A look at the forces that shaped early Jewish life at Williams.
Wurgaft writes that the “actors” shaping Jewish life at Williams “were more often impersonal forces…than heroic college students, administrators or faculty.” Yet it’s worth noting some of the earliest Jewish students who made an impact on the college and society.
CLASS OF 1876
It’s not clear how the college’s first known Jewish student, the son of Polish immigrants (his father was a merchant tailor), came to attend Williams. Cohen was active with the Adelphic Union, the drama club and the debating society, and he helped organize Williams’ Pennsylvania alumni association. An attorney, he was deeply involved in Jewish life in Philadelphia and Minneapolis.
CLASS OF 1878
After Williams, Gross pursued doctoral studies in medieval European history at the University of Göttingen. He had difficulty finding a teaching position and barely escaped joining his family’s clothing business in Troy, N.Y. But in 1888 he was hired at Harvard, where his class on English constitutionalism became a staple of the social sciences curriculum.
EDWARD S. GREENBAUM, CLASS OF 1910
After students protested the six or so Jewish freshmen entering the college in the fall of 1910, Greenbaum met with Williams President Harry A. Garfield, Class of 1885, and offered to screen Jewish applicants to “keep away the undesirable sort.” Garfield responded that while Williams was “always ready to receive men of the right sort, whether Jews or Gentiles,” the college didn’t attract that many Jewish students. Greenbaum became a founding partner (with Morris L. Ernst, Class of 1909) of one of Manhattan’s largest law firms, and served in the War Department during World War II. He was also a close friend of Williams President James Phinney Baxter III, Class of 1914.
GILBERT WOLF GABRIEL, CLASS OF 1912
A prolific novelist and professional theater and music critic, Gabriel belonged to the fencing club, Cap & Bells, the Literary Monthly and Gargoyle Society at Williams. In 1917 he published The Seven-Branched Candlestick: The Schooldays of a Young American Jew, a thinly veiled coming-of-age novel addressing identity and class conflicts between assimilated German Jews and the more recently arrived Eastern European Jews at “the city’s university”—likely based on anti-Semitism he experienced at Williams.
When asked several years ago to survey the historical presence of Jews at Williams, Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft expected to be brief. In terms of sheer numbers, Williams “has never had the Jewish population of other colleges of comparable size.” In fact, it has often been assumed that there was no history of Jewish life at Williams—at least prior to the middle of the 20th century.
“And yet,” Wurgaft wrote in the preface to his recently published, 186-page book Jews at Williams: Inclusion, Exclusion and Class at a New England Liberal Arts College, “one of the pleasures of this project has been its sheer defiance of my expectations.”
Commissioned by alumni to mark the 20th anniversary of the Jewish Religious Center, Wurgaft’s book charts the “slow progress toward institutional change” at Williams between the 1870s and today, from a time of anti-Semitic abuse and exclusion to one of a flourishing Jewish community on campus. The book sheds light on relatively unexplored territory: the entry of Jews into the liberal arts college scene. Its early chapters in particular examine closely the lesser-known “fringe of American Jewish society that found routes into the more privileged circles of higher education.”
In this excerpt from the first chapter, Wurgaft, an intellectual historian, discusses the wider social, educational and political issues that shaped the experiences of early Jews at Williams.
A quick glance at the names of the earliest Jewish students at Williams—Auerbach, Lehman, Naumburg, Greenbaum—reveals a preponderance of German names. Indeed the majority of these young men were of German-Jewish descent, often the grandsons of immigrants from Germany or Austria who had made the crossing during the largest phase of Jewish migration from the German-speaking lands to the U.S. from 1830 to 1880, prior to the great rush of Jews from Eastern Europe that took place from 1880 to 1920. They had the privilege of education at Williams because their families had been in the country long enough to build wealth and professional status—or in some rare cases they brought those things with them when they emigrated. They frequently came to Williams on the recommendation of a preparatory school headmaster, or perhaps a business partner of the student’s father was himself a Williams man. But the college’s Jewish population did not remain exclusively wealthy and German, for the position of German-Jewish Americans in higher education was threatened when their Eastern European counterparts, arriving in far greater numbers toward the end of the 19th century, began to send their sons to college. Williams, like most elite centers of higher education, became the site of small but significant struggles over which kinds of Jews could be considered “clubbable,” struggles in which German-Jewish prejudice played a prominent role.
