Many Jewish students, parents, and donors are rethinking their allegiance to America’s elite universities. They think that Jewish students are not welcome there.

That message is being sent in two ways. First, these schools aren’t admitting Jewish students at the rates they once did. Harvard used to be about 20 percent Jewish; today, it’s below 9 percent. At the University of Pennsylvania, long considered one of the friendliest campuses to Jewish students, the number of observant Jews admitted has dropped by about two-thirds, from 200 in the early 2000s to about 70 today, according to Inside Higher Ed. Jewish enrollment is down across much of the Ivy League.

Second, the Jewish kids who are admitted increasingly feel uncomfortable on campus. In a now-infamous congressional hearing, the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT struggled to say definitively whether calls for genocide violated their campus codes of conduct. Schools committed to “safe spaces” are strangely silent about anti-Semitism, and in some cases seem implicitly supportive of acts of intimidation and violent protest.

In response, some top Jewish students are forswearing their dreams of Columbia or Yale and applying elsewhere. Some prominent Jewish donors have publicly condemned the schools’ double standards and begun pulling funding, or they have threatened to do so. The Jewish community had previously been downright devoted to America’s elite educational institutions. These slow, even belated, steps show that the long-honed Jewish knack for sensing danger finally has kicked in.

The current situation facing some Jewish students on college campuses, and the Jewish reaction to these trends, evokes a disturbing historical parallel. Nations that have antagonized Jews, and have seen Jews flee in response, often were experiencing a deeper rot and corruption. History is littered with nations, from Imperial Spain to Czarist and then Soviet Russia to Nazi Germany, whose underlying problems were worsened by government-sponsored scapegoating and driving away of Jews. Persecution of the Jews did not always cause those nations’ decline, but it was a signal that it was coming.

A diseased society and the loss of Jews are twin tragedies. Closed societies lose Jews’ economic vitality and other contributions. In Canada’s Quebec Province, for example, internal strife in the 1970s and 1980s accompanied the rise of nationalistic and anti-Semitic political movements. This led to a large migration of Jews from Montreal to the friendlier and more Anglophilic Toronto. The result: Montreal lost its status as Canada’s largest and most important city, and was supplanted by Toronto, which has a thriving Jewish community quadruple the size of Montreal’s.

We may be seeing something similar at elite American universities. Their monolithic ideological climate is anathema to the Jewish approach to things. Jews bring with them an intellectual diversity and dynamism born of a perennially outsider perspective that recognizes and welcomes new ideas and challenges groupthink. In this way, they exemplify an essential part of the Judeo-Christian tradition: the encouragement of inquiry, respectful dialogue, and learning.

For America especially, this Jewish tradition of open inquiry is in keeping with the traditions of pluralism and free association that have enabled us to look past ancient grudges and blood feuds and form new attachments. As Bari Weiss has written, in Europe, Protestants and Catholics killed each other. In America, they have brunch.

Ironically, it is this very concept of pluralism that is under attack at universities—especially at those considered the most prestigious. This anti-pluralism aims to close off debate. And this same anti-intellectualism is behind the effort to block Jewish admissions and trying to mute and intimidate those who do make it.

It’s no coincidence that colleges and universities are rejecting their liberal foundations at the same time that hostility to Jews rises. By questioning everything and accepting that not all questions have answers, Judaism offers a bracing contrast—even a dangerous counter—to today’s cancel culture. Those who have no questions, and purport to have all the answers, are the ones targeting Jews and seeking to drive them away.

The most valuable asset of America’s most renowned universities is their reputation. As long as they have that, students will scramble to get in. At some point, though, their stultifying climates will endanger their futures. If Jewish students desert the universities because of increasingly hostile campus atmospheres, it would just be another indication that elite universities are acting as parties to their own destruction.

Photo by Guy Smallman/Getty Images


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