Was Michigan an answer to the 'Jewish Problem'?
The words poured over the crowd gathered on the Diag like a warm blanket, our collective voices growing in volume and conviction:
Bless those in need of healing with re’fuah shlemah
the renewal of body,
the renewal of spirit
and let us say, amen.
The Mi Sheberach — a Jewish prayer — pleads for complete physical and spiritual healing. It is sung to help those we know and those we don’t. It is sung for Jews and non-Jews. My aunt sings it every time she sees an ambulance speed by. It’s a hymn of immense pain and effortless beauty, and in that moment on the Diag, as hundreds gathered to mourn an event that had shaken many of us to our core, it fully embodied both.
One day prior, on Oct. 27, 2018, Robert Bowers, a white supremacist, walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire, killing 11 people and wounding six others. After he was apprehended, Bowers reportedly told officers “that he wanted all Jews to die” and that “(Jews) were committing genocide to his people.”
“Screw the optics,” Bowers wrote on Gab, a social media platform popular among white supremacists, hours before the attack. “I’m going in.”
I was born over 50 years after the end of World War II, when the height of fascism in Europe led to the systematic extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust. In the time immediately following the war, anti-Semitic attacks dissipated. For many in my generation, anti-Semitism was more theoretical than reality; we heard about it, read about it, knew it existed but rarely saw it in our day to day lives.
We are taught from an early age, in books and history courses, that learning about our collective past informs the present and predicts the future. It’s a truism in our culture. But perhaps we cannot understand the value of this currency until we’ve lived it. The turbulent history of Judaism follows a through line of oppression and bigotry. To count the groups that have sought to exclude or remove us would be a tireless task.
I knew this history. I attended Jewish day school for nine years, participated in Jewish youth groups throughout high school, joined a Jewish fraternity upon arriving at the University of Michigan and held Judaism central to my identity along the way.
The Pittsburgh shooting was a glass-shattering moment for me — an abrupt confrontation with the lively threat of Jewish hatred. Nationally, it was an awakening to the rise of modern anti-Semitism in the U.S., much of which is subtle, some of which is not. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the jump in anti-Semitic attacks from 2016 to 2017 was the largest increase in American history, from 1,267 anti-Semitic “incidents” to 1,986 “incidents.” That number has largely leveled off in the years since, establishing a startling norm. The incidents ranged from swastikas painted in public spaces to shootings at Jewish centers. Bowers’s attack was the most extreme, but it was not an outlier.
The best way to remedy this pain is through community, a central aspect of Jewish culture. That was how I found myself on the Diag that day, holding up my phone flashlight in the cold, dreary drizzle. I looked around and saw dozens of my friends. We hugged. Some cried. It was brief, but healing.
As such, I knew why I was on the Diag mourning the loss of people I did not know, alongside our shared community. Though unofficial, the University of Michigan Hillel website estimates there are approximately 6,500 Jewish students at U-M, accounting for roughly 14 percent of the student body. In the United States as a whole, Jews make up just 1.9 percent of the population.
What I did not know was how: How, exactly, did the primary state school in Michigan, which has the 23rd-highest percentage of Jews in the nation, become a hub for Jews all over the country? How did this random Midwestern school find itself on lists of top Jewish schools?
What I came to understand through researching this central question in books, articles, interviews and documents was that simply learning that history was too narrow.
We all must confront a more uncomfortable question, one that extends beyond understanding where we come from.
Why should we care?
Nearly 100 years ago, Harvard University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell sat in an office somewhere in Cambridge, Mass., and pondered a solution to his “Jewish Problem” — a phrase with deep historic origins.
“The essence of the ‘Jewish Problem’ was how to control the influx of Jews into areas of social activity that were predominantly Protestant,” wrote Stephen Steinberg in Commentary Magazine.
Higher education, to that point, was one of those spaces.
By 1922, Jews made up over one-fifth of Harvard’s freshman class, with some reports indicating that number reached as high as 27 percent by the mid-1920s. There were just over three million Jews in the U.S. at the time, accounting for less than 3 percent of the population. Families who fled from pogroms and anti-Semitic violence across the globe in the late-1800s and early-1900s had begun to place a foothold in the system of higher education.
That influx led to an unease within the education system. Leaders like Lowell worried about the disruption a disproportionate Jewish population at elite universities might cause.
“We learned that it was numbers that mattered; bad or good, too many Jews were not liked,” Harry Starr, an undergraduate at Harvard at the time, recalled to the Jewish Virtual Library. “Rich or poor, brilliant or dull, polished or crude — (the problem was) too many Jews.”
