Extracting the truth: Perry Brickman’s quest for Jewish redemption
As assistant director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta in the early 1980s, my engagement with Jewish life at Emory University was very positive. We co-sponsored a series of lectures and exhibits with the (at the time) newly inaugurated Jewish Studies Department. Preceding the inaugural lecture, Elie Wiesel met with survivors and their adult children, who asked, considering the devastation wrought against the Jews, what was the most important thing they could do? Wiesel curtly answered: “Make babies.”
Our son was born the next day.
Several years later we helped develop an exhibit at Emory commemorating the 250th anniversary of the settlement of Jews in Georgia. We featured the 1905 certificate of kashruth by Rabbi Tobias Geffen of Coca-Cola, who knew Coke’s secret formula.
One of the key collectors of memorabilia and a docent for the exhibit was Shirley Brickman, a devoted supporter of the federation. Her husband, Perry, was an oral surgeon, an officer of the federation, and later its president. As I was his patient, he joked that even though my wisdom teeth would be removed, it wouldn’t diminish whatever wisdom I had.
In 1983, I moved up north nearer to my roots in New Jersey and only had intermittent contact with the Brickmans, at conferences and the like. Decades later I heard about Perry’s search to uncover a decades-long history of anti-Semitism at Emory’s dental school, as detailed in his recently published book, “Extracted: Unmasking Rampant Antisemitism in America’s Higher Education” (August, Morgan James Publisher). His journey began when he attended an exhibit celebrating the 30th anniversary of Emory’s Jewish studies department, when he encountered a panel that displayed a graph showing a 65 percent failure rate of Jewish dental students compared to 15 percent for non-Jewish ones.
Seeing this produced an inner catharsis, as Brickman had repressed the fact that decades earlier he and three of his Jewish classmates flunked out of the school. To have been so humiliated without any prior warning, and having had to break the news to their hard-working parents, was devastating to these young students. There were dozens of others who had similar experiences during the reign of Dean Dr. John E. Buhler.
After retiring from his practice, Brickman went on an ambitious journey to research letters and other documents and interview past students, Emory officials, communal leaders, and others. His research revealed institutional anti-Semitism that led to the establishment of Jewish quotas in prestigious universities.
Even where there was a preponderance of Jews, such as at my alma mater, City College of New York, its president once observed, Brickman wrote in his book, that the persecution of Jews “engendered in them a morbid, revengeful, and isolated disposition” that prevents them “from grasping the kind hand of Christianity.”
What made Buhler’s transgression even worse, as Brickman revealed, was the dean’s and his enablers’ anti-Semitic attitudes and actions, such as faculty members treating Jews with contempt and unfairly forcing them to repeat courses. Buhler also characterized Jews as lacking the manual dexterity to be competent dentists, and insulted their “Jewish” features.
He was joined by the complicit leaders of the American Dental Association in forcing quotas on Jews in exchange for dental school accreditation.
In the 1960s when these details were reported in the media, Emory’s administration stonewalled an investigation and denied any link between the reports and Buhler’s resignation in 1961 following his 13-year reign of terror.
In researching the careers of the “flunked” students, Brickman uncovered a pattern of success at other schools, such as the University of Tennessee, his alma mater, where he graduated fourth in his class. One of the graduates from the University of Washington was a dental forensic expert called in to the World Trade Center ruins to identify remains through their dentures. In Brickman’s interviews with former students, all expressed a similar release that the hatred they were subjected to over the decades was finally out in the open.
There are many villains in this story, but also heroes like Art Levin, the southeast regional director of the ADL, who was doggedly determined to hold Emory accountable, as were the local Community Relations Council and federation, although the latter two were weary of being too aggressive in the aftermath of the bombing of Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in 1958.
Brickman filmed a video of his findings and met with top Emory brass to exact an acknowledgement of their past sins and an apology. To the administration’s credit, the university had Brickman’s video professionally edited and sponsored a dinner for all the surviving victims, their families, and leaders of the Jewish community. At the dinner former university president James Wagner said, with a slight quiver in his voice, according to Brickman, “I am sorry. I am sorry.” He then bestowed the “Maker of History” award to Brickman and said his uncovering the truth allowed Emory to expiate its past transgressions. “You have made its heritage shine more brightly,” Wagner said.
The significance of this event was noted by Emory history Professor Deborah Lipstadt when she wrote in the book’s forward that “this was the first time that I know of in which a university is acknowledging its past history of anti-Semitic wrongs directly” to the victims.
The raw anti-Semitism faced by Brickman and his contemporaries in those days is very different from the inhospitable campus atmosphere for many pro-Israel students. And there are too few university presidents who exhibited the moral backbone of Emory’s Wagner. Witness the shameful behavior of too many college campuses that disrupt pro-Israel speakers by raucous and intolerant students and their faculty enablers. This issue will be on the communal agenda to address for years to come.
As for Brickman, through his prodigious efforts he had a university acknowledge its guilt and do teshuvah, repentance. But he also helped relieve the undeserved guilt his peers felt over half a century ago. As he concluded in his book, “we are comfortable … that the full story has been told, and we have been redeemed.”
Brickman was the redeemer.
Max L. Kleinman is president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation. From 1995-2014 he was CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.