I hear it each time the whack-a-mole of anti-Semitism surfaces at The New School — whether it’s a skinny swastika on a door, or designer John Galliano (of Christian Dior and “I love Hitler” fame) getting “un-hired” at Parsons, or an anti-Zionist panel “On Anti-Semitism” being itself accused of anti-Semitism: “How could — of all places — The New School, with its illustrious Jewish history, be associated with hostility to Jews?” No doubt someone will raise this question again when I moderate a university panel on anti-Semitism on February 11.

So what’s so Jewish about The New School? Well, it depends on what you mean by “Jewish.” The simplest — and most awkwardly Nixonian — way to answer the question is to count the Jews. When King David tried to do that in 2 Samuel 24, God smote the Israelites with three days of pestilence. But since this university was founded upon the Rock of Social Research, I will risk a partial tally. Rutkoff and Scott’s History of The New School for Social Research asserts a direct link between the school’s origins in philosophical pragmatism one hundred years ago and the entry of Jews into the American academy, noting that during its first two decades, “half of the regular lecturers at The New School were Jewish,” and that this was before the Graduate Faculty was established in 1933 to rescue the “largely Jewish” European scholars fleeing from the Nazis. Rutkoff and Scott also observe that The New School “acted as a rallying point for Jewish activities,” with Horace Kallen actively supporting the efforts of American Zionists while his colleague Morris Cohen, who had opposed Kallen’s Zionism in the twenties as “contrary to secular philosophy,” nonetheless established the Conference on Jewish Relations at The New School in 1933, to “help educate the public on the international threat of anti-Semitism.” (79)

Horace Kallen (1882­­­­­–1974), best known as the philosopher of cultural pluralism, found The New School — where he worked from its establishment in 1919 until 1965 — a more congenial environment than the Christian intolerance he experienced at Harvard and the University of Wisconsin:

He never forgave Harvard’s refusal to accept him and his roommate, Louis Brandeis, on their own terms, as Jews. […] For this reason, Kallen argued, not as an atheist but as a Jew, that religious freedom and human equality required a secular national culture. “Secularism cannot be freedom from religion,” he asserted, “it must be freedom from coercion and exploitation by a particular religion. Secularism is the freedom to be different… Secularism is the Will of God.” (Rutkoff and Scott, 80)

Kallen’s cultural pluralism extended the pragmatism of John Dewey and William James, maintaining that a democratic society requires mutual respect for the sincerity of competing beliefs and cultural identities. This is a brand of cultural relativism with an equal dose of practical attention to ancestry. People “may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies,” Kallen wrote in the Nation in 1915, “but they cannot change their grandfathers.” For a pragmatist, of course, what matters most is the story you tell about your grandparents today. And Kallen, along with his one-time roommate Brandeis, was a Zionist because of his belief that Jews would only be equal to other American ethnic groups (and thus truly American) if they — like Poles, Italians, and Germans — could claim an extant ancestral homeland. Kallen, who was otherwise skeptical of national sovereignty as the best expression of national identity, found inspiration in Hebraism, the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha-Am.

In other words, it is no accident that The New School, founded in 1919 by pragmatists and progressives who disavowed dogma and essentialism, became a welcoming intellectual environment for Jews, who were so often the victims of dogma and essentialism. During the first half of the twentieth century, 90 percent of American universities included application questions about religion, race, and nationality to identify the “desirable” (WASP) applicants. Thanks to the efforts of its first director, a Midwestern Protestant named Alvin Johnson, The New School was unusual in its day for refusing to make any distinction between gentile and Jew in hiring or admission. Institutions were often punished for implementing non-discriminatory policies. For example, Middlesex University Medical School, which had such a policy and thus many Jewish students and faculty, was for this reason denied American Medical Association accreditation. And in 1952, several years after he retired, Alvin Johnson wrote to his friend, the Jewish philanthropist Leo Heimerdinger, pleading for donations for his beloved university, which Johnson describes as “… the one educational institution in all America that didn’t give a hoot whether a student or a professor or a trustee was Jewish or gentile. It doesn’t to this day. And I think it is worth keeping alive. Maybe you’ll ask me, how much gentile money do we get for our anti-discrimination program?” Johnson then produces a litany of former or unwilling gentile donors, including “Judge Learned Hand, whose daughter had married a Jew who didn’t work out,” concluding, “If I had played the anti-Semitic game, I would not in my old age be appealing to Jews” (cited by Judith Friedlander, A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and its University in Exile , 307). This “Jewish” history of The New School also explains why German refugees such as Henry Arnold (1921–18) and Walter Eberstadt (1921–2014) — Jews according to the Nuremberg Laws — became trustees of the university.

The dynamic by which the history of The New School became a Jewish history seems pretty clear: Jews came to The New School because they couldn’t go elsewhere. But starting in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the numerus clausus fell away, and this parallel history became increasingly less relevant. The American academy became more concerned with its lack of racial inclusion and diversity, and Kallen’s cultural pluralism turned into what many now call campus identity politics or social justice and civic engagement, reflecting an ideological shift away from the sovereignty of the nation state and the individual in favor of social groups. In other words, the “Jewish history of The New School” eventually merged into the long history of post-war American universities. This is reflected in the relative paucity of organized religious, cultural, or academic Jewish life at The New School.

