The racism of the intellectuals

As the Ivy League anti-Semitism scandal shows, an elite education offers no immunity to bigotry.

Cory Franklin

Topics Politics USA

‘Anti-Semitism is a symptom of ignorance, and the cure for ignorance is knowledge.’ These words were spoken by Harvard University president Claudine Gay during her congressional testimony about anti-Semitism earlier this month. This may seem like a simple, comforting homily, but parse that sentence and you will find a thin layer of self-serving hubris. Implicit is the message that because we are Harvard, we cannot be ignorant. So we can’t be anti-Semitic.

History teaches a different lesson. Gay would be well served by reading the speech delivered by late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia at the 1997 Day of Remembrance commemoration for Holocaust victims. It included these words: ‘The one message I want to convey today is that you will have missed the most frightening aspect of it all, if you do not appreciate that [the Holocaust] happened in one of the most educated, most progressive, most cultured countries in the world.’

Recent events in Cambridge, Massachusetts support that insight. Like other prestigious universities, Harvard is currently mired in anti-Semitism. Any doubt of this was dispelled by Rabbi David J Wolpe, an esteemed visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School. Wolpe recently resigned from the university’s anti-Semitism advisory group over ‘events on campus’ and Gay’s maladroit congressional testimony. The kinds of changes necessary at Harvard, Wolpe said, ‘are really deep and fundamental, and I’m not sure that my being on the anti-Semitism committee is, in one way or another, going to accelerate the pace of such change’.

Wolpe is right to be concerned about the extent of Harvard’s anti-Semitism problem. On the day of the 7 October Hamas attacks – while murderers, rapists and kidnappers were still active in Israel – 34 campus groups at Harvard signed a statement that declared: ‘We, the undersigned student organisations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.’ Take note: entirely responsible. And this was before Israel had even responded with an incursion into Gaza.

During a press conference on Capitol Hill, one Jewish Harvard student described how ‘a mob of 200 people’ – many of whom were not affiliated with Harvard – marched into a study room and chanted an anti-Semitic phrase. ‘Many of my friends ran up to the dean of students and DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] office’, the student said, ‘but they had locked their doors for their own safety. We heard nothing from Harvard… I talked to my Jewish friends on campus every day. They tell me how afraid they are going to class.’

It is perhaps not entirely surprising that anti-Semitism would fester among the most highly educated. In 2021, three researchers came to a conclusion at odds with Gay’s association of ignorance with anti-Semitism. A study by Jay P Greene, Albert Cheng and Ian Kingsbury found that: ‘Contrary to previous claims, education appears to provide no protection against anti-Semitism, and may in fact serve to license it – in part by providing people with more sophisticated and socially acceptable ways to couch it.’

Gay has since walked back some of her congressional remarks. She admitted getting caught up in an extended exchange about policies and procedures at the congressional hearing, and has reiterated her commitment to eradicating anti-Semitism at Harvard. But the problem won’t be solved simply by classifying Jews as another oppressed group or relying on anti-Semitism committees. Rabbi Wolpe made this clear in his resignation statement: ‘[Eradicating anti-Semitism] is the work of more than a committee or a single university… This is the task of educating a generation and also a vast unlearning.’

Anti-Semitism on campus reflects a deeper moral decline in general. Many students come to college with these beliefs already in tow, so the process of educating and unlearning must begin at home. And given the substantial fraction of young people who don’t believe the Holocaust occurred, the problem is certainly a deep one.

Gay still has the support of the higher-ups at Harvard and so, despite her congressional testimony, she is in no immediate danger of losing her job (the plagiarism charges recently raised against her are a separate matter). That is probably for the best. Firing her would likely do nothing to diminish anti-Semitism at Harvard.

President Gay, godspeed in your fight to eradicate anti-Semitism at Harvard. But remember one thing: as Justice Scalia cautioned, the German scholars who revered Beethoven and were well versed in Goethe were the same ones who facilitated genocide.

Cory Franklin is an editorial board contributor to the Chicago Tribune.

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Topics Politics USA


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