Seeking social justice highlights Brandeis’ Jewish history

April 20, 2018

Faculty, administrators and students gathered to celebrate Brandeis University’s 70th anniversary with a talk on the University’s history—from its founding in 1948 to the present—titled “1948 Seeking Social Justice: 70 years of Brandeis University.”

President Ron Liebowitz introduced the three panelists, all with a background in Jewish American history. Professor Jonathan Sarna (NEJS) spoke first, detailing how the history of Brandeis was not necessarily rooted in social justice, but instead founded as a University free of quotas on race or ethnicities in a time that elite universities had quotas limiting how many women and people of minority races or ethnicities could be admitted. “The key contribution to social justice made by the new university was indeed the idea of merit-based admissions,” Sarna said.

Sarna was followed by Deborah Dash Moore ’67, the Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Moore focused on the year 1948 and the context that framed Brandeis’ founding. Moore described the heroism of Jewish men and women in World War II, detailing their unwillingness to accept discrimination after sacrificing so much for their country. She also described how the G.I. bill gave returning veterans the opportunity to attend college.

Moore spoke of the Jewish community’s response to discrimination against other marginalized groups, citing the American Jewish Congress’ legal action in fighting discrimination against students, especially Jewish and black Americans. Moore continued to describe the Jewish response to anti-Semitism and the Jewish community’s desire to create a university based on “a democratic, American basis with the complete elimination of racial, religious or social discrimination in the selection of students and faculty.”

“I think it [the establishment of Brandeis] could be considered a response of American Jews to the Holocaust albeit not a specific memorial … but rather an effort to establish a new mode of advanced Jewish learning in the U.S. under secular nonsectarian Jewish auspicy,” Moore said.

Stephen Whitfield (AMST) imagined “the road not taken,” wondering how Brandeis would have been if the original president was not Abram Sachar, but leftist London School of Economics professor Harold Laski. “His politics made him a figure of notoriety in 1930,” said Whitfield, who continued to describe Laski as an “extremely problematic figure” for Brandeis. Laski was offered the presidency of Brandeis, but declined.

Whitfield mused on this “road not taken,” saying “I think it’s probably fair to say that we would not be here. I think it’s fair to say that Ron would not be here as president.” He continued,
“It was an extraordinary moment that suggests something of … the ways by which the ideals of social justice, the ideals by which liberalism and even radicalism get projected and the very basis of the ethos of Brandeis University would even consider somebody of Laski’s political background as somebody who would be a suitable president … it suggests something of the road not taken.”

Professor Joyce Antler (AMST) was first to speak during the question and answer session, and highlighted Brandeis’ history as a source of feminist leadership. Antler wondered, however, why Brandeis became a supportive environment for early feminism.

Moore responded to her by arguing that those with outsider status, like Jewish women who attended Brandeis in its early days, had unique and critical perspectives on American society. For Sarna, it was the focus on extracurriculars, without traditional Greek life organizations, which helped foster feminism at Brandeis. Liebowitz concluded that those who chose to come to Brandeis, a new and liberal institution in the 1960s, would be naturally inclined to feminism.

The panelists responded to a question about the Ford Hall 1969 protests, during which students demanded the hiring of more black professors and recruiting more black students. An audience member asked whether the demands were in agreement with Brandeis’ opposition to quotas. Moore argued the protests required Brandeis to rethink its admissions system and recognize the institutional racism and sexism that might bar qualified students from applying for or attending Brandeis.

Sarna elaborated on the changing ideals at Brandeis, “Instead of treating everybody alike, we treat everybody according to their special needs and accommodate those needs … That’s a very different notion of equality than the notion that Brandeis’ founders had. And indeed America itself moved from a radically egalitarian view of liberalism to this accommodation view with all sorts of really fascinating implications that … change America, change Brandeis.”

After the final comment, which was a suggestion to create a course studying Brandeis’ history, Liebowitz thanked the panelists for their time. The event was sponsored by the Tauber Institute for the study of European Jewry.

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