Those Who Didn't Make the List

bigotry evolves to fit social norms and corporate needs

… for the seven classes that entered Harvard between 1912 and 1918, not a single Jew was elected to any of the five most prestigious clubs: Porcellian, AD, Fly, Spee, and Delphic. The total exclusion of Jews from the summit of Harvard’s social system confirmed what many had long suspected: the sheer fact of being Jewish - regardless of background, education, and personal demeanor - remained a serious social handicap at Harvard. - Jerome Karabel, The Chosen

The Chosen is a work of impeccable scholarship, a text of vast scope that was obviously the product of immense effort and endless research. It will teach you many things about American life, about success and class and what it means to be part of an elite. But another thing it will teach you very well is how comprehensively this country has, when convenient, excluded Jews, and how deeply its institutions have been willing to harm them when it suits their interests. I say “comprehensively” to emphasize the fact that, while admissions into elite clubs at elite universities might not seem like a topic of great social importance, the existence of this prejudice at these heights speaks to more of the same all the way down the line. The anti-Semitism of the Ivies in the early 20th century was, to a degree, genteel and circumspect, but it was still explicit; we know from historical evidence that administrators at these colleges spoke with plainspoken disdain for Jewish applicants and that their exclusion was an open secret among students, staff, and faculty. I suspect the next wave of anti-Jewish prejudice will be different, perversely couched in the clinical and indemnity-avoiding terms of inclusion and diversity that are the vocabulary of the modern university.

I thought of The Chosen as I read this:

this administrator decided that because Jews, being a tiny percentage of the US population are overrepresented in higher education generally, and at the college where I worked in particular, antiracism in this instance required that the number of Jewish students be reduced. Moreover, because there were 60 students at Shabbat and only a handful of Muslim students on campus, the Jewish group should not exist.

Ah but, ah but, ah but, they will say, surely the administrators working in the name of the liberal furies, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, are in a different moral universe than those that enforced the WASP purity of their campuses! Because, you see, for institutions today the purity of intentions is all that matters, and a college deciding they’ve had just about enough of Jewish applicants stays pure by justifying it as an effort to attract theoretical Muslim students who will probably never come. Of course, the seats vacated by those excluded Jews will still exist, but this is an enlightened culture, so admissions staff will choose the kind of affluent white gentiles who write paeans to diversity in their admissions essays. (And whose parents will donate.) Jews are out, thanks, like skinny jeans; it’s not personal, it’s just fashion, anti-Semitism as collegiate trend. If he doesn’t already in time the 2020s Princeton admissions officer will share with his 1920s counterpart the experience of debating whether a name sounds Jewish enough to sort an application into the garbage. Sorry, Levi, your grandpa was born too early and you were born too late. He was the victim of the need for purity; you, of the desire for “diversity.” I’m sure that will help you sleep at night.

As a righteous but imperfect global movement for Palestinian rights coalesces, some Jews fear the worst, with talks ranging from alarm at the decline of pro-Israel media unanimity to, at an extreme, worries of registries and pogroms. I don’t think that’s the kind of anti-Semitism Jews will face in 21st century. Certainly not at the behest of the Palestinians, anyway, a tiny minority in the United States and a destitute refugee people globally. (And, as always, there is only one solution to the challenges to Israel posed by the conflict in the territories - peace, equality, and prosperity for the Palestinians.) I think in fact that the fixation on Palestine, and even on the Zionist project, has confused the mainstream Jewish apprehension about the challenges that will face the Jewish people in the coming century. The immediate physical security of Israel’s borders might be literally the least of Jewish concerns, at present, and anyway Palestinians are not amount the top five threats to that physical security.

The problem for Jews, American Jews in particular, is that they have a history of oppression and a present reality of abundance that leaves them in the uncomfortable position of being both a legitimate target for redistribution of money and status and vulnerable to the illegitimate burdens of undue scrutiny and unfair higher expectations. The raft of stories about recent anti-Jewish violence might represent a real trend, I don’t know; the media calls trends based on raw numbers, which is a fundamentally bankrupt way to understand how trends function. Certainly every Jewish American is entitled to concern over such reports and to protection of their physical security. Obviously. But any objective consideration of the facts, and comparison to vulnerable populations like the Black and the poor, tells us that being Jewish in America is not dangerous. But that doesn’t mean it’s not hard. You can film anti-Semitic violence with a cellphone. The problem American Jews face is with the kind that you can’t.