The same phenomenon was taking place at Dartmouth, New York University and many other institutions. Being a gentleman, it seems clear, meant something special to the Jews who had attained that status. it stood for acceptance not only into American society at large, but also into a special sector of the social elite. It was not unreasonable to worry that different and more foreign-seeming Jews, with odd manners, accents and more visible patterns of religious observance, might jeopardize decades of integration into American society. In 1908, while addressing a meeting of the American Society for the Advancement of Science, the German-born Jew and father of American cultural anthropology Franz Boas gave the talk “Race Problems in America.” Describing recent patterns of immigration and the challenges they presented both for those immigrants and for American society at large, Boas—no stranger to anti-Semitism, bearing on his cheeks scars he earned as a student in Germany by fighting duels over Jewish honor—definitively identified himself with the German immigrant community rather than with the Jews. Yet Boas’ attitude was not purely an artifact of his immigration to the U.S.
Two years after Boas’ address, an increase in the number of Jewish students in Williams’ freshman class (the Class of 1914), which included a few students of Eastern European background, would occasion one of America’s first student-led demonstrations against Jewish enrollment at a college or university. German Jews, present in small numbers, never received such a welcome. While no firsthand accounts of the demonstration have been found, President Harry Garfield described it in a letter, in a secondhand fashion, by saying that afterward he felt it necessary to take to the pulpit in the chapel to remonstrate with the students for their bad behavior.
Only at a school like the Williams of 1910 could a small number of Jews have seemed so threatening. There were some six in the Class of 1914. Williams was simply an unusual choice for Jews at this point, and not because it presented insuperable barriers to Jews, but simply because most had not heard of it. It was off the map for American Jews unless their families had already become acquainted with the social groups from which Williams drew most of its students, or unless some stroke of luck—a chance encounter with an alumnus, for example—informed them about Williams and led them to believe admission was possible. Indeed, while it was the dream of many Jewish immigrants to send their sons to college so they could be professionals rather than peddlers, tailors or otherwise non-credentialed workers, they tended to target the municipal college systems of cities such as New York, or perhaps Harvard, Columbia or other prestigious institutions that loomed large in the public imagination. And for most of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the public school system that promised to Americanize one’s children and prepare them for success.
Williams was “protected,” as it were, from Jewish attentions during the gentlemen’s era by the social networks it served. They in turn served it by providing new students and loyal alumni. Between 1880 and 1920, no other New England liberal arts college was as closely connected to the Social Register families of New York and Boston, a group that, with a few exceptions, emphatically did not include Jews. As sociologist Richard Farnum explains, it was the only liberal arts college in the “top five” schools (Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia are the others) to which the majority of “social registrants” flocked, particularly from the 1880s to the 1920s. It was in fact the fourth most popular destination for registrants from Boston and the fifth for New Yorkers. it was thus part of a tiny cluster of schools serving a social network that crystallized out of the East Coast’s Protestant elite families in the 1880s and 1890s; the first edition of the Social Register was published in New York in 1888. The children of registrants characteristically attended the “St. Grottlesex” schools (the prestigious private schools St. Paul’s, St. Mark’s, St. George’s, Groton and Middlesex), which in turn gave them access to institutions like Williams. While the college’s sheer popularity among registrants was not a technical barrier to Jewish enrollment, it did mean that knowledge of Williams was often transmitted within a socially distinct and non-Jewish circuit.
Williams was also protected by its sheer geographic isolation. Whereas Columbia attracted many Jewish applicants, and the urban environments of Cambridge, Mass., and New Haven, Conn., were not so difficult to reach from New York, Williamstown was worlds removed. While Jews had moved through the Berkshires and other rural parts of New England during the 19th century, Williamstown itself had never seen real Jewish settlement. As historian Hasia Diner notes, most Jews around the turn of the century wanted to remain in cities that had become home to significant Jewish populations. They clustered in the major Jewish enclaves of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and other cities where businesses, schools and other institutions observed the rhythms of the Jewish calendar.
If it was possible to to obtain a college degree without leaving Jewish time or space, then the incentive to attend a rural college like Williams was low indeed. For certain Jewish students, the gains in social connection—and thus career and life preparedness—would have been obvious, and because these students came from more Americanized backgrounds, the need to remain in Jewish centers was lower. For others such things were superfluous, part of a Society game of which they were unaware of had no interest in because they knew they would be unwelcome. It may be noted, however, that if Williams was far from beaten Jewish paths, it was not far form the resort hotels where many wealthy non-Jewish families came to vacation as early as the 1840s.