When I arrived here in 2001, I was at first surprised — given The New School’s Jewish history — that there were no courses in Jewish Studies and no Jewish student association. A few years later, I began teaching a course on Modern Jewish Literature (with a focus on how modernity and Jewish culture shaped one another), created a lecture series on Jewish texts, hired faculty to teach courses in Hebrew Bible and Jewish History, established partnerships with Jewish institutions off-campus, and eventually established an undergraduate Minor in Jewish Culture. At the same time, I was approached by Lang College students who needed a faculty sponsor for a Jewish Student Union (initially called The New Jew). Their events would draw 20–40 people, and after about a decade of activity the union disappeared. Several years later, a fresh crop of Parsons students arrived and started the Jewish Culture Club. But compared to the massive NYU Bronfman Center | Hillel next door, not to mention NYU’s large Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, all of these are relatively modest communal and academic endeavors. The New School’s “Jewishness” is a historical fact—a storied past, but hardly prominent in the present.

So how Jewish is The New School today? No more or less than comparable progressive urban universities. To be sure, there is a healthy diversity of Jewish life here — a variety of religious observance, political views, national origins, gender and sexual identities. Jewish students who come to The New School do so not because there is a highly organized Jewish community here, but rather for the same reasons that Kallen and other Jews felt at home on this campus in the first half of the twentieth century: their sense — however true or false — that all identities are welcome.

The modesty of post-war “Jewish life” at The New School should not be surprising. In many ways, Kallen’s active embrace of Jewish identity is the exception that proves the rule. Although something like two-thirds of the European refugees that became New School faculty and trustees were of Jewish ancestry according to the Nuremberg Laws, many of them — like Eberstadt — were from convert families, had gentile lineage, or otherwise did not identify as Jews outside of a solidarity stimulated by anti-Semitism. Consider the “Jewishness” of New School legend Hannah Arendt, a member of the faculty between 1967 and 1975, who, in “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition” embraces the figure of the Jew-as-rebel, as evoked in her understanding of Heinrich Heine, Bernard Lazare, Franz Kafka, and the “honorary Jew” Charlie Chaplin. Her essay about these symbolic Jews was published in 1944, when it was far from clear whether any flesh-and-blood Jews would survive the war in Europe. Indeed, Arendt’s attitude toward Jewishness (and probably the attitude of many other Jewish scholars at The New School) finds its reflection in the Marxist humanist and self-professed “non-Jewish Jew” Isaac Deutscher’s 1958 essay, “The Wandering Jew as Thinker and Revolutionary.” Deutscher begins the essay by recounting a story that gripped him as an orthodox Jewish child:

It was the story of Rabbi Meir, the great sage, […] who took lessons in theology from a heretic Elisha ben Abiyuh, nicknamed Akher (The Stranger [or Other]). Once on a Sabbath, Rabbi Meir went out on trip with his teacher, and as usual they became engaged in deep argument. The heretic was riding a donkey, and Rabbi Meir, as he could not ride on a Sabbath, walked by his side and listened so intently to the words of wisdom falling from heretical lips, that he failed to notice that he and his teacher had reached the ritual boundary which Jews were not allowed to cross on a Sabbath. At that moment the great heretic turned to his pupil and said: “Look we have reached the boundary — we must part now; you must not accompany me any further — go back!” Rabbi Meir went back to the Jewish community while the heretic rode on — beyond the boundaries of Jewry.

One couldn’t invent a better parable of pluralism — or, indeed, of friendship: a sage learning from the heretic; a heretic concerned for the ritual integrity of the sage. And yet anti-Semites would reduce the cognitive dissonance embodied in this tale to a Jewish conspiracy theory: “universalism for you, particularism for me.” After a 2010 panel I moderated on “Jewish Scholars at The New School,” was shared online, there was exactly one comment posted in response — and that comment was by an alt-right troll:

Now I understand how powerful & influential the Jews are in the world of academia. Jewish thought = universalism, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism. Marxism, atheism, anti-western European Christian culture. Racial mixing, inter-racial marriage encouraged etc etc. BUT all of these are O.K. for gentiles, yet the Jews are openly encouraged to maintain their Jewish race, heritage, culture, language etc. I find this simply hypocritical on the part of the world Jewry/Zionism. Shame on lying Jews.

This is a common charge made by right wing anti-Semites, but it also finds its corollary in left wing anti-Semitism, which accuses any Jews who are not unambiguously anti-Zionist of a similar “hypocrisy.” That some kind of tension between universalism and particularism is present in nearly all non-Jewish communities — and, indeed, within the hearts of most individual human beings — does not change the tendency to scapegoat Jews for it. My own work on the brilliantly and maddeningly dissonant Fyodor Dostoevsky always reminds me of the funhouse mirrors of projection deployed by ideological anti-Semitism. For many people, be they militant nationalists or anti-nationalists, “the Jews” will always represent this tension: too cosmopolitan, and at the same time, too parochial.

In 1924, a year when the Ku Klux Klan peaked at four million members, Horace Kallen declared that Americans had only two choices: “Kultural Klux Klan or Cultural Pluralism” (Rutkoff and Scott, 79). It seems incredible that at the centennial of The New School and two years into a presidency that represents a global reaction against the multicultural democracy Kallen foretold, many still haven’t quite finished making up their minds.

Val Vinokur teaches literature and translation at The New School, where he serves as Chair of Liberal Arts in the Adult Bachelor’s Program. He was a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow in translation. He is the founding editor of Poets & Traitors Press , and is the author of The Trace of Judaism: Dostoevsky, Babel, Mandelstam, Levinas and Relative Genitive: Poems with Translations from Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Mayakovsky. His translation of Isaac Babel: The Essential Fictions is available on Amazon here.

One thought on “What’s so ‘Jewish’ about The New School?

  1. As a person who this week witnessed the n-th vandalism attack against our only parish in Hillsborough NC that actively and openly promotes an atmosphere of cultural plurality, I deeply appreciate this thoughtful essay. I will share it.

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