Antisemitism at Harvard

Full disclosure: I am Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, Emeritus, at Harvard. I no longer live in Cambridge, Massachusetts; but I do use the superb online services of Widener Library almost daily, and maintain a friendly and frequent correspondence with the brilliant former student who now holds my old professorial chair.

Harvard, this country’s oldest university and now its wealthiest, was an early center of Bible study in the 13 colonies and once required that the valedictory address be delivered in Hebrew. Its Judaica collection is one of the best in the world and is a welcoming resource for scholars worldwide. Its present president, Larry Bacon, is a Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors. A former president of Harvard, Larry Summers, also a Jew and one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met, came to my apartment for dinner with my Freshman Seminar class: it was one of the happiest, most convivial evenings I’ve ever spent. When I was hired, back in 1993, president Neil Rudenstine, who I think was at least half Jewish, handed me my Harvard MA diploma. (You can’t be a full professor there unless you hold a Harvard degree, so when you’re appointed, they give you one. I’ve got it framed somewhere.)

Before I moved to Cambridge, I lived in my hometown, New York — where antisemitic attacks are skyrocketing and most of our gentile neighbors and ostensible countrymen couldn’t care less, but that’s another story. My psychiatrist, who became a friend after we concluded our work, was from an old Harvard Puritan Boston family. When I asked her whether I, as a Jew, would feel lonely at Harvard, she laughed and told me that once, back in the 1950s, her parents were planning a dinner party and realized everybody on the list was Jewish and taught at Harvard. They made sure to invite at least a few gentiles, lest the Jews think they were being singled out somehow.

I lived on Memorial Drive along the Charles River, down the block from a close friend who was a lecturer in Hebrew. Her partner, Joseph Dan, z”l, was one of the great scholars of Jewish mysticism. The opulent parties they threw in their capacious, hospitable apartment were always full to the brim with famous Jewish personalities at Harvard, Israeli scholars on this or that fellowship at Harvard, and us lesser mortals, the salt-of-the-earth professors of things like Armenian, Turkish, and Persian.

The year before my retirement, I joined the Worship and Study Minyan, a Conservative Jewish group that used one of the synagogue spaces at Harvard Hillel. Our congregation included such luminaries as the Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam, z”l, and the great Assyriologist Tzvi Abusch. We took turns to chant from the Torah scroll and deliver the Devar Torah. We rotated preparing Kiddish: mine, an array of Armenian goodies from Watertown, was always popular. After services, a bunch of us would walk up Mt. Auburn St. to Peet’s Coffee to hang out. I started hosting Havdalah on Motsa’ei Shabbat and have carried on the tradition here in Fresno, California, where I live in retirement and attend the Chabad shul.

* * *

By the end of the First World War, Harvard had become as popular and populous with Jews as it is now; but when a Jew was nominated for the board of trustees, president Lowell drew the line. He went farther than that: he devised the numerous clausus that many other American universities adopted at once with enthusiasm. Lowell was an equal opportunity hater, though: his “secret courts” ferreted out gay students, expelled them, and tracked them over the years to ensure their lives were ruined. Lowell headed the blue ribbon committee that whitewashed the judicial murder by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts of Sacco and Vanzetti.

In the 1930s, many Harvard students joined the Communist party and some went to Spain to fight fascism. Reactionary Bostonians called Red Harvard the “Kremlin on the Charles”; but official Harvard played footsie with Nazi Germany and one of Hitler’s lieutenants, Putzi Hanfstaengl, was a Harvard grad who supplied old Harvard football songs the Fuehrer liked with sanguinary new German lyrics. At annual commencement exercises, Harvard featured long, vertical crimson banners with a white circle and emblem in the middle — just in case you were wondering what those NSDAP flags at the Nuremberg Parteitage were modeled on. But then, it was a Harvard boy, Varian Fry, who set up a rescue agency in the south of occupied France and almost singlehandedly saved hundreds of refugee artists and intellectuals, many of them Jews, from the Gestapo and certain death.

By my time, it would be fair to say that the programs in Jewish studies, Hebrew Bible studies, and the Ancient Near East dominated the department in which my chair was situated. A specialist in Eastern European Jewish history in our department became a powerful dean. James Kugel, a great Biblical scholar, taught one of the university’s most heavily subscribed courses. Shaye Cohen, the groundbreaking researcher of Judaism in the context of the Classical world, served as department chairman. Both men are not only superb scholars, they are collegial and helpful, and their presence made for a good work environment. The numerous clausus was for Jews a distant, if troubling, memory. (Lately, it would seem, the admissions office at Harvard College has been applying it to Asians instead. Old habits die hard.)

