Nicholas Murray Butler - Butler and Anti-Semitism

Butler and Anti-Semitism

Though not a garden-variety anti-Semite, Butler had conflicted and complex feelings about Jews. On the one hand, Butler clearly supported policies at Columbia that discriminated against Jews, whether they were applicants for admission, students or potential members of the board of trustees. On the other hand, Butler had great respect for many Jewish individuals, especially in the upper reaches of the sciences, law, and academia. Thus, it was during his tenure that Lionel Trilling became the first tenured Jew in Columbia's English department. Butler was also repulsed by crude displays of anti-Semitism. When the University of Heidelberg protested Butler's selection of a Jewish delegate to represent Columbia at Heidelberg's 550th anniversary celebration, Butler indignantly replied that at Columbia, delegates were selected on the basis of merit, not race. (Many students were outraged that Butler had accepted Heidelberg's invitation at all. This resulted in a rally outside Butler's home that started with the protesters chanting "Castigate Butler!" and ending with them shouting "Castrate Butler!") As it was, however, Heidelberg had already purged its Jewish professors and adopted Nazi ideology in its curriculum.

Anti-Semitism was common in American education during Butler’s day, and it may be argued that his personal dislike of Jews, and discriminatory policies against them, were no worse than average for that time. Nonetheless, Butler often considered Jews as a whole to be aggressive and vulgar and for many years of his presidency, Columbia had a strict quota limiting the number of Jews who could attend. In 1928, the Board of Trustees authorized the creation of “Seth Low Junior College” in Brooklyn as a way to deal with the number of Jewish (and Italian) applicants. If Columbia College, the university’s prestigious undergraduate school, had already admitted its modest quota of Jews for the year, other Jewish applicants would be shunted to Seth Low. Among Seth Low's alumni were Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach and noted science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who wrote of how he ended up at Seth Low. When Seth Low folded in 1938, its remaining students were absorbed into Columbia's undergraduate population as students in the University Extension program; as such, they were only eligible to earn a Bachelor of Science degree rather than a Bachelor of Arts. Asimov graduated in 1939 with a Bachelor of Science.

In 1928, the Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals (later U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Benjamin Cardozo (an alumnus of Columbia College and Columbia Law School) was appointed to Columbia’s Board of Trustees, the first Jew to serve on the board in 113 years. But when Cardozo resigned in 1932, Butler and the board prevented the election of Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, to the board. Another Jew did not serve on the board until 1944, when Arthur Hays Sulzberger (Columbia College Class of 1913), Ochs's son-in-law, was elected a Life Trustee.

Butler’s attempts to limit Jewish admissions to Columbia are discussed (among other places) in the book Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler by Columbia English professor Michael Rosenthal.

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