Harvard, Jewish values – and Israel

I know the mismatch between Harvard’s values and Jewish values extends to campus animosity toward Israel

Harvard University 370 (photo credit: Thinkstock)
Harvard University 370
(photo credit: Thinkstock)
Going to Harvard was my childhood dream. The culprit: the Harvard Club in New York City. The place is awe-inspiring, full of high ceilings and stuffed animal heads. There’s even a woman who sits at the entrance to make sure visitors are dressed appropriately.
Behavior is governed by rules that are difficult to master. These days, when I head to the Club for an event or to interview prospective students, I dread unwittingly violating a rule! My dad was a Club member. He took my family there when I was a kid. If the Club is awe-inspiring for adults, imagine the effect it had on a little girl. When I was six, during dinner at the Club, I informed my mother that I would be going to Harvard for college.
Thrilled is not a big enough word for what I felt when I was accepted to Harvard over 10 years later. It was a benediction. My confidence soared. From the day I opened my acceptance letter in December until the following August, when freshman year started, I floated on a cloud of eager anticipation.
My parents drove me up to the campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When they dropped me off at my dorm, my mom gave me a handwritten note with words of wisdom to guide me now that I was on my own. In addition to advising me that “hot showers always help when you’re sad,” and “men like women who listen,” the note exhorted me to “find the Jews.”
This confused me. Like New York City, Harvard is 25 percent Jewish. It seemed that I would stumble upon a lot of Jews without having to seek them out. I was aware of the 1920s-era “Jewish quota,” an Ivy League admissions policy that limited the number of Jewish students. As Jerome Karabel explains in his book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the policy was based on a conviction that “‘character’ was... in short supply among Jews....” I knew those days were over. In 1999, when I was a freshman, Harvard welcomed Jews.
Yet Harvard’s history is not defined by Jewish cultural influence. The name of my freshman dorm, Wigglesworth, attests to that. I didn’t have to do research to figure out that Mr. Wigglesworth was not Jewish.
Ivy League social clubs (which look like the Harvard Club inside), too, are not in the Jewish tradition. These private “final clubs” were still open only to men in 1999.
Becoming a member was a rigorous process that involved many “comp (audition) rounds,” consisting mostly of cocktail parties at which hopeful members showed off their social graces. Just as suburban high school cheerleaders make the rest of the (less blond, less cheerful) girls feel bad, many of the male Harvard students felt inferior in the presence of socially adept final club members.
Most Harvard men wanted (secretly or not-so-secretly) to be final club members. At the very least, both of my serious college boyfriends did. Though these two men were different in many respects, both were Jewish and funny. You never knew what either of them would say.
Both endured the pride-swallowing comp process at a final club called the Delphic. Neither made the cut. Being rejected by these clubs cast each man’s awkwardness and even Jewishness in stark relief.
I was prone to awkwardness and funny but inappropriate comments myself, but I was a girl. Final clubs had looser standards for women (or at least looser standards for getting into parties). For women, good looks trumped awkwardness and a tendency to tell socially inept jokes.
For me, getting into parties was easy. (Talking to people once inside was another story).
Then my turn came. I joined the Harvard Lampoon, a different kind of social club, and a co-ed one. Lampoon members wrote and published a humor magazine. They also spent a lot of time mocking suave final club men and concocting plots to attract pretty girls. The Lampoon had a “comp” too. One member assured me that “it was not a social comp,” meaning that the Lampoon comp tested humor writing skills, not social ones.
Social or not, the Lampoon comp was emotionally grueling.
The boyfriend I was dating during the miserable and humiliating process made an astute comment about the Lampoon: “It’s not for Jews.” (If only he had been so self-aware about the Delphic!) At the time, I didn’t know what he meant.
Now I understand.
It’s not that Jews are excluded from final clubs. The Lampoon in particular has quite a few Jewish members.
The bottom line is that “social comps” clash with Jewish values. Testing a person’s willingness to humiliate himself (or herself!) to gain membership in an exclusive club tends to be low on our list of priorities. Jewish tradition prizes intelligence above social grace, authenticity above pretence.
I take great pride in being a Harvard alumna. I am so very lucky I had the chance to go to this intellectually exhilarating school. It was a great match for me. I tolerated the Lampoon comp because I knew being a member would be fun, and it was. To this day, some of my dearest friends are from Harvard. I am delighted that, as a full-fledged Harvard Club member, I no longer need to wait for my dad to take me to dinner there! Yet I know the mismatch between Harvard’s values and Jewish values extends to campus animosity toward Israel.
That is a difficult pill to swallow.
The recent “Israeli Apartheid Week” highlighted the tension. Held annually for the past few years, mostly on college campuses in the US and Canada, its goal is to depict Israel as an apartheid state. During Israeli Apartheid Week this year, the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee posted mock eviction notices on student dorm-room doors.
This was a shrewd way to attract attention. And the Harvard administration did not respond aggressively. If it had, it would have been viewed as allying itself with Israel. There may have been a pull toward resisting this perception.
Harvard is a bastion of liberal political convictions.
Politically conservative students are in the minority, and they are marginalized. Being anti-Israel is subsumed under the umbrella of “liberalism.” At Harvard, if you are pro-choice and pro-gay rights – as most students are, or hold themselves out to be – it seems to follow that you are anti-Israel. Meeting opposition and hostility when I voiced pro-Israel ideas made me feel like an outsider.
I wish liberalism could be divorced from anti-Israel sentiments at Harvard. I wish Israel was not held to more stringent standards than are other counties. These are modest goals. Israel’s policies are not unassailable, but blind devotion to them is no more necessary than it is warranted. I simply wish it wasn’t cool to be anti-Israel at Harvard.
The writer is an attorney in New York.