Anti-Semitisms Plebeian and Patrician
Jews at Williams, like their counterparts at other institutions, were subject to anti-Semitic treatment during this period, ranging from verbal abuse to exclusion from fraternities and clubs. However, the label “anti-Semitic treatment” may obscure more than it clarifies. It is crucial to distinguish between the types of prejudicial behavior seen at Williams and the political and social meanings we often associated with the term “anti-Semitism.” coined by the right-wing German Journalist Wilhem Marr in 1879, “anti-Semitism” was intended as a scientific-sounding pill in which a rather unscientific doctrine could be delivered: The Jews, according to Marr, were behind all of the problems modernity had brought to the Western world. Marr’s anti-Semitism could not countenance the possibility of conversion away from Jewish identity; one cannot convert one’s blood. While Jew-hatred had been a common phenomenon in Europe since the medieval period, Marr’s innovation made it an inextricable part of a political platform.
Jews received very different treatment in the U.S. of the late 19th century, which was already embroiled in political debates over just which immigrant groups could be healthfully assimilated into the national mainstream. Prejudicial treatment of Jews in the U.S. had been linked to the more general form of American anti-foreign sentiment, nativism. Sociologist Norman Friedman described nativism as “a deep-seated American antipathy for internal ‘foreign’ groups of various kinds (national, cultural, religious), which has erupted periodically into intensive efforts to safeguard America from such perceived ‘threat.’” Nativism was the driving force behind anti-Catholicism in the American Northeast, the opposition to Eastern Europeans (Jewish and otherwise) suspected of importing radical politics and a racism based on a positive conception of Anglo-Saxon identity. In constructing a list of nativist groups, the historian might reach for the “Know-Nothing” movement of the 1840s and ’50s, which was Protestant, populist and driven by fears that the country was being overrun by Catholic immigration from Ireland and Germany, but also for the elite Immigration Restriction League established in 1894 by five Harvard graduates and supported in 1912 by then-Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who added the vice presidency of the league to his list of titles.
Whether adopted by the working poor, the middle classes or by elites, the force behind American social (as opposed to political) anti-Semitism was less religious or racial hatred than anxiety over resource scarcity. While Americans displayed ambivalent attitudes toward Jews up to the mid-19th century, these were primarily driven by a combination of religious unease and praise for the imagined business sense of the Jewish people, which was sometimes understood as a positive force for the development of local economies throughout the country. It was only in the later 19th century, as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe began to arrive in the Northeast in great numbers, that Jews began to be perceived as a competitive force capable of depriving more established Americans of their place in the social and economic order. Historian John Higham observes that anti-Semitic sentiments developed in three general groups in this period: agrarian radicals, the urban poor and patrician intellectuals, the latter group especially worried by the economic depression of the 1890s, which seemed to threaten their established family fortunes. The rise of American anti-Semitism was perfectly timed with the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and also with the demographic “tipping point’ when American Jewry lost its Germanic “complexion” and took on a decisively Eastern European character. This had the effect of increasing Jewish visibility in America by an enormous factor.
After this shift, relations between Jews and non-Jews in the big cities of the East Coast took a decisive turn for the worse at both ends of the American class hierarchy. The first restricted social and sporting clubs soon appeared in New York City and its environs. In the remaining years of the century the rejection of Jews by fashionable clubs and hotels up and down the East Coast was becoming total, making it nearly impossible for Jews to participate in certain forms of “society life.” Elite clubs for Jews began to appear, usually mirroring Gentile social establishments in their exclusiveness. Working-class discrimination in cramped urban quarters often produced violence. Attacks on Jews by Irish and German Americans on the Lower East Side were not uncommon. However, if these developments came in step with the growth of anti-Semitic political parties in Europe, they were not part of a pattern of political anti-Semitism in the U.S. And if the nativisms of the mid-19th century had been focused on the exclusion of new immigrant groups from American society in general, late 19th-century anti-Semitism was usually triggered by more specific anxieties. The exclusion of Jews from upper-class social facilities, for example, was prompted by proprietors’ (not entirely unreasonable) fears that a marked Jewish presence would drive out their traditional WASP clientele. The restriction of the social clubs thus anticipated the restriction of the Ivy League and its satellite members, by means of de facto if not de jure quotas, some 30 years later.