During and after World War I, American Jewry became the target of anti-Semitism by a variety of social groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and various immigration restriction advocates. Ivy League universities were no exception, and several of these venerable schools moved to restrict Jewish enrollment during the 1920s. Some Jewish students at Harvard, the bellwether in American education, did not take admission restrictions lying down.
Nativism and intolerance among segments of the white Protestant population were aimed at both Eastern European Jews and Southern European Catholics. In higher education, Jews were particularly resented. By 1919, about 80% of the students at New York's Hunter and City colleges were Jews, and 40% at Columbia. Jews at Harvard tripled to 21% of the freshman class in 1922 from about 7% in 1900. Ivy League Jews won a disproportionate share of academic prizes and election to Phi Beta Kappa but were widely regarded as competitive, eager to excel academically and less interested in extra-curricular activities such as organized sports. Non-Jews accused them of being clannish, socially unskilled and either unwilling or unable to“fit in.”
In 1922, Harvard's president, A. Lawrence Lowell, proposed a quota on the number of Jews gaining admission to the university. Lowell was convinced that Harvard could only survive if the majority of its students came from old American stock.
Lowell argued that cutting the number of Jews at Harvard to a maximum of 15% would be good for the Jews, because limits would prevent further anti-Semitism. Lowell reasoned, “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% of the student body, the race feeling would become intense.”
The fight against Jewish quotas at Harvard was led by Harry Starr, an undergraduate and the son of a Russian immigrant who established the first kosher butcher shop in Gloversville, New York. As president of the Menorah Society, Harvard's major Jewish student organization, Starr organized a series of meetings between Jewish and non-Jewish students, faculty and administrators to discuss Lowell's proposed quota. The meetings were frequently heated and painful. As Starr recalled in an account published in 1985, which can be found at the American Jewish Historical Society, “We learned that it was numbers that mattered; bad or good, too many Jews were not liked. Rich or poor, brilliant or dull, polished or crude—[the problem was] too many Jews.”
Starr insisted that there could be no “Jewish problem” at Harvard or in America. Starr observed, “The Jew cannot look on himself as a problem.... Born or naturalized in this country, he is a full American.” If admitting all qualified Jews to Harvard meant a change in the traditional social composition of the student body, so be it. Starr refused to hear any hokum about 'pure' American stock as a way to limit Jewish admissions to Harvard. “Tolerance,” he wrote in the Menorah Journal, “is not to be administered like castor oil, with eyes closed and jaws clenched.”
Lowell received a great deal of public criticism, particularly in the Boston press. Harvard's overseers appointed a 13-member committee, which included three Jews, to study the university's “Jewish problem.” The committee rejected a Jewish quota but agreed that “geographic diversity” in the student body was desirable. Harvard had been using a competitive exam to determine who was admitted, and urban Jewish students were scoring highly on the exam. Urban public schools such as Boston Latin Academy intensely prepared their students, many of whom were Jewish, to pass Harvard's admissions test. The special committee recommended that the competitive exam be replaced by an admissions policy that accepted top-ranking students from around the nation, regardless of exam scores. By 1931, because students from urban states were replaced by students from Wyoming and North Dakota who ranked in the top of their high school classes, Harvard's Jewish ranks were cut back to 15% of the student body.
In the late 1930s, James Bryant Conant, Lowell's successor as president, eased the geographic distribution requirements, and Jewish students were once again admitted primarily on the basis of merit. Harry Starr, who lived until 1992, became a national Jewish communal leader, including a term of service as a trustee of the American Jewish Historical Society. Professionally, he became the director of the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, which was established by a Jewish congressman from Gloversville and which over the years has given many generous gifts to Harvard. Harry Starr held no grudges against the university which in 1922 he lovingly battled on behalf of his fellow Jews.
Source: Michael Feldberg, PhD, reprinted with permission of the author.