Friday, March 04, 2016

Beginning of the Jewish Quota at Harvard University in 1922

Today in my class "Contemporary Jewish Identities: Gender, Race, and Power," we discussed, among other things, the establishment of Jewish quotas at Ivy League universities in the 1920s. The first to propose this publicly was President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard. The New York Times got ahold of correspondence between Lowell and a Jewish alumnus named Alfred A. Benesch about an announcement that had been made the previous week on the issue of restriction of Jewish enrollment at Harvard. This is the New York Times article of Saturday, June 17, 1922.


Says It Might Tend to Combat the Increasing Tendency to Anti-Semitism. 


40 Per Cent. Proportion, He Says, Would Make Harvard Prejudice Intense. 


Favors Direct Action Instead of Indirect Methods Adopted by Other Institutions 

Special to The New York Times 

CLEVELAND, June 16. – The text of correspondence between President Lowell of Harvard and A. A. Benesch, a local attorney, on the question of race discrimination was made public here today.

On June 7 Mr. Benesch wrote to President Lowell as follows:

“My Dear Dr. Lowell: In common with other Jewish graduates of Harvard, I was astounded at the official statement issued last week with reference to the restriction of enrollment. Even had the statement made no especial mention of students of the Jewish race, it would have been objectionable because of the undoubted implication. Containing, as it did, however, particular reference to the Jews, it is tenfold more objectionable because of the direct suggestion made to those who might not otherwise perceive its purpose.

“It is utterly impossible for me to comprehend how an institution of learning which has throughout its history received contributions from men of all religious faiths, and which has enjoyed an enviable reputation for non-sectarianism, can even contemplate the adoption of a regulation obviously designed to discriminate against the Jews.

"The late Jacob H. Schiff for years maintained a deep interest in Harvard and was loyal to Harvard’s traditions. Do you think that he would remain silent, were he alive today, in the face of such action on the part of the university authorities?

"Felix Warburg and other eminent Jews of New York City and elsewhere were liberal contributors to the Harvard Endowment Fund. Are their feelings not to be considered?

“I am a graduate of more than twenty years' standing. I have contributed to the Endowment Fund and am contributing now annually to the Scholarship Fund established by my class, the class of 1900. You would criticise me with poor grace, were I to withhold any further contributions under the existing circumstance.

“Shortly after my graduation I wrote an article entitled, ‘The Jew at Harvard,’ in which, I think, I successfully combated the notion then prevalent that Harvard was anti-Semitic. I hope that l shall not be under the necessity of writing a similar article with a changed point of view. I hope, too, that the regulation, which has unhappily stirred up so much unpleasant publicity for Harvard does not find its origin in the fact that Jewish students, numbering perhaps 10 per cent. of the student population at Harvard are the successful contestants of perhaps 50 per cent. of the prizes and scholarships. Students of the Jewish faith neither demand nor expect any favors at the hands of the university; but they do expect, and have a right to demand, that they be admitted upon equal terms with students of other races, and that scholarship and character be the only standards for admission.

“I am still hopeful that the newspaper reports are not based entirely upon fact, and that I may hear from you soon a true statement of the situation.

“Very respectfully yours,


Dr. Lowell's reply follows:

“Dear Mr. Benesch: There is no need of cautioning you not to believe all that you see in the newspapers. As a colleague said to me yesterday, there is perhaps no body of men in the United States, mostly Gentiles, with so little anti-Semitic feeling as the instruction staff of Harvard University. But the problem that confronts this country and its educational institutions is a difficult one, and one about which I should very much like to talk with you. It is one that involves the best interests both the college and of the Jews, for I should feel very badly to think that these do not coincide.

“There is, most unfortunately, a rapidly growing anti-Semitic feeling in this country, causing, and no doubt in part caused by a strong race feeling on the part of the Jews themselves. In many cities of the country Gentile Clubs are excluding Jews altogether, who are forming separate clubs of their own. 

“Private schools are excluding Jews, l believe, and so, we know, are hotels. All this seems to me fraught with very great evils for the Jews, and very great perils for the community. The question did not originate here, but has been brought over from Europe – especially from those countries where it has existed for centuries.

“The question for those of us who deplore such a state of things is how it can be combated, and especially for those of us who are connected with colleges, how it can be combated there - how we can cause the Jews to feel and be regarded as an integral part of the student body. The anti-Semitic feeling among the students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews.

