Jews should reject preferences

July 18, 2002|By Justin Shubow

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- In what surely comes as a great surprise, certain American universities have begun to actively recruit Jewish students for admission.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that a few Southern universities with low Jewish enrollment, most prominently Vanderbilt, are courting Jews in order to raise their academic standing.

In their aim to increase the number of Jews who apply and matriculate, the schools are constructing Hillel Houses and founding Jewish studies departments. At least one is offering merit scholarships for Jewish students.

The chancellor of Vanderbilt, Gordon Gee, a Mormon, explained that the new recruitment drive is part of his "elite strategy" to make the school competitive with the Ivy League. "Jewish students, by culture and by ability and by the very nature of their liveliness, make a university a much more habitable place in terms of intellectual life," he told the Journal.

To anyone aware of the history of anti-Jewish admissions policies, the irony is obvious.

Once excluded by quotas for being overly brainy and hyper-ambitious, Jews are now being sought precisely because of these purported qualities, though they are described in more flattering terms. Once labeled as "damned curve-raisers," Jews are now seen as "intellectually vivacious."

It appears that American philosopher Sidney Hook was unknowingly prescient when he jested that if universities truly sought intellectual diversity, they would heed the classic epigram, "two Jews, three opinions."

But before Jews take this news as an occasion for self-congratulatory back-slapping, before they kvell about Yiddisher kops and trot out the list of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, they need to remember that there is a flip side to every positive stereotype. One man's brilliance is another's craftiness. Chutzpah to some is pushiness to others.

While it is fine for schools to make students of various backgrounds feel welcome, do Jews (or anyone else) wish to allow themselves to be viewed in terms of stereotypes, favorable or not? If so, which are fair game? After all, it seems that at least some universities are targeting Jews in order to reap the future donations from what they assume will be stereotypically rich Jewish alumni.

Further, although Vanderbilt denies that it currently does so, it is not a stretch to imagine that, having targeted Jews for admission, universities will be unable to resist selecting them over equally or even more qualified non-Jews. Do Jews wish to be the beneficiaries of religious preferences? Indeed, I think we can best understand the mixed feelings many Jews have in regard to the universities' recruitment plans by examining their even greater ambivalence toward affirmative action generally.

Though largely supportive of the civil rights movement out of a desire for social justice, Jews, when thinking about affirmative action, not only remember the quotas set on Jews for educational institutions in America during the 1920s but also recognize that, as a group that is disproportionately successful academically, they are disproportionately affected by such admissions policies.

Aware that geographic quotas and legacy admissions were originally instituted to reduce the number of Jews at universities (the former still has that effect), many Jews view affirmative action with a wary eye.

Nonetheless, polls have consistently shown that Jews, while vehemently rejecting all quotas, support affirmative action.

But Jewish support, which has always been accompanied by strong reservations, appears to be weaker than ever. For example, exit polls indicate that only 53 percent to 58 percent of Jewish Californians voted against Proposition 209, the 1996 anti-affirmative action initiative. And in recent years, the UJA-Federation of New York and others have accused the Jewish Council for Public Affairs of being out of touch with community opinion because of its support of affirmative action.

Ultimately, it seems that the ambivalence many Jews feel toward both the new recruitment drive as well as affirmative action stems from the same source.

The majority of Jews care strongly about social justice and willingly support social engineering policies for the sake of that goal. But they also hold dear the fundamental principle that people ought to be regarded and treated as individuals, not merely as members of a certain group.

It is the use of religion, ethnicity or race as a proxy for some desirable or undesirable feature from which Jews recoil. And to be consistent, they should reject such policies even when they are to their benefit.

Justin Shubow, an Owings Mills native and a former online editor of the Forward newspaper, is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Michigan.

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