But the Middle East conflict certainly was more and more in the atmosphere: the director of the Arabic program and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies took a strongly anti-Israel position, and a lecture series named after a Turkish Armenian martyr for human rights became a forum for anti-Israel Palestinian propaganda. After 9/11, the university accepted money from prince Alwaleed to start a research center, and pro-BDS activity proliferated around the same time. One Harvard event hosted a German filmmaker together with two Eastern European scholars to talk about the frescoes of Bruno Schulz. The latter was a Polish Jew, a magical realist writer and artist whom a Nazi commander in occupied Drohobycz forced to paint fairytale scenes in a nursery. Schulz was later murdered by the Germans. The target of the lecture event, though, was not the Nazis but Israel and Yad Vashem: by rescuing the frescoes, the director and his friends suggested, the Jewish state and its Holocaust research center and memorial were the real criminals and vandals, thieves of art that belonged to the Polish and Ukrainian heritage, but not to us. This tripe, to my sickened astonishment, got approving nods from the prim Harvard audience. When one wrote an article about it for the online and print journal Zeek, “Harvard Death Fugue,” the piece elicited an ad hominem attack in print in a major literary journal by a sycophantic, self-hating Jewish grad student offended by one’s “venom.”

There were other incidents. One day, a man was carrying a sign and ranting loudly against the Jews outside the Out of Town News kiosk in the middle of Harvard Square, inciting violence against us. Two cops looked on in indifference. When I complained to them, they said he was exercising his right to free speech, and made it clear that if I didn’t move on, I would be arrested. A telephone call subsequently to the Cambridge Police had no results. One evening, I was sitting at home reading and heard some yelling downstairs. There was a lamp hanging in my bay window alcove with a tiny Israeli flag in it. The noise was coming from a gang of youths shaking their fists at me: “He’s got a Jew flag! We’re gonna get you, motherf***er!” I called the police and reported a hate crime. They refused to take the report. By now, that double-standard is common knowledge most everywhere: crimes against Jews are sometimes not treated with the same severity as offenses against other minorities. A few years after that, the atmosphere had become still more lethal. I didn’t want to retire and hadn’t planned to, but felt that American academia was becoming a foreign and hostile country. When I left my home of a quarter-century and moved west, I did not look back.

It has been over six years since I last walked in Harvard Yard; and though it is all very sad, it really came as no surprise that the Harvard Crimson — the daily campus student newspaper — strongly endorsed BDS, as a sort of Passover present, this past spring. (Were they following the playbook of the Germans, who chose Pesach as the occasion to storm the Warsaw Ghetto, back in 1943?) The other day, it was reported that Amcha lists Harvard as the most toxically antisemitic campus in the country. “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time,” said Britain’s Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey to a friend on the eve of World War I. Ronald Reagan’s famous campaign ad two generations ago chirped that it was morning in America. Nowadays, it feels more like a few minutes before midnight.

* * *

There is an old and well known Eastern European Jewish parable about a ship full of seafarers who saw an island in the middle of the ocean. They sailed there, disembarked, and built a village. They planted fields and forests, raised children, built synagogues and study halls. But the island they considered their home was really the back of a giant sea creature, a Leviathan. One day it woke, and dived. They all drowned. This tale began its millennial career as an ancient Indian sailors’ yarn, making its way to Persia, from there to the Babylonian Talmud, and on to the remotest west. The Irish tell a version of it in the legend of St. Brendan. For Jews, it is a cautionary parable, a reminder of the precarious, deceptive, temporary predicament of the Diaspora, of Exile.

In recent days, I have been reading a book by the German Jewish writer Alfred Döblin about his trip to Poland in 1924. At that time, Jews had lived in Poland for well over half a millennium, and constituted a 10th of the population of the whole country and a third of the population of the capital, Warsaw. Within less than a generation, that entire community, a spiritual and cultural heritage of unbelievable richness, a civilization, a world, was to vanish utterly from the earth.

American Jewish life as we know it really began only with the large-scale migrations from the Russian Empire and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. We have not really been here all that long, but we feel at home, or try to feel at home. It is true that this country claims to be founded on an inclusive ideal of human liberty, not on exclusionary, ethnocentric myths of blood and soil. America is different, we tell ourselves, like worshipers repeating a mantra, like children trying to tell themselves they are not scared of the dark. America would not be the same without us, we think. It couldn’t happen again. It couldn’t happen here.

No? Can’t it? One of our great writers, Philip Roth, from the brief golden age of American Jewish letters, wrote an alternative history novel, The Plot Against America, in which the pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940 and IT starts to happen here.

I’m a retired professor writing a blog in an Israeli newspaper, not a prophet. I don’t know, but you don’t need to be Isaiah or Jeremiah to see that Jewish history is a often a matter of worst case scenarios unfolding, of the unimaginable becoming the everyday. I don’t have kids, but if I did, I’d probably be sending them to a yeshiva and getting them ready for aliyah and a trajectory of service in the IDF followed by Hebrew University or Bar Ilan — or Harvard, if they so desired, but not as American Jews. As Israelis.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, Emeritus, at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University; the journal Linguistica Petropolitana, Russian Academy of Sciences; and the journal Homo Loquens, Russian Christian Humanities Association, St. Petersburg. He is a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. He holds the PhD in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; B.Litt. (Oxon.); B.A. (summa) (Columbia). His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.
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