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Anti-Semitism at the academy

Published: February 5, 2010
Section: Opinions

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the famous mathematician John Nash and his direct connection to Brandeis as a hired research specialist for a short time in the mid-1960s. I learned about this connection from reading Sylvia Nasar’s excellent biography “A Beautiful Mind;” before that, I had no idea that Nash had been here at all. Outside of Nash’s tenure at Brandeis, however, I discovered another theme running throughout the book that increased my appreciation of our university.

I had known since I first started looking into Brandeis as a possible college option that it was founded mostly due to the anti-Semitic attitudes that existed in academia in the mid-20th century, but until I read “A Beautiful Mind,” I had no idea how pervasive this bias was. The barriers that prevented Jews from attending and working for the top universities in the United States were so high that many of the greatest minds of the time were completely shut out from the only institutions with the resources to properly support their advanced research. As a result, the landscape of the preeminent science and mathematics departments in the nation was altered in a way that can still be seen today.

Brandeis was founded as a nonsectarian, Jewish-sponsored institution in 1948 in reaction to the strict quota system that had been limiting Jewish attendance at most American universities. Originally, it was to be named after the most renowned Jewish scientist in history: Albert Einstein. Though Einstein’s personal religious beliefs tended closer to Deism than to organized Judaism, he still considered himself very much culturally Jewish, and he fled Germany early in the Nazi regime’s rise to power. Einstein’s reputation was already that of the world’s greatest scientist, enough to secure him a professorship at Princeton, but he was acutely aware that not all deserving Jewish thinkers were as lucky as he.

Harvard was one of the worst offenders. Under the chairmanship of G. D. Birkhoff, who Einstein referred to as β€œone of the world’s great academic anti-Semites,” the Harvard math department ignored the collection of Jewish talent that had fled Germany before World War II. And though Harvard couldn’t reach the highest academic levels with Birkhoff, they couldn’t without him either. His reputation was so great that his death provoked an exodus of some the school’s top professors, and the department went into a state of decline.

Harvard’s loss was MIT’s gain, however. The engineering school’s reputation was not nearly what it is today, but their proximity to Harvard made it easy to siphon the intellects that the larger school lost or passed over entirely. New York University also established its stellar reputation during this time, as its non-discriminatory admission policies and location amid America’s largest Jewish population allowed it access to plenty of forgotten talent.

Princeton might have benefited more than any other institution. Despite his Jewish background, mathematics department chair Solomon Lefschetz limited the number of Jews that were accepted as students; he reasoned that they would have trouble finding work, and the department’s reputation would suffer accordingly. However, this bias did not extend to hiring faculty, and Lefschetz relentlessly pursued the top research minds in the world. Lefschetz himself was one of the leading lights of his department. His work on topology, particularly his fundamental fixed point theorem, has proven critical to the modern understanding of the subject, and his thirty year span as editor of the “Annals of Mathematics” turned the journal into one of the most revered publications in the academic world.

The greatest name on the Princeton faculty, and the one whose work would become most inexorably connected with that of John Nash, was John von Neumann. Born in Hungary, he went to school and started working in Berlin before coming to America to escape Nazi persecution. He is recognized now as one of the great geniuses of the century, with contributions spanning several academic disciplines and a breathtaking mental computational ability. His “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior,” which he co-wrote with Oskar Morgenstern, became one of the rare works that both founded an entire branch of mathematics (modern game theory) and became an international bestseller (earning it a cover story in the “New York Times”).

MIT’s brightest light was Norbert Wiener, who had started as a Harvard professor but was driven out by the anti-Semitism he found at the university. Wiener gained great fame as a pure mathematician, then moved into applied mathematics and invented the field of cybernetics. His religious background would later inspire him to write “God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion” as an attempt to reconcile traditional religious thought with his new discoveries. One of Wiener’s most notable hires was of Norman Levinson, who would go on to be one of John Nash’s greatest friends as well as a successful mathematician in his own right. Levinson’s spectacular resume made his rejection by Harvard for a professorship particularly offensive, so much so that the famous English mathematician G. H. Hardy personally accosted Harvard provost Vannevar Bush and accused him of running a theological seminary instead of a school.

In the early 1900s, Harvard University was universally recognized as the greatest college in the world, and it had the cachet and the endowment to collect the greatest talent in the world, particularly with the immigration of many German-Jewish scientists into the United States. The fact that they refused to do so purely for anti-Semitic reasons has created scars in their department that still haven’t healed. However, without their prejudice, the great diversification of American higher education into many leading schools might never have occurred.

Most importantly for us, the anti-Semitism that so many schools were guilty of allowed Brandeis University to attract top flight talent from its inception and grow in prestige faster than possibly any other college in the country. Brandeis’ success is the success of non-discriminatory acceptance and hiring practices, and that makes attending this school all the more meaningful to me.