Has Princeton Returned To Its Antisemitic Roots?

Has the ‘best’ American university given way to woke antisemitism?
August 23, 2023
Princeton University commencement ceremony in 1909. (Photo by Paul Thompson/FPG/Getty Images)

Princeton University is known for its pastoral beauty. “A Beautiful Mind” was filmed at Princeton, and the scene in “Oppenheimer” where the actors playing the scientist and Einstein meet by the pond is filmed at the nearby Institute for Advanced Study, an independent research center.

Throughout much of its history since its founding in 1746, the University has also been known for a “genteel” form of antisemitism. More recently, antisemitism has taken a more virulent form.

Princeton is perpetually named one of the finest undergraduate institutions in the U.S , with an acceptance rate of just 4%. This year, once again, Princeton rides atop the U.S. News college rankings.

Unfortunately, Princeton is rising on another list, that of U.S. colleges and universities known for antisemitism.

Princeton University remains a dream school for Jewish parents and their children. Princeton has two Jewish centers, Chabad of Princeton University and the Center for Jewish Life (CJL)––which is Princeton’s Hillel––but the percentage of Princeton students identified as Jews dropped from a high of 18% in the early 1980s, to today’s 9.6%.

These numbers still represent an improvement over the unwritten quota system Princeton used to keep the number of Jewish students under 4% in the first half of the 20th century. Such discrimination was typical of the Ivy League. My late father-in-law, who went to Columbia, joked that the Latin on the college crests stood for “2% only.”

While World War II brought changes to Princeton, discrimination against Jews did not vanish even with Einstein on campus.

At Princeton, juniors and seniors join eating clubs, where they take meals, socialize and hold parties. The clubs are selective. Students are interviewed for possible membership in a process called “bicker.” In 1958, Princeton made national news with “Dirty Bicker.” Some 35 sophomores did not get bids to eating clubs. More than half were members of the school’s small Jewish population.

Today’s Jewish students, when they successfully run the gauntlet of grades, SATs, sports and activities to get a coveted spot, face antisemitism in its modern form.

This month, a book claiming that Israelis deliberately maim and debilitate Palestinians appeared on an upcoming Princeton syllabus. The Department of Near Eastern Studies is offering a class called “The Healing Humanities: Decolonizing Trauma Studies from the Global South.”

The syllabus includes the 2017 book, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, and Disability, written by Jasbir Puar, a professor at Rutgers University. By claiming that Israel deliberately maims and debilitates Palestinians, the book has been repeatedly described as a “modern-day blood libel,” “a work of fiction,” and “garbage.”

Jewish leaders from Ronald Lauder to Amichai Chikli, the minister of diaspora affairs in the Israeli government, condemned the book’s inclusion. Chikli wrote a letter to Princeton President Eisgruber and Dean of the Faculty Gene Jarrett condemning the book as “antisemitic propaganda.”

Remarkably, the upcoming class is not the first time this year the blood libel has been ‘presented’ on campus. In February, Mohammed El-Kurd, 24, was invited to give the Edward Said lecture by the English Department despite his limited credentials. El-Kurd holds only a bachelor’s degree and his one book, “Rifqa,” is described by the ADL as “unvarnished, vicious antisemitism.”

Some quotations from Mr. El-Kurd.

  • In his writing, he claims Israelis eat the organs of Palestinians, restating the classic blood libel that Jews drink the blood or eat the muscles of non-Jews.
  • He joked about shooting hecklers at an earlier speech at Arizona State University.
  • At Princeton, El-Kurd described the Anti-Defamation League as the “Apartheid Defense League.”
  • On February 12, 2019, El-Kurd tweeted: “f**k israel & f**k aipac & f**k zionism & f**k anti-semitism & f**k manipulation & f**k smearing & f**k racism & f**k all of you.”
  • On March 15, 2021, El-Kurd tweeted: “‘ancestral homeland?’ Then explain why y’all can’t walk around Jerusalem without getting sunburnt?”

The English Department chair, Jeff Dolven, ignored repeated requests to confirm how much El-Kurd was paid, but his speaking rate is reportedly as high as $10,000.

Apparently, the only University-connected figure with the courage to confront El-Kurd was Rabbi Eitan Webb of Chabad. At the seminar, Webb got up and said, “I would like to thank you very much for giving a masterclass on how to be an antisemite.” He was then shouted down by students chanting, “Free Palestine!”