What ensued was an informal but systematic quota system created to quell Jewish enrollment at Harvard and other Ivy League schools. According to a 2005 profile from Malcolm Gladwell titled “Getting In,” the Harvard admissions office poured through its student records in the 1920s to assign its students a designation — “j1” for someone who was “conclusively” Jewish, “j2” where there was a “preponderance of evidence” of Jewishness, “j3” for the “possibility” of Jewishness.
Gladwell writes that Princeton sent representatives to competitive boarding schools in order to rate potential candidates from 1 to 4 on “desirability” based on physical appearance and other subtle factors that could hint at a Jewish background. Yale began to center physical appearance with its applicants. Masculinity. Height. Charisma. Background. All euphemisms, all deliberate. The process was quiet but effective. In order to limit Jewish overflow, these schools had to change the definition of merit entirely.
By the end of Lowell’s term at Harvard in 1933, Jewish enrollment had dropped to 15 percent. Yale cut down to 10 percent. In 1986, Yale publicly admitted in a book titled “Joining the Club” that it perpetuated discrimination on the basis of religion for several decades. A memo from the admissions chairman in 1922 titled “Jewish Problem” implored limits on “the alien and unwashed element,” according to a New York Times article. It also solidified prior historical understanding that Yale limited its student Jewish population to 10 percent for over 40 years.
“There were vicious, ugly forms of discrimination at Yale, as with the larger society,” the then-University Secretary at Yale, John A. Wilkinson, told the New York Times. “It’s part of our history, and we should face up to it.”
During the same time frame, the University of Michigan’s Jewish population began to grow rapidly. Though U-M has never asked about religious affiliation directly on its application or campus surveys, University of Michigan Hillel and academic estimations shed light on this growth.
From 1915 to 1936, the timeframe in which many Ivy League schools were believed to be implementing Jewish quotas, U-M’s Jewish population grew from just over 200 students to nearly 1000, according to the Ira Smith Papers and Student Christian Association. That amounted to an increase from 5 percent of the student body to 10 percent in a relatively short period of time.
So it’s intuitive to connect the growth of the Jewish community at U-M, the one that gathered in the Diag after the Pittsburgh shooting, to the discrimination at Ivy Leagues: The community I’ve socialized with, lived with, cried with, sung with. It’s logical, given that context, to lift the University on a pedestal; to laud a history of tolerance and perseverance; to exude unabashed pride. This is a reputation the University touts. The Michigan difference. Leaders and the best.
Tossed in the middle of the fourth paragraph of the “History” section of the University of Michigan’s Wikipedia is a lofty sentence along those lines:
“The University became a favored choice for bright Jewish students from New York in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Ivy League schools had quotas restricting the number of Jews to be admitted.”
“These schools are suddenly seeing all these Jewish students and saying ‘We don’t want this many Jewish students,’ ” Karla Goldman, a Judaic Studies professor, told me. “So do they come to Michigan?”
Then a pause and a sigh.
Goldman sits in the back corner of her fourth-floor School of Education office and pores through spreadsheets. She shows me yearbooks from the 1930s, in which she scours home addresses, parental information and occupations in order to establish highly-educated guesses about who was Jewish.
Documents and books line the walls, her computer tucked in the back left corner, enclosed by a fortress of miscellaneous papers. It’s got a real Robin Williams’s-office-in-“Good Will Hunting” kind of vibe.
But Goldman’s focus is narrow. She’s spent months researching the very question I’ve come to ask her: Is there definitive proof that U-M’s robust Jewish community originates directly from the quotas at Ivy League schools in the early to mid-20th century?
And before those words can even depart my mouth, she dives in.
“There is some part of University of Michigan oral history lore, when it talks about itself as a diverse institution, that points to that time. That while these Northeast elite schools were excluding Jewish students that Michigan welcomed them,” Goldman says, careful to leave causation at an arm’s length. “It’s kind of an informal history, so people will mention that.”
“I think it’s very likely that the quotas at a lot of northeastern schools created a movement of northeast Jews, in particular, sort of looking farther west than they otherwise would have — that’s likely. The thing we don’t know is: What was the status of Jewish students at Michigan? Are we assuming there weren’t quotas? There’s not the same kind of smoking gun evidence thus far.”
It’s clear she’s spent a considerable amount of time in search of that “smoking gun” evidence, and is as disappointed to share as I am to hear that no such evidence exists.
“I mean, it was really serious work they did at Harvard, Princeton and Yale to keep Jews out, and many other schools,” Goldman said. “We don’t see that effort here. That’s interesting. (And) it’s not that we don’t see anti-Semitism. We see it.”