I think that, for American Jews, the darkest threat is fickle and dishonest identity games contriving to render them back to the same implicit untouchable status that they so recently occupied - not back to ghettoes, but back to quotas, back to vague talk about “the wrong kind of person” and its consequences for individual futures. The likely future isn’t mobs terrorizing Borough Park, unimpeded by the cops. The likely future is some Jew, born poor and hungry, playing by the rules and working their way up the ladder, and finding they’re stopped from climbing any further not by some openly bigoted 1940s blueblood who reminds you that the Jews killed Christ but by the perfect ivory white smile of a lady from HR, brandishing an Excel printout of corporate diversity goals as she explains in friendly and precise tones that the name “Shulman” isn’t a fit with the company’s future.

Every group’s success is somebody else’s overrepresentation, and history teaches us that elite institutions need little in the way of extra incentive to disadvantage Jews in many ways. Do I think we’ll suddenly see the erasure of Jewish representation in politics, finance, academia, entertainment? No, of course not. But that’s not the question. The question isn’t whether the Jewish elite will stay elite; they will. The question is whether the median Jewish student will face systematic “de-emphasizing” in academic and professional affairs, not out-and-out exclusion but the kind of policies in admissions and hiring that weigh Jewish identity as a negative and might prevent them from entering institutions and having the chance to excel. An essential and broad question facing the progressive project is whether our ham-handed and bad-incentive-laden college administrations and hiring departments can promote actual diversity and actual inclusion, rather than the caricature that is advanced today, and without unduly abridging individual rights. I absolutely believe that we can theoretically build admissions systems that increase diversity and inclusion, including specifically for Black and Hispanic applicants, without perpetuating other kinds of injustice. I just have zero faith our actually-existing universities and employers will put them together. Why do good when it’s so much easier to appear to be good?

My point here is not, in some clumsy way, to allege that the interests of Jews are contrary to those of Black and Hispanic students and workers. I don’t think that at all. I think the concept of “diversity” in the corporate sense is contrary to the interests of Jews. What we call diversity now is a purely actuarial science; it has reduced the meaning of oppression to a spreadsheet. Jews will never be privileged in a philosophy of justice that depends on the reductive parsing of Oppression Units as defined by some apparatchik whose first and last goal is liability avoidance. What Hayes doesn’t seem to understand is that the Human Resources vision of diversity will inevitably become the vision of diversity. Institutions are self-defensive, and we’ve created severe professional and social penalties for those institutions that are perceived not to be sufficiently dedicated to our cartoon version of diversity. Self-perpetuation is the first duty of every institution, no matter how enlightened the institution or how principled its staff. And institutions do not engage, cannot engage, in diversity efforts in good faith; they can only engage in them in the interests of self-preservation. A more expansive, more humane, more thoughtful vision of diversity, equity, and inclusion does not provide the kind of shield that corporations (and universities are corporations too, in every meaningful sense) need from lawsuits and bad press. So the bullshit indemnity-avoidance version will spread until there is no other definition.

Perhaps you might call what emerges from that progress. But as long as this philosophy carries the institutional muscle, what will be advanced is the interests of the most powerful members of those institutions. There may be ancillary positive change, but there will also be casual human wreckage in its wake, and the institution will not care about either kind of consequence it produces. Ask Kieran Bhattacharya. There is a Social Justice Industrial Complex, it has produced a list of the oppressed, and Jews are not on it. There’s no percentage in changing that, for the industry, and too much risk for people with large platforms to point all of this out. The self-defensive imperative in DEI will always compel behaviors that prevent the kind of critical thinking that might enable us to say, “you know, rich and established as they are, Jews would seem to have a lot of right to demand the kind of protections we are conspicuously not giving them.” Corporations have come to believe that the perception that they are insufficiently “diverse” will cost them money; they have no such fear when it comes to Jewish representation. So why would they do anything in service to the Jews, or to any other population that does not improve their optics?

Eugene Chung is a bellwether, and I don’t know how liberals could complain about his situation with a straight face. This is the world you created.

Jews, like Asians, have much less reason to fear for their physical safety than the media has recently implied, and for that I’m grateful. They’ll remain, in many ways, a privileged cohort. But they’ll also find themselves losers in today’s great liberal game of social reconstruction. The endless list of historical crimes against them are perceived, by too many institutional liberals, as immaterial towards their claims to being a marginalized group and thus no defense against accusations of overrepresentation and the (efficient, calculated, “it’s nothing personal”) style of marginalization that will come from that status. All of this is much harder to meme and share with an outraged world, compared to less stage-managed oppressions. So we’ll get gifted Jewish and Asian students who are systematically discriminated against in college admissions and hiring even while campus officials ban pro-Palestinian student groups and corporations hold events celebrating “AANHPI” cultures. What a world, what a world, what a world.