There have been a number of similar incidents in recent years. In 2019, Princeton brought notorious Holocaust denier Norman Finkelstein to campus. Finkelstein calls Israel a “satanic state.” At his lecture, he called student Jacob Katz, a grandson of Holocaust survivors who served in the IDF, “a concentration camp guard.”

Chris Eisgruber, President of Princeton, has defended bringing such speakers as free speech. Eisgruber says he discovered his own Judaism in his mid-40’s, helping his son on a 4th grade history project. Researching immigration records, he found the word “Hebrew” next to his deceased mother’s name. Today, he calls himself a non-theist Jew.

In 2021, Eisgruber posted a statement on his “President’s Blog” condemning the alarming growth of antisemitism. Eisgruber acknowledged that Jewish students at Princeton were “heckled” and accused of “hostility toward Palestinians.”

“Sharp, intense, and provocative disagreement about Israel and Palestine is fully consistent with the debate that must occur on college campuses,” Eisgruber continued. “Harassment, heckling, stereotyping, and intimidation are not.”

Despite the elevated level of antisemitism, Angelenos may be surprised to learn that neither Princeton’s CJL or Chabad is protected by armed guards, as are many temples in Los Angeles.

I attended Princeton, in the late 1970s. The university president, William Bowen, was not Jewish, but was a figure that used to be more common in America—a philosemite, a friend of the Jews.

At a 2016 conference celebrating 100 years of Jewish life on campus, President Bowen recalled the work he put in to raise the millions needed to build the Center for Jewish Life.

Under Bowen, an improbable pipeline to Princeton formed for students from the Orthodox Ramaz School in New York. Jews from other private, public and religious school backgrounds were welcomed as well. Little did I know that this would be the highpoint of Jewish life at Princeton.

A former IDF tank officer lived in my hallway freshman year. He was impossibly old—26—and watched our juvenile fire extinguisher fights with a jaundiced eye. “When the soldiers in my tank unit did that, I knew morale was bad,” he said.

Princeton was even popular among the Orthodox because of its parochial nature. About 95% of Princeton students live on campus, and there are few temptations off-campus in the wealthy suburban town.

This year, Princeton has offered professorships to Ken Roth and Robert Malley. NGO Monitor President Gerald Steinberg argued in a Journal op-ed that major contribution of Roth, long-time head of Human Rights Watch, has been to “antisemitism, not human rights.” In a recent tweet, Roth, who calls Israel an apartheid state, wrote “Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his collaborating implementors should beware. Their time will come. #apartheid.”

Robert Malley helped negotiate the JCPOA, the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. He was appointed US Special Envoy to Iran by the Biden Administration to revive the nuclear agreement abandoned by Trump in 2018. But the State Department announced in June that Malley was being put on “leave.” His security clearance was suspended due to alleged ‘mishandling’ of classified information. Malley has a history of unauthorized contacts with both Iran and Hamas.

Meanwhile, graduate student Elizabeth Tsurkov won’t be on campus. Princeton allowed Jewish student Tsurkov to go to Iraq for her research, despite her Israeli passport. She was kidnapped in March 2023 and is still being held by Islamic terrorists. Princeton, a school with a $35 billion endowment, devoted just 36 words of concern to her in a July tweet.

“Elizabeth is a valued member of the Princeton University community. We are deeply concerned for her safety and wellbeing, and we are eager for her to be able to rejoin her family and resume her studies.”

Princeton has had a problematic relationship with Jewish students for over 150 years. Ironically when I wrote about the university’s celebration of 100 years of organized Jewish life in 2016, Eisgruber said, “We don’t want to just say things used to be bad and now they’re fine.”

When I applied to Princeton in 1973, friends and relatives said that Princeton was an antisemitic school. I didn’t want to believe it then, and I don’t want to believe it now.

Yet no other ethnic group would be expected to put up with this. Princeton would never invite David Duke as a speaker. So why has Princeton’s Jewish community been singled out for attack?

As a Princeton graduate and parent of two young alumni, I have stopped contributing to the university. I have requested that a previous donation be re-directed to the Center for Jewish Life, to help protect the dwindling number of Jewish students at Princeton.

But I will continue to fight to ensure that Princeton’s motto, In Service to the Nation & Humanity, is true for its Jewish students as well.

This article has been updated to clarify the contents of the book in question, and to clarify that the Institute for Advanced Study is an independent research center. 

Michael Goldstein is a Los Angeles journalist and playwright. He was awarded the Bruce Geller Memorial Prize from American Jewish University for his Holocaust play THE GIRLS, OR, A LETTER FROM THE GHETTO, in 2022

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