Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky agree on almost nothing politically but both say that anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in the United States in the last century. They made the specific charge about Harvard University speaking in very different settings this spring.
Chomsky reflected on anti-Semitism when he received an award from the Association of American Geographers in Boston in April:
Let’s take anti-Semitism. I mean, I’m in my late 80’s, so I can remember the 1930’s and it was pretty scary. Not just what was happening in Europe, which was terrifying, but what was in ordinary life here. My parents were teachers. So they kind of survived the Depression. They didn’t starve… Around 1937 I guess my father had enough money to buy a second hand car. We lived in Philadelphia, and my parents decided to take us on the weekend out to the nearby mountains, the Poconos, just to spend a weekend’s vacation. We had to get a motel. The motels you had to look at carefully, because there were signs on them that said, “Restricted.” Restricted meant no Jews. You didn’t have to say No blacks. That question didn’t arise. But, no Jews. That’s late 1930’s. I could tell you personal anecdotes of what it was like to grow up on the streets as a young Jewish boy in an Irish Catholic neighborhood. Not very nice.
But when I got to Harvard in the early 1950’s, the antisemitism was overwhelming. There was practically no Jewish faculty. In fact, one of the reasons why MIT became a major university is that outstanding people like say Norbert Wiener and others couldn’t possibly get jobs at Harvard. Well, that was antisemitism in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s. There are problems now, but it’s nothing like that. Absolutely nothing like that.
It’s much better than it was. So it’s not something to laugh at by any means. Those who have experienced it and lived through the periods of the hideous atrocities in Europe are certainly not going to disparage it. But we have to recognize that it’s become radically different. By now Jews are one of the most privileged, maybe the most privileged minority in the country. Pretty much the same thing is true of so-called European anti-semitism.
So I think we should certainly not disregard but recognize how far we’ve come, and not only how far we’ve come why the progress was made. That’s what’s critical. Because those are the things that we can continue to carry forward instead of succumbing to futility and despair.
Alan Dershowitz is 78. He reflected on when he became the youngest professor at Harvard Law School in 1964, in a speech at Young Israel of Scarsdale, May 9:
There were roughly a handful of Jews on the faculty. Today the faculty is at least 50 percent Jewish. It depends on how you define a Jew– but 50 percent people of Jewish heritage, at least. When I got there, there were a very small number, and the Jewish faculty were more WASPy, more Brahmin, than the non-Jewish faculty, and when in the ’67 war I was collecting funds for Israel and trying to recruit support, Paul Bator who was one of my colleagues who were supporting me for tenure, he said, You know what, Alan, You have a good shot at tenure, but you’re wearing your Jewishness on your sleeve, that’s not done at Harvard. I said, Paul, That’s who I am. And you have to accept me for who I am. If you don’t want me for who I am, there are schools that do. So I’m not going to change.
And now Harvard is so Jewish it’s amazing.
I’m 61, a generation younger than these men, and I grew up with the communal expectation that anti-Semitism would affect the course of my life and discovered this was utterly not the case. We were welcomed into the establishment in the 70’s and on; we became a significant portion of US elites, with the affluence and status to show for it. That is the central sociological experience of my lifetime– as the Holocaust and its shadow were the historical frame for Chomsky and Dershowitz. The intermarriage rate, 70 percent of non-Orthodox Jews, is a gauge of the inclusion I witnessed, and is the reason I do not refer to my tribe, white Ashkenazi Jews, as a minority in opposition to some imagined non-Jewish monolith (part of which is now my family).
I looked up Norbert Wiener and marveled at his powers; the son of an autodidact in Columbia Missouri, Wiener received his PhD at age 17 and helped transform the study of mathematics and as a professor refused to take government money in the nuclear age. The pride in such achievements that both Chomsky and Dershowitz exhibit was also typical of my childhood. Jews were smarter, we believed; my mother said that the greatest contributions to western culture in the previous 100 years were from three Jews, Einstein, Freud and Marx; and everyone, Jew and non-Jew, consciously or not accepted a historical mantra: the society that does not treat its Jews well cannot prosper. That acceptance enabled the rise of Jews into the establishment and the intermarriage rates and the Jewish names on so many institutions. Today the belief in Jewish brains is an anachronism imho, but it is still a powerful idea inside Jewish life. It fuels ideas about Israel as the startup nation and Zionist ideas of the fitness of Jewish supremacy over Palestinians; and it undergirds the entitlement of the Israel lobby.
Yes, things are “radically different” today, as Chomsky says.