A Tough Decision for Yale’s Jewish Students
In 1920, newly-minted Yale graduate Morris Sweetkind, enticed by the life of the mind, resolved to stay in New Haven while his classmates left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Rather than cash in on his prestigious degree, Sweetkind applied to pursue graduate work in Yale’s English department.
While other applicants waited nervously for their letters of acceptance or rejection, a professor by the name of Tucker Brooke met with Sweetkind to discuss the status of his application. “Look, Sweetkind. You’re a good student, but we’ve never had a Jew. Don’t apply. It’s just a waste of time.”
It was not until 1946, that the Philosophy department tenured the college’s first Jew, Paul Weiss. By 1970, one out of every six Yale college professors was Jewish. When the shock waves of the 1960s finally shook Yale’s gothic ivory towers, anti-Jewish hiring discrimination was a thing of the past. While the 1972 Dahl Commission Report on Yale College called for administration action to fill “gaps in the faculty,” these gaps were defined as a lack of “women and disadvantaged minorities.”
Despite the recommendations of the Dahl Commission and more than a dozen similar reports published in its wake, the numbers of women and racial minorities on Yale’s faculty continue to lag behind those at comparable institutions. Today, only 12 percent of Yale’s tenured faculty are women and a scarce 9 percent are minorities.
While Yale administrators point to the difficulties of finding qualified women and minority scholars in fields that few women or minorities even teach, critics of the tenure system lay some blame on the subtle racism and sexism of each department’s academic Old Guard.
When Jews became integrated into the faculty, affirmative action had not yet been conceived. Indeed, the absence of women and racial minorities from America’s institutions was not even considered a problem. Last year, student activists formed the Tenure Action Coalition and proposed a number of changes in the way tenure is awarded at Yale. The coalition did not ask for an affirmative action plan per se, but rather for the creation of a special fund for the hiring of women and minority professors.
The coalition was composed of a number of identity-based student groups. Minority and women’s organizations on campus were quick to join. When Hillel (a Jewish collegiate organization) was asked, it was much more hesitant. A debate was sparked over whether Jews, as a group which had historically been discriminated against in tenure proceedings at Yale, had an obligation to join the coalition. Ultimately, Hillel’s members were skeptical and decided not to join the coalition.
The difference between the situations was summed up well by Dan Oren, who now teaches psychiatry at Yale Medical School. “There is a world of difference between the 1990s and the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. In the first half of this century the university administration, the deans and the faculty of all the schools were virtually all White, Anglo-Saxon, male Protestants…Today you can look at the faculty and there is far more diversity. Is it a perfect diversity? Certainly not. But today, the community is very different. Much of the discrimination against Jews back in the ’30s was a discrimination against people who were not part of the community and was born out of a disdain for Jews. I don’t think that today one could make a credible case that there is significant disdain for women or minorities among the faculty because, indeed, there are many women and minorities who are among the faculty at this point.”
The Jews on the Tenure Action Coalition who urged Hillel to join acknowledged that there are problems with drawing parallels, but insisted that the Jewish community ought to support tenure reform regardless.
“The Jewish situation is different from other groups,” said Sarah Minkin, one of the leaders of the coalition. “Sometimes (Jews assume) the comfortable political pose of ‘Well, we’re Jewish, we’re different, so we didn’t benefit from White privilege.’ Not true, not fair. We’ve been ‘White’ in this country since at least 1950 in terms of being allowed to move out to the suburbs while Black people have had to stay in the urban centers.”
Still, it was not an argument well-suited to Hillel. Jewish students raised on grandparents’ stories of anti-Semitism may chafe at the notion that they were the beneficiaries of “White privilege,” even if the claim has some truth to it.
While Jews’ history of oppression has made them careful to look out for themselves, it has also made them sympathetic to the sufferings of others. In the past, Jews could look out for their own interests and at the same time feel justifiably self-righteous in fighting for the underdog. Today, in America, Jews have attained such a high position that these two things do not always coincide. Today’s generation of young Jews has to make the tough choice of deciding between them.
— Daniel Brook is a senior at Yale University. His essay originally appeared in the January 2000 edition of Jewish Currents.
The preceeding excerpts are reprinted with permission.
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