Well, that certainly struck a nerve. Every half hour, it seems, someone sends us Jacob Savage’s “The Vanishing,” a long, stat-stuffed essay from Tablet that cobbles together a list of events of vastly different sorts—a long-building demographic shift in college enrollment, a #MeToo-related resignation at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a couple of museum board disputes, a shift in docent policy, and much more—into a sinister “vanishing” and even “erasure” of Jews from the culture.
If this seems like an odd time to lament the loss of Jewish presence and influence in American life—if, perchance, you look around you and see robustly Jewish programming at the White House by a Jewish second gentleman, a record number of Jewish cabinet members, a U.S. secretary of state and a president of Harvard who were both raised by Auschwitz survivors, and enough Jewish conservatives and former Trump administration members so you can find Jewish advocates on both sides of major Supreme Court cases—well, some people just can’t take yes for an answer.
Savage dismisses all of Jews’ current power and visibility in a parenthesis (“Neo-Nazis on Twitter like to post photos of Biden’s cabinet”). Though his calamitous assertions all suggest a problem threatening us in the here and now (“our influence is in steep decline,” he declares in the first paragraph), the evidence he marshals all concerns declining Jewish numbers in the breeding grounds for the next generation of “elite culture”—Hollywood showrunners, MacArthur grant winners, Harvard freshmen. The numbers aren’t the problem with Savage’s argument. It’s the paranoid spin on the numbers that’s problematic—suspect in the essay, and unhealthy for the communal psyche.
According to Savage’s argument, moves toward diversity and inclusion at a broad range of institutions—museums, publishers, university faculties—are not just a matter of making institutions “less white” but specifically of purging Jews. “When activists and journalists and executives talk about how Broadway or NPR or publishing is ‘too white,’ what they really mean is ‘too Jewish,’” he writes. “When The New York Times says it wants to make its internal demographics look more like New York City’s (excepting the Hasidim, of course), what this means is ‘fewer Jews.’”
That’s quite a charge, and completely distinct from the far more anodyne observation his painstakingly accumulated numbers actually support: The big wave of Jews in Ivy League institutions that crested in the 1980s has been steadily dropping as other immigrant groups and previously underrepresented ethnic groups join the rush. Far from some kind of investigative coup, this is a straightforward description of a demographic shift long known to anyone who follows higher education chatter or runs a campus Hillel. (Indeed, Tablet itself ran a similar piece in 2018 called “The Vanishing Ivy League Jew,” by a different writer, Shira Telushkin, with most of the same numbers—but minus the terrified tone and conspiracy theorizing.) To recap: Jewish enrollment in Ivy League colleges rose quickly after quotas were lifted in the 1960s, reaching 25 to 30 percent on some campuses, then started to fall. The reasons have been much debated, but the general outlines are obvious: The fierce, striving immigrant ethos of the first and second generations has moderated as Jewish families become more comfortable in the mainstream. Other newly immigrating ethnic groups—Korean, Indian, Chinese, Haitian, Jamaican—have now assumed the profile of intense striving. In Amy Chua’s much-discussed 2011 bestselling book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it’s Chua’s Chinese immigrant upbringing that makes her fiercely drive the kids, forbidding sleepovers and extracurricular activities and forcing them to sit for long hours at the piano or the violin. Her Jewish husband is the laid-back one who argues for a more empathic, non-regimented parenting model.
We shouldn’t conflate practical and reasonable concerns over demographic change with inflammatory accusations of prejudice and “erasure” based on nothing but a feeling that we should be more overrepresented than we are.
The emotional center of the new piece is the huge decline in Jewish Ivy League enrollment that Savage asserts. Though surprising if you haven’t been paying attention, and a matter of concern and discussion, these numbers don’t all match the calamitous tones in which he presents them. Harvard’s Jewish enrollment went from 25 percent to 11 percent over 30 years or so. Princeton, Columbia and Cornell “have seen smaller but still significant declines” (a reader who troubles to check the Columbia and Cornell Hillel sites will find 1,500 or roughly 22.3 percent of undergrads are Jewish at Columbia, while the Cornell Hillel counts 2,500 undergrads or 21.2 percent. You can regret this decline without seeing it as anything approaching “erasure”). And Brown and Dartmouth, Savage reports, are “happy exceptions.” At Yale, he adds, Jewish enrollment fell “from 19.9 percent in the 2000s to 16.4 percent in the 2010s.” He then quotes a Yale Chabad rabbi suggesting the current number is below 11 percent, although if you check the Yale Hillel site, it estimates 12.2 percent of undergrads. (Given how easy this is to check, the switch to anecdote smacks of sleight of hand.) It’s true, as Savage also notes, that a FIRE/YouGov self-reported survey found only 7 percent of Ivy League students considered themselves Jewish—though this was couched in terms of religion, not ethnicity, and there was an option for no religion that was checked by almost half of all respondents.
