law, or the arts. It also signals to other Americans that we put our money on the long-term value of actual education, maintaining the long-standing Jewish faith in the power of critical thought. To join us is to express faith in the ethos of the liberal West, that producing valuable goods, services, and ideas for our fellow citizens is the path to fame and fortune. Together, we reject the prevailing view, which holds that true wisdom entails unraveling the West—and especially that the Jews should go back wherever they came from.

We Jews like to play up the centrality of education to our longevity and success. But emphasizing “education” is imprecise. We have valued a particular kind of education, one that supports moral and aesthetic formation, and knowledge that can help humanity flourish. Collecting degrees and accolades is not the essence of a Jewish education. Developing our individual talents to advance the good of our people, and the good of all decent people, is. Touting the number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners is wonderful for when we try to prove our worth as a people, but a self-confident Jewish nation needs no statistic to prove that we are equal participants in the American future.

American Jews therefore have this to answer in the final analysis: Is our goal to pursue a transient definition of prestige or to grow into virtuous men and women? Will we find meaning in a perpetual game of Jews-beat-the-odds, or in sustaining a magnificent tradition with fidelity to our people and our creed? Just as, in Maimonides’s telling, early idolaters confused the luminaries with gods, we have come to confuse the luster of the elite university with the good of Jewish excellence itself. Let a new light shine.

Photo: AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey

We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.

+ A A -
You may also like
135 Shares
Share via
Copy link