One such area in which anti-Semitism crept into the admissions realm was graduate school applications. While, again, there was no direct invocation of religious affiliation on the application, it is clear Jews were at a disadvantage given the large number of Jewish applicants U-M’s graduate schools received annually.
In one case, now publicly available, a recommendation for a Jewish dental school applicant makes explicit reference to that double standard.
“Mr. (redacted) is Jewish but not the loud offensive type of Jew,” the recommendation said. “He is courteous, pleasant, courteous of others and very hard working. … So I am hoping that he will be admitted in spite of his Hebraic origin.”
In 1935, two students were expelled for something the school categorized as “radical behavior.” Both students were from the New York area. It’s widely understood, though not explicitly stated, that both were Jewish, according to Goldman. The expulsions sparked an internal discussion about forming a quota at U-M, limiting the number of students from New York and New Jersey — the backbone of the out-of-state Jewish population at U-M.
“And it’s clear they were discussing: Should we limit these Jewish students who come here and tend to be radical?” Goldman said. “They decide not to do it.”
At this time, the same infrastructure of the Jewish community that exists today began to take shape. The University of Michigan Hillel — the central hub for Jewish social and academic programming — was founded in 1926, becoming the third Hillel on the continent. At the time, Jews were isolated to the same dormitories (often Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall). Jewish fraternities and sororities formed, as the sole source for Greek life inclusion for Jewish students. In the 1933-1934 school year, for example, the 84 students who self-identified as “Jewish” in Greek life were the sole members of seven fraternities on campus. In the 41 other fraternities, not a single member identified as “Jewish.” Alignment of sorority members followed a similar spread.
Slowly, overt anti-Semitic acts that were once commonplace began to dissipate. Jewish quotas, anecdotally, ceased to exist by the 1960s. As campuses continued to diversify demographically, Jews began to pass as white, gaining many of the privileges that come with it. Harvard in the 1920s, for example, almost exclusively comprised of white Protestants and Jews. As colleges become a melting pot for people of all races, ethnicities and religions, it became harder to stigmatize Jews as “the other.”
Anti-Semitism in the modern context exists more subtly. Many of those flashpoints on campus manifest through the blurred lines of good-faith critiques of Zionism and bad-faith swipes at Jews writ large. The Trump administration’s Executive Order, one issued under the guise of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, complicates those matters by blanketly conflating all anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, and by unilaterally categorizing Judaism as a race.
These defined identities only muddle conversations, much of which manifests in campus environments.
“I’ll tell you what my hope is, my wish is, for a college environment,” Goldman said. “Instead of being the place where we have these flashpoints of conflict, we’re actually all here together, could this be the place where we actually are able to engage each other in ways that aren’t possible elsewhere in society?”
In academic terms, Goldman’s venture is a noble one. The history of the Jewish people — one littered with oppression and perseverance — extends to the higher education system some take for granted today. She wants to know whether U-M’s self-image of acceptance holds true. She’s interested in proving whether the causal claim at the core of Jewish community at U-M passes muster. I am, too.
But why should students who may not have grown up in New York or New Jersey, or may not be Jewish, care about the origins of the strong Jewish community at U-M? That was the question I posed to Goldman near the end of our conversation, and one I’d grappled with plenty.
“It both reshapes our sense of what that time was, the presence of anti-Semitism in spaces that we’re used to thinking as very comfortable, very easy presence,” Goldman said. “So there’s that. We also tend to think of the university as a very static thing. But it’s not, it’s changed so much.”
“And then when you begin to think of inclusion now and exclusion. … You have to think about, well, in what sense is university meant to be an institution for privilege — a place to perpetuate privilege, which it is. But also, to what extent is it meant to be a place that creates opportunities as a point of access for people who start without a lot of privilege.”
That last point stuck with me. In 2018, a group sued Harvard for discriminating against Asian students in admissions processes, claiming it weighted race too heavily in admissions processes at the expense of merit. It was, once again, a challenge of affirmative action. The suit, though hardly a facsimile of the claims about Jewish quotas in the 1920s, resurfaces difficult questions about merit. Who belongs? Who does not? Who gets to make that distinction? We are all here, on this campus, because that determination about us was made in the affirmative. Acceptance. Are we willing to grapple with why?
These difficult questions are ones those with the privilege of existing in higher education are not forced to confront. They are questions that have persisted for decades and will continue for many more.
They are not questions I, nor my peers, considered on the Diag when we sang, reveling in the intense healing of community.
But we’re here and we’re singing the Mi Sheberach and that, in itself, is an immense luxury.
If only for a moment, all that matters is not where we’ve been, but where we are.