There are more numbers, lots of them, everything from the number of Jewish junior staffers in Senator Chuck Schumer’s office (no longer a minyan), to the number of Jewish editors on the Harvard Law Review (down 50 percent in less than a decade). Not all are as shocking as Savage seems to think: It’s not clear exactly why the “30-40” Jewish Guggenheim Fellowship recipients he counts in 2012 was the right number, whereas the “14-16” in 2022 is ominous.
But you don’t go viral by repeating familiar data. It’s the other half of the essay that has made the piece a sensation: sweeping, scary assertions of bad faith by pretty much everyone, but especially the evil proponents of diversity. “American liberalism, our civic religion, has turned on us,” Savage diagnoses. “Where Jewish success was once upheld as a sign of America’s strength and progress over its prejudices, Jewish ‘overrepresentation’ is again something to be solved, not celebrated.”
Such a claim demands evidence. (And no, the numbers themselves aren’t evidence, unless you’re willing to go with the argument, anathema to the right when it’s used in support of affirmative action or “equity,” that disparate numbers by themselves constitute evidence of discrimination.) But click on the scare-links with which these assertions are peppered, and you’ll find a gaggle of unrelated incidents attributable to other causes, none remotely implying Jews are being erased. It’s tempting to paraphrase the apocryphal Samuel Johnson line: The story is both true and scary, but the parts that are true are not scary, and the parts that are scary are not true.
It’s not clear exactly why the “30-40” Jewish Guggenheim Fellowship recipients he counts in 2012 was the right number, whereas the “14-16” in 2022 is ominous.
The tone explicitly invites conspiracy thinking. “The same pattern [of dropping numbers] holds across America’s elite institutions,” a key paragraph in “The Vanishing” begins, “a slow-moving downward trend from the 1990s to the mid-2010s—likely due to all sorts of normal sociological factors—and then a purge so sweeping and dramatic you almost wonder who sent out the secret memo.” [Italics added.]
“Museum boards now diversify by getting Jews to resign. A well-respected Jewish curator at the Guggenheim is purged after she puts on a Basquiat show. At the Art Institute of Chicago, even the nice Jewish lady volunteers are terminated for having the wrong ethnic background.”
Okay, let’s click. The first link (under “Jews”) goes to a New York Times story about unrest at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where major donor and board of directors vice chair Warren Kanders (Jewish!) was forced out after eight artists resigned from the museum’s prestigious Biennale exhibit in protest of his association with the museum. Kanders owns a law enforcement company called Safariland, whose tear gas grenades, protesters alleged, had been used against a migrant caravan that included families with children.
Was it a purge of Jews? Were Jews erased? Well, two of the eight youngish artists in the protest were themselves Jewish: Michael Rakowitz, from a family of Baghdadi Jews, and Nicole Eisenman, who is Jewish and French. Rakowitz was the first artist to resign. The Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, is quoted in the Times story expressing regret at the inevitability of Kanders’ departure (after Kanders himself apparently resisted it for some months). Eisenman, a noted painter, is a MacArthur genius grant winner. (Elsewhere in the Savage story is a lament that there are hardly any Jewish MacArthur awardees anymore. But then he also counts “zero” Jews in a list of Marshall scholars, where my casual read picked out three.)
The second link (under “resign”) is about a dispute at the Cleveland Museum of Art, connected to an exhibit about police brutality, that ended in the resignation of the longtime director, Jill Snyder. Is Snyder Jewish? Presumably, but if there is supposed to be evidence of a connection, there’s no indication in the story. Snyder’s replacement has the surname Reich, so she could be Jewish too, or married to a Jewish husband, but the story doesn’t go there.
It’s tendentious and reckless to take all these conflicts and create a myth of antisemitic conspiracy.
Proceeding to the next sentence: The third link, which goes to a memorable Atlantic story about a longtime curator who had to resign after her protégée turned on her. In the many-thousand-word story, much is said of the curator’s whiteness, but not a word about her religion. (Maybe the Atlantic, that notorious Jew-hating rag, was covering it up?) The fourth link (remember, we’re still in a single paragraph) is about the “nice Jewish lady volunteers” at the Art Institute of Chicago being terminated as docents “for having the wrong ethnic background.” This link goes to a story in The Wall Street Journal that makes no mention of any affected docent being Jewish—the implied “wrong ethnic background” is white. Of the two unhappy docents quoted, one has a name I’d think of as Greek, Gigi Vaffis, and one, Dietrich Klevorn, is identified as Black. The chair of the Art Institute, also quoted, is named Robert Levy. (As Savage says, “You know it’s gauche to count, but you can’t help it.)