“If their number should become 40 per cent. of the student body, the race feeling would become intense. When, on the other hand, the number of Jews is small, the race antagonism was small also. Any such race feeling among the students tends to prevent the personal intimacies on which we must rely to soften anti-Semitic feeling.

“If every college in the country would take a limited proportion of Jews, I suspect we should go a long way toward eliminating race feeling among the students, and, as these students passed out into the world, eliminating it in the community.

“This question is with us. We cannot solve it by forgetting or ignoring it. If we do nothing about the matter the prejudice is likely to increase. Some colleges appear to have met the question by indirect methods, which we do not want to adopt. It cannot be solved except by a co-operation between the college authorities and the Jews themselves. Would not the Jews be willing to help us in finding the steps best adapted for preventing the growth of race feeling among our students, and hence in the world?

“The first thing to recognize is that there is a problem – a new problem, which we have never had to face before, but which has come over with the immigration from the Old World. After the nature of that problem is fairly understood, the next question is how to solve it in the interest of the Jews, as well as of everyone else.

“Very truly yours,


In answer to this Mr. Benesch sent the following letter:

“My dear Mr. Lowell: I find myself in complete harmony with some of the statements in your letter of June 9 but in complete disagreement with others.

“I hope and believe it is true that the instructing staff of Harvard University is not anti-Semitic at heart. I am apprehensive, however, that the wave of anti-Semitism which has been inundating the country during the last year or more has not left the members of the staff untouched. I am apprehensive, too, that some members of the Harvard alumni have not been inactive in expressing and making felt their anti-Jewish and unsocial proclivities.

“Although I agree with you that, unhappily, there is a rapidly growing anti-Semitic feeling in this country, I must take issue with you upon the proposition that this feeling is caused in part by a strong race feeling on the part of the Jews. Is not the strong race feeling on the part of the Jews the result rather than the cause? In other words, has not the strong race feeling been developed as a measure of self-defense?

“You throw out the suggestion that ‘if every college in the country would take a limited proportion of Jews, I suspect that we should go a long way toward eliminating race feeling among the students, and, as the students passed out into the world, eliminating it in the community.’

“Carrying your suggestion to its logical conclusion would inevitably mean that a complete prohibition against Jewish students in the colleges would solve the problem of anti-Semitism. Moreover, it might lead to the establishment of a distinctively Jewish university, a consummation most sincerely to be deplored.

“If it be true – and I have no doubt that it is true – that the anti-Semitic feeling among the students is increasing, should it not be the function of an institution of learning to discourage rather than to encourage such a spirit? If certain members of the alumni and certain members of the student body foster so un-American a spirit, Harvard University, which has always stood for true democracy and liberalism, should be the first to condemn such a spirit, and exert every effort to prevent its growth. 

“If it is at all possible for you to call a meeting of a group of Jewish graduates, together with the members of the corporation and such other graduates or undergraduates as are interested in this vital problem, such meeting to be called within the next ten days or two weeks, I shall be very glad personally to make the sacrifice of time and money to attend such meeting. I believe, as do you, that a matter of this character can best be discussed by word of mouth.

“Respectfully yours,


President Lowell's final letter to Mr. Benesch, received today, said:

“Dear Mr. Benesch, You are quite right – It is the function of an institution of learning to discourage anti-Semitic feeling, and the question is how is it to be done? It does not seem to me that we shall reach such a result by ignoring the problem of race. It exists in the Old World and it is rapidly coming here. The first step, it seems to me, is to recognize that is a problem and then try to discover what its cause and its cures my be. It is just the result that you point out that I wish to avoid – that of distinctly Jewish and distinctly Gentile universities. We want exactly the opposite. We want to have both Gentiles and Jews in all our colleges and universities and strive to bring the two races together.

“A committee to consider this subject will be appointed in a few days and one of their first duties will be get into communication with the thoughtful Jews in this country.

“Very truly yours,


1 comment:

  1. How truly ugly of Lowell. Was he dropped on his head as an infant? Harvard should have stood up to the prevalent anti-semitism. The ethics are severely lacking in this decision (just put in any other group of people into the equation). This lack lead to not permitting liners containing Jewish refugees to come into port. Supposedly these young men were being taught Classical values. They were definitely not living them (by their deeds shall you judge them).