Education is central to the Jewish neshama, soul. In the typical American-Jewish family, it is automatically assumed that children will go on to college for at least one degree, if not more.
While many factors go into college selection, do we consider a prospective institution for its potential impact on our children’s Yiddishkeit, their Jewish identity?
I went to Columbia in the 1960s. While my engineering school class was predominately Jewish, I do not recall anyone who was active in the Seixas-Menorah Society, then Columbia’s equivalent of Hillel. I never felt that we were discriminated against or that being Jewish was not the thing to be on campus.
In 45 years, things have changed. My alma mater is a hotbed of controversy over the invitation in 2008 to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak. Columbia’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures and its affiliate, the Middle East Institute, were accused of harassment and intimidation of students in the David Project documentary, Columbia Unbecoming.
Recently, I was directed by a rabbi to an essay by Yoram Hazony, the founder and provost of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, who has started to issue a series of “Jerusalem Letters.”
On Feb. 18, he released “Universities and the Jews.” Provocatively, the letter starts, “It’s a safe bet most people don’t think the fate of Judaism will be decided in the universities.” Hazony believes otherwise. Universities, he writes, “may well turn out to be the arena where the fate of Judaism in our time is ultimately decided.”
This is due to two factors. First, there’s no institution in the modern world so closely associated with the discovery and dissemination of truth as the university. In this regard, the universities are the arbiters of legitimate educated opinion, i.e., “the truth.”
Thus, Hazony opines, “When our children go away to college, they enter an institution whose incomparable prestige is entirely banked on its status as the pretty much unrivalled source for what is true and false, and what is legitimately debatable, in modern society.”
The second factor Hazony cites is there are probably half a million Jewish students in universities at any given moment. Virtually anyone who will go on to be an important Jewish leader will spend a number of years in this environment. In the great majority of cases, what happens at university will set their way of thinking for the rest of their lives.
In combination, “[t]his makes the university the single most important arena for educating Jews and acculturating them into adult society. This makes the university the single most important institution in the Jewish educational system — and this is true whether we like it or not.”
This means, “The percentage of college-educated Jewish kids who will ever seriously consider holding an opinion on any subject that is outside the range of what was considered legitimate opinion at university (or at least expressing it beyond a small circle of friends) is approaching zero.”
Hazony believes there is a division of labor between on-campus Jewish organizations and the professors. While the on-campus Jewish organizations concentrate on cultivating Jewish feeling, they leave the serious pursuit of truth to the professors. This leads to a world in which the Hebrew Bible and Judaism are considered basically irrelevant.
Hazony’s central issue is whether the universities, which are modern society’s engines for the discovery of truth, can be changed so as to accommodate the ideas and texts of Judaism as a legitimate source for potentially true “ideas and principles.”
According to Hazony, we are now at a critical juncture.
Maybe the time has finally come to end this business of just sending our kids off to college without taking any real interest in what kind of an education they’re getting there, on the assumption that the Hillel and the Jewish Studies program have got the situation under control. They don’t have the situation under control, and they won’t without a lot more help from the rest of us.
An example of a situation not being in control is the recent appearance of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California-Irvine, where his address was repeatedly disrupted by members of the Muslim Student Union. A statement released by chancellor Michael Drake condemned the MSU behavior as “intolerable.” However, the Zionist Organization of America accused Drake of “enabling an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel atmosphere” on the campus for several years and enabling “bigotry, discrimination, and the violation of civil rights” by the school’s MSU.
Meanwhile, NGOs have launched the third Israeli Apartheid Week 2010, a two-week event beginning March 1 on college campuses and major cities on three continents. According to NGO Monitor, “The ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ framework is used by pro-Palestinian activists as part of the political war to demonize and delegitimize Israel, and to promote the boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign.”
It is obvious that MSUs, anti-Israel NGOs, and their supporters have their act together to harass and intimidate Jewish students and supporters of Israel. The signals being given by university administrators and professors, even Jewish ones, are that this is acceptable. As Hazony points out, what are we doing in support of our college students?