"WASPs" vs. Jews, pt. 6

Beckert recognizes that one of the most significant components of the New York bourgeoisie's self-identity was anti-Semitism. By the 1890s, upper-class anti-Semites had driven Jewish members out of the Union Club, closed Saratoga hotels to Jews, and banned Jewish organizations from the Social Register. Beckert, however, downplays this prejudice. He emphasizes that Christians and Jews interacted in a range of institutions extending from the Democratic and Republican parties to the Hardware Club. The Chamber of Commerce increasingly welcomed Jews as well as other Christian immigrants. At the Philharmonic, the Carnegies, Rockefellers, Steinways, Seligmans, and Rothschilds all rubbed shoulders while listening to Mozart and Beethoven. Anti-Semitism "captured the imagination of bourgeois New Yorkers," argues Beckert, but those religious identities "did not overwhelm class identities" (pp. 265-69).

But does listening to classical music in the same orchestral hall signify a shared social identity? In many ways- participation in party politics, the creation of trade associations, the increasing hostility to organized labor, the construction of armories-elite New Yorkers of all religious and ethnic persuasions shared common economic interests and interacted within certain circles. But consensus over one's enemies, be they unions, socialists, or single-taxers, does not a culture make. Some will argue that these examples reflect convenient and temporary coalitions. The imposition of anti-Semitic quotas at elite northeastern universities in the early twentieth century and the persistence of ethnically defined law firms, banking houses, and accounting institutions well into the century more accurately reflect the workplace division and chauvinism among the New York bourgeoisie. Most conspicuous was what many demographers and students of ethnic identity consider the best measurement of assimilation or the breakdown of ethno-religious identity-intermarriage. The absence of significant levels of intermarriage between Jews and Christians during this time illustrates the persistence of identities determined by social and religious factors rather than those found in the workplace.

[Review: Making an American Upper Class
Author(s): Timothy J. Gilfoyle
Reviewed work(s): The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896 by Sven Beckert
Source: Reviews in American History, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Jun., 2002), pp. 279-287]
Note, though, that even during the era of "anti-Semitic quotas" Jews were overrepresented at Harvard, and the restrictions were driven by quite rational calculations.
As the nation moved to limit the number of Jewish immigrants, the Big Three confronted their own "Jewish problem." Harvard, just minutes away from the nation's fourth-largest concentration of Jews and long considered more open and democratic than Yale and Princeton, was particularly vulnerable to a "Jewish invasion." By 1918, when the Association of New England Deans first discussed this issue, Harvard's freshman class was 20 percent Jewish. This was by far the highest proportion in the Big Three: three times the percentage at Yale, six times that at Princeton.

A vice president of the Immigration Restriction League, President A. Lawrence Lowell was no friend of the Jews. But even had he been free of anti-Semitic sentiments, he would have had reason to worry about the consequences for Harvard of its growing Jewish presence on campus. For at a certain point, the arrival of the Jews would mean the departure of the sons of the Protestant upper and upper-middle classes whom Harvard most wished to enroll. Far more than an expression of cultural prejudice, Harvard's preference for these young men -- which it shared with all the other leading private colleges -- was quite rational from an organization perspective. After all, who but the sons of the Protestant elite would provide the "paying customers," the gentlemanly atmosphere, and the future leaders in business and government -- not to mention generous donors -- on which Harvard's claims to preeminence ultimately rested?

For anyone who doubted the existence of a "tipping point" of Jewish enrollment beyond which the WASP elite would abandon a college, Columbia served as a sobering example. [. . .] a visitor to Princeton reported sentiment among the students that the Jews had already ruined Columbia. [. . .]

By the time Columbia finally moved vigorously to repel the "Jewish invasion," it was far too late. Though the proportion of Jews, which had reached perhaps 40 percent, was reduced to 22 percent by 1921, the sons of the Protestant elite had abandoned Morningside Heights, never to return. In the 1920s, just 4 percent enrolled at Columbia; meanwhile, 84 percent matriculated at the Big Three. A contemporary observer, writing under the veil of anonymity, captured what had happened to the Columbia campus:
As one casually observes the men of the College, one is struck by the complete lack of undergraduate atmosphere about any group of them. Singularly absent is the grace, the swagger, the tall attractive sleekness which, if it does not always dominate the usual college group, at least always touches it importantly. These men, one senses at once, are not of the highest caste, nor have they among them an influential sprinkling of members of the highest caste for their models . . . Seen quickly, there is even a certain grubbiness about them. One somehow expects them all to be Jews, for it is usually the Jewish members of such a group who lower the communal easy handsomeness.

Lowell explained that his main concern was that the sheer number of Jews would cause the flight of the Protestant elite and thereby "ruin the college":
The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate, not because the Jews it admits are of bad character, but because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also. This happened to a friend of mine with a school in New York, who thought, on principle, that he ought to admit Jews, but who discovered in a few years that he had no school at all. A similar thing has happened in the case of Columbia College; [. . .]

[Jerome Karabel. The Chosen.]


TGGP said...

What schools did the WASPs flee to? And aren't those schools which let in Jews even richer today? Or did they temporarily lose money until Jews rose up among the economic elite?

krikey said...

This is excellent history and important work in debunking the creeping revisionism that tries to establish some sort of endemic, organic connection between Jewish and the old Prod elite. This revisionism is pushed by both the mainstream and obscure bloggers like Mencius Moldbug.

Though it's important to note that we are a long way from the time when Jewish numbers, power, and influence at the elite universities could be held in check. The top schools like Harvard, Yale that were the most vigorous and successful in reducing Jewish numbers are by now, and have been for a while, fully dominated by Jews in number, power, influence, etc. They are just as filled with Jews as the schools that were overrun earlier. It seems the only difference was a couple decades or so.

n/a said...


Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have much larger endowments than Columbia. I have no idea how alumni giving breaks down by ethnicity today.

The overarching concern was that a large proportion of Jews among students would transform institutions like Harvard, and I think history has proved that concern warranted.

Anonymous said...

Do you think University discrimination against Jews is somewhat similar (carried out for similar reasons, against a similar threat) to discrimination against East Asians today?