After all those skeezy non-citations, the reader might be forgiven skepticism at the final, link-free sentence that wraps up Savage’s paragraph: “There’s an entire cottage industry of summer programs and fellowships and postdocs that are now off-limits to Jews.”
It’s also worth noting that many of these concerns are newly rebranded chestnuts about the tribulations of white males in an era of “diverse” hires. Apparently, Jews, or Jewish men, are suffering from not being considered “diverse” enough. (Where have you heard this before? I have been hearing complaints since I was an undergraduate about the terrible numbers in the academic job market and how tough it is for non-diverse hires, in other words white males—but somehow, there are still male professors.) Mark Oppenheimer is quoted explaining how at Harvard, “if you’re a Jewish kid who’s not an athlete and not a legacy and not from Wyoming … then there’s not much room left for you.” It’s a plaint that has been made for years, but about white students generally, not Jews.
The questionable links (and linkages) are without end. In the nonprofit world, Savage cites the resignation of longtime head Richard E. Cohen from the Southern Poverty Law Center, otherwise widely reported as a toxic workplace/#MeToo incident. In Washington, Savage asks whether it’s “a coincidence” that a Jewish senator was the only senator to resign over #MeToo (does he not remember Bob Packwood?) or that “activists pushed for Dianne Feinstein’s resignation for the explicit reason that she be replaced by someone who isn’t Jewish.” The link (on the words “explicit reason”) is to a Politico story with the headline [California Governor Gavin] “Newsom says he’ll name Black woman to Senate if Feinstein resigns.” Either Savage is thinking of a different story or the word “explicit” doesn’t mean what he thinks it does.
Other stories are laughably incomplete. In the Harvard admissions case now before the Supreme Court, “Once a protector of specifically Jewish interests but now secure in its new role as handmaiden to power, the Anti-Defamation League filed an amicus brief—in support of Harvard.” This fails to note the existence and driving influence (in a piece about lack of influence) of the Jewish anti-affirmative-action lawyer Edward Blum, who brought the case. And so on. I suppose we should be glad he didn’t toss in Harvey Weinstein.
It’s tendentious and reckless to take all these conflicts and create a myth of antisemitic conspiracy. For one thing, if Jews’ ability to survive and thrive depended on numeric superiority, we’d be in a lot worse trouble than we are. As Moment’s book review editor, I look through the lists of upcoming books so as to plan reviews, scanning for books with Jewish content. Many—most of them, to be honest—don’t have any. Not that they’re not of Jewish interest (anything can be), but they’re focusing on the experiences of other groups, though often through experiences to which Jews can relate, such as migration or the twin struggles of assimilation and identity. Other groups are in the thick of it now. And guess what? That’s fine.
It’s tempting to paraphrase the apocryphal Samuel Johnson line: The story is both true and scary, but the parts that are true are not scary, and the parts that are scary are not true.
It’s a big world out there. We shouldn’t conflate practical and reasonable concerns over demographic change with inflammatory accusations of prejudice and “erasure” based on nothing but a feeling that we should be more overrepresented than we are. It astonishes me that in the era of Doug Emhoff and Tony Blinken and Lawrence Bacow and Janet Yellen and so forth that Jews are having an access freak-out—but the piece is also appearing at a time when many Jews feel insecure, whether about antisemitism, polarized U.S. and Israeli politics or just the continuing hurtle of social change. It’s precisely these emotions that can make people fall prey to specious arguments that tempt them to see only threats in a time also marked by abundance.
A visceral fear of sharing the pie is not a useful emotion or even a reasonable strategy for self-protection. It recalls the freak-out the organized Jewish community had over affirmative action in the 1980s—a reaction that was costly to our bonds with the groups to whom it mattered most deeply. If, as Savage himself laments, “the seasons always change” and the culture must move on from a moment when Jewish numbers and Jewish stories dominated the narrative, we’d do far better to appreciate the many allies currently eager to stand with us against antisemitism and threats. A little empathy would help too. Maybe start by imagining how the old WASP establishment families felt when we came in. Do we really want to squander the influence we now have by whining and lashing out at other groups as they seek their own success?