It will take some time to scrub anti-Semitism completely out of the substructure of Wellesley College. It’s stubborn stuff, like the admissions quotas on Jewish students during the 1940s, the outright hostility to Jewish scholars in the college’s religion department during the 1960s and ’70s, and the 1990s-era professor whose bigoted diatribes included false accusations against Jews for “monumental culpability” during the transatlantic African slave trade.
Last month’s firings of Wellesley College’s Jewish chaplain and director of the Hillel student organization may well turn out — as the college contends — to be part of a broader consolidation effort aimed at hiring a full-time rabbi and providing higher level support for the college’s roughly 250 Jewish students. But it sure stirred up some memories for me.
In 1983, while reporting for the Jewish Advocate weekly newspaper, I received copies of correspondence written in April 1970 between then Wellesley president Ruth Adams and religion professor Roger Johnson on the sore topic of appointing a Jewish chaplain at the college. If prizes were awarded for genteel anti-Semitism, these letters would be contenders.
Johnson anticipated the need for “a Yiddish-speaking corridor at Tower Court.” And in the event that the all-women’s college should become coed, Johnson suggested that the Jewish chaplain must “possess those skills necessary for the rite of circumcision” as a way to serve male students contemplating “possible conversion to Judaism.” Johnson signs off, “shalom.”
Obviously touched, Adams raised the likelihood of Jewish weddings at the college. She mused on the material used for Jewish wedding canopies and the need for the college to gain “experience in merchandizing so that we can get full value.” Next she turned to the need for a “resistant surface” on the floor of Houghton Memorial Chapel to accommodate the “ritual smashing of glassware” at Jewish weddings. “Does one buy cheap glassware, which by its very cheapness tends to be large, heavy and unbreakable, thus defeating the symbolic aim: or does one buy expensive, slender crystal, the slivering of which one can rely upon?” Adams signs off, “shalom yourself.”
By 1983, Adams had decamped for Dartmouth. But I did manage to track down Professor Johnson at the time for an in-person interview. He cited “a college phobia” over a Jewish chaplaincy. I’ll say.
During the 1930s and ’40s, Wellesley College managed its discomfort with Jews by limiting their enrollment to about 10 percent. Even decades later, Jewish professors were deemed incapable of teaching courses on the New Testament. It wasn’t until 1981 that a Jewish professor received tenure in the religion department, and only then after hiring a lawyer who went about documenting the history of discrimination against Jews at the college.
As anti-Semitism took on new forms, Wellesley College adjusted. In the 1990s, Africana studies professor Tony Martin assigned his students a Nation of Islam tract that inaccurately depicted Jews as the foremost figures in the African slave trade. When challenged by historians and others, he lashed out with an anti-Semitic book of his own, “The Jewish Onslaught.” In a letter to alumnae and parents, then Wellesley president Diana Chapman Walsh denounced Martin’s book as divisive and offensive. But she studiously avoided calling it anti-Semitic, which reinforced the belief that college administrators were afraid to name and confront what existed — and had long existed — before their eyes.
Jerold Auerbach, a former professor of modern American and Jewish history at Wellesley College, said that many elite colleges share a history of Jewish quotas and anti-Semitism. What troubles Auerbach is “the persistence and duration of anti-Semitism at Wellesley College long after others took action to stop it.”
Now some Jewish students at Wellesley College are worried about losing their familiar chaplain and Hillel director at roughly the same time that a chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine has emerged on campus. A recent poster campaign by the group invited students to write comments under the headline, “What Does Zionism Mean to You?” Among the vacuous responses were posts accusing Israel of apartheid and genocide. The pro-Palestinian activists at Wellesley cite measures they have taken to discourage anti-Semitic posts. Students for Justice in Palestine chapters on other campuses, however, have shown no compunction about harassing Jewish students, prompting some colleges to sanction or temporarily suspend the activities of the pro-Palestinian students.
Wellesley is working with Hillel International, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, to bring on a full-time rabbi this fall. That’s a big commitment for a small college. But the new hire should find more than enough to do.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.