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How Jewish Is `Too Jewish'?

Questioning the Nature of Diversity and the Methods of Achieving It

By Adam J. Levitin

A controversy regarding possible discrimination and quotas on The Crimson's editorial page and in the "shoot" process for executive positions is being covered in the national press. This controversy was sparked by an article by Crimson editor Justin C. Danilewitz '99 in the April issue of a leading neo-conservative journal, Commentary, alleging that several Crimson executives, past and present, referred to The Crimson as having what one called a "Jewish problem"--that the newspaper's editorial page was too "Jewish" and needed to be diversified.

Crimson executives have not denied that discussions took place about the need to diversify the editorial page, given that a majority of the columnists last semester were Jewish. The executives strongly deny, however, that a quota system exists and that "Jewishness" was a factor in an applicant's success. Moreover, Crimson executives have counter-charged that Danilewitz was motivated by sour grapes, having received neither an executive position nor a column.

This counter-charge, however, sidesteps the actual point of Danilewitz's accusations--that discussions about a "Jewish problem" should not have taken place at all. At Harvard, an institution which has a history of anti-Jewish admissions discrimination, especially under President A. Lawrence Lowell, class of 1877, such discussions, even in the name of diversity, conjure up the ugly and dangerous shadow of a bigoted environment.

The Crimson executives in question also defend themselves by nothing that several of the individuals whom Danilewitz names are themselves Jews. This point, however, is irrelevant. Arguing that Jews cannot discriminate against other Jews is an extremely weak and historically uninformed argument. Moreover, it does not address Danilewitz's main point: that these discussions should not have occurred.

Since the 1960s, The Crimson has had a reputation of being too white, too male, too "old boy," too liberal. And of late, too Jewish.

While one would hope that a newspaper's content would be more important than the identity of the writers, The Crimson's current president, Matthew W. Granade '99, has nevertheless argued that it is important for The Crimson to be more diverse. According to Granade, diversity is important in order to interest readers and because of a responsibility to the community. To be Harvard's paper of record, The Crimson must reflect the College.

But what kind of diversity is being sought, and does this diversity actually reflect the community? One would presume that this is a diversity of thought and ideas. But it seems that The Crimson is searching for a diversity of backgrounds, hoping this diversity will lead to a diversity of ideas. The Crimson's former managing editor, Valerie J. MacMillan '98, has argued that there is some degree of correlation between the two, noting in an interview with the Forward, "It doesn't ensure diversity, but it's a benchmark that you're trying."

Yet this logic shows that a diversity of backgrounds is precisely what The Crimson is aiming for, hoping that this type of diversity will lead to a more interesting and balanced editorial page, filled with a variety of ideas. Moreover, this logic indicates that The Crimson is more interested in appearing diverse, hoping that such an appearance will provide more legitimacy in the eyes of its readers, than in actually being diverse.

Indeed, as if to prove that it has attempted to diversify this semester, The Crimson's editorial page has included the pictures of columnists. Previously, it was impossible to tell that writers with names like Geoffrey C. Upton or Eric M. Nelson were Jewish, much less white. Now it is possible to make the same stereotyped judgments that are made when looking at first-year facebook pictures. As ideas and ways of thinking are by no means correlated with one's background, however, it is ultimately a disservice to the community to select columnists even partially on the basis of their personal background and not solely on their writing skills.

The very nature of The Crimson's application process for editorial columns makes a discussion of the applicant's race, religion or ethnicity unnecessary. To receive a column, an applicant this spring needed to submit a 250-word essay on why he or she wanted to be a columnist, suggest five ideas for a column he or she might write that week and submit up to three writing samples. This is certainly enough information to decide who would be a good columnist and to ensure that a variety of viewpoints and topics would fill the editorial page.

Why then was a "Jewish problem" discussed at all? Why were the editors so concerned about the number of Jewish columnists? Perhaps, one might think, because the content of the editorial page had been too Jewish. I searched through the entire Crimson archive from July 1, 1997, to April 2, 1998, and counted how many pieces appeared on the editorial page that were written about Israel, Hillel or other Jewish issues. Only pieces in which a substantial part of the subject matter was on a Jewish topic were included, not those that made passing Jewish references such as "My Bar-Mitzvah best."

Out of approximately 100 issues, in which more than 300 pieces appeared on the editorial page, only eight articles focused on Jews, Israel or Hillel. Of these eight, two were written by Daniel M. Suleiman '99, one of the Crimson executives in question, and one was written by a non-Jew. Thus, about 2 percent of the articles on the editorial page were written by Jews about Jewish topics. While this is slightly less than the percentage of Jews in the national population, the College's population is estimated at 15 to 20 percent Jewish at the least. The Crimson aspires to be the College's paper of record, and it could even be argued that there is thus an under-representation of specifically Jewish issues on The Crimson's editorial page.

More serious than this, however, is the conclusion that must be drawn from these statistics. Given the extremely minimal specifically Jewish content of The Crimson's editorial page, the "problem," in the eyes of several Crimson executives, cannot be that the content of The Crimson's editorial page is too Jewish, unless the editors have a misperception of their own paper's content.

It would seem then that the "problem" is either that there are simply too many Jews writing for the editorial page or that these Jews are personally too "Jewish" for the taste of certain Crimson executives--justifications which are equally offensive.

Certainly being a Jew does not lead to any particular set of opinions. This point is well-illustrated by the recent documentary film, "Arguing the World: The New York Jewish Intellectuals," thoughtfully mentioned in Suleiman's March 9 column and reviewed in the March 13 Arts section. "Arguing the World" focuses on the lives and intellectual development of four New York-born Jewish intellectuals, all from working class backgrounds, who attended City College in the 1930s--the late Social Democrat Irving Howe, centrists Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer and neo-conservative Irving Kristol.

In short, four Jewish males from nearly identical backgrounds, on paper, happen to hold views that range the American political and cultural spectrum. Moreover, these four thinkers happen to be among the most influential and important individuals on the American intellectual scene since the 1950s.

Similarly, the Jews who write for The Crimson's editorial page write on an amazing variety of issues of general concern, from Eric Clapton to queer culture, campus apathy to Republican politics, assuming a range of positions from left-liberal to neo-conservative. It is impossible to find a common perspective in their writings that could not also be found in the editorials of The Crimson's non-Jewish writers.

How then should The Crimson and society in general best ensure the diversity of ideas, given that focusing on diversity of backgrounds is clearly not the solution? Regardless, the Crimson executives in question owe a collective apology to the Harvard Jewish community and to The Crimson's readership at large.

Adam J. Levitin '98, a Crimson editor, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations and history concentrator in Currier House.

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