Should Jews Stop Sending Their Kids to College?
A conversation with Tablet's Liel Leibovitz on why he thinks the American education system is failing our communities.
“What we’re actually really after isn't a diploma. What we’re really after is education.”
Liel Leibovitz had the dream: a Ph.D., an office with leather furniture and a window overlooking the streets of Washington Square in New York City. But after too many experiences with anti-Judaism in the university setting, he came to realize that the institution he so valued for the free exchange of ideas was irretrievably lost. So he left. Now a prolific writer, editor at large for Tablet, and co-host of Tablet’s podcast, “Unorthodox,” Leibovitz has doubled down on a rarely held position: that Jews should opt out of the higher education system altogether. Although he’s based in New York, I thought this would be an interesting discussion to bring to Seattle, especially for those of us looking down the road toward college for our own children.
The Cholent: You wrote an article a few years ago about why Jews should stop going to college. It sounds quite radical, especially since so many of us were raised with the expectation to go to college. I grew up with the message “education, education, education.” But it seems like two things are going on: one, higher education is becoming a more problematic place for Jews, and two, it’s easy to rack up a lot of debt without much to show for it, or a job at the end of the rainbow. Walk me through your thinking.
Liel Leibovitz: I’m heartbroken. I have an 11 year old and a 9 year old. I tell them four times a week: You are never, ever going to college. You could go to the army, the American army or the Israeli army. You could go to yeshiva, you could go to a trade school. I'll be very happy with that. You said exactly the key word, which your parents repeated. They repeated exactly the right term. They repeated the term “education.” It used to be, “I think X, you think Y, let's look at what we could assert are the facts and argue the merits of the point. And maybe you'll convince me, maybe you won’t. Maybe I'll convince you, maybe I won’t.” And we lost that, and that’s tragic.
Can you start with sort of a highlight reel of why college campuses are problematic for Jews? Because I imagine some of what you hear is that you’re overreacting, that this is right-wing propaganda. What has really alarmed you?
It’s such a great question, and there’s so many great ways of answering it, but let me answer it in the most elemental way that I think basically contains all the other answers. I think Jews have always historically been unsafe in environments that stifled the free and unfettered exchange of ideas. For as long as the society was open and tolerant and allowed different diverse viewpoints, Jews, the ultimate outsiders throughout history, were relatively safe because we embody the outside to everyone else’s inside. Once you insist that there could no longer be this tension between inside and outside, between different ways of thought, once you engage in something that looks and feels like a crusade for all intents and purposes, Jews are going to be unsafe.
I think Jews have always historically been unsafe in environments that stifled the free and unfettered exchange of ideas.
So what does the highlight reel look like? I have to preface it and say I was deeply hopeful as I was sort of doing my reporting to find that this is just a marginal problem. That this is not true for all universities, or only true in some cases, or not that much of a big deal. I started this journey when I was a graduate student at Columbia. A bunch of kids, Columbia undergraduates, came and said, there’s real discrimination against us. We’re pro-Israel, were Zionists. I was back then fairly lefty, and I said, “guys, I'm sorry, I just don’t see it.” We had a host of very, very public confrontations. The person who led this effort, or one of the leaders of this effort, was a very young, very smart, very feisty undergrad by the name of Bari Weiss, who was my sworn enemy. Today she one of my absolute closest friends on earth. I’ve apologized to her publicly and privately a hundred times because she was completely right, and I was completely wrong, because what she saw I was too dumb to see. I do absolutely see clearly that the profound bias against Jews kind of runs very, very deep.
The surface level is a host of questions and statements that just make you feel uncomfortable in a way that no person, but certainly no student, should ever be made to feel uncomfortable. You know, kind of throwaway statements about Israel or Zionism or Jews in settings that sound like they could very easily be innocuous, but still kind of make you feel like, “did he just really say this? Did she really make that comment?” That is incredibly prevalent and it’s prevalent in faculties. It goes deeper than that. It’s become the norm to have affinity groups in high schools. I've heard from more than a few high schools that when Jewish students said, “we would like to have our own affinity group. The Asian students have it, and the African American students have it, and the Latino students have it.” And the administrator said “well, no, you guys are not really an affinity group.” And I think on the college level, you see this when you look at so much of social life on campus being predicated around social justice. You step into the space and you say, “Hey, I'm a queer Jew. I want to work on queer issues, because Lord knows, there's a lot of issues to work on.” It's like, “well, are you a Zionist?” What does that have to do with it?
You’re not just made to feel uncomfortable, but then you’re actually actively pushed. And even more often than that, these spaces are organized in part as deliberately and explicitly anti-Israeli, which is really a roundabout way of saying anti-Semitic spaces. That makes your students feel awful. In NYU, for example, one morning — and these are not isolated incidents — one morning, students woke up and mysteriously realized that all the Jewish students in the dorms had been issued fake eviction notices as protests of Israel’s policy of this, that, or whatever. Now, how did you target all the Jewish students? How did you make the assumption that the Jews were sort of implicitly “guilty” of any Israeli infraction?
This is this kind of nefarious game that is being played on college campuses. “Oh, being anti-Zionist doesn’t mean I'm anti-Semitic. I’m simply criticizing Israel's policy.” That’s hogwash. Because the lived reality of it, as we saw only the other week in Michigan on the campus — students literally were marching up and down the campus calling for the murder of Jews. It’s gotten extremely ugly. It’s there in the classroom. It’s there in the quad, it’s there when you eat. It’s there when you try to socialize. Every element of college life has been sort of permeated with this. But the worst of it is the larger kind of meta element: once you no longer have an environment that encourages or tolerates debate, that’s just an intolerant society. And intolerant societies have never been good for us.
I want to get into this anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism issue, because we just went through this with our county council. They were set to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and then activists stepped in and made the point that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, and it sort of derailed the process and confused the council. How do you view this overlap between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism?
It’s a really wonderfully easy question, because all you have to do is look back at the Soviet Union, where this literal, exact tactic was used by Stalin to say, “of course, we love all the Jews. It’s the state of Israel.” A group of Jews were kind of established by the regime to persecute all the other Jews until they themselves became expendable and were executed. This is such an old canard, and it’s so intellectually, morally, and emotionally easy to disprove.
If you believe that nationality and nationalism by definition is evil, and every national aspiration is illegitimate, I have no problem with your saying, I don’t think Israel is a legitimate state. But if you think that the Jews, alone among all nations, have no right for self-determination in their indigenous homeland, for which we have historical, archeological, and scientific proof, there is a word for you. It’s a very old and useful term, and it’s not anti-Zionist. The feeble-mindedness and the spinelessness and the moral depravity of our self-appointed intellectual and moral betters is shocking for having allowed this discussion of “I'm not an anti-Semite, I’m just an anti-Zionist” to even become a somewhat plausible, legitimate point of discussion is simply not interesting. I'm really not engaged in it. I think it’s a huge waste of time.
To bring this into another local angle, we dealt with an issue last year at the University of Washington where the Jewish studies department was able to secure $5 million from a local Jewish philanthropist. She donated for an Israel studies program. And the person the department hired was really a specialist in Israel/Palestine, and her ideology wasn’t aligned with the donor. Then several Jewish studies faculty signed the infamous statement on Israel/Palestine during the Israel-Gaza conflict. And that was when our community just sort of lost it. Later, the endowment was returned to the donor, which is kind of unheard of. It showed that donors can show that they’re unhappy and they can get their money back, but also it kind of looked like, oh, the Jews are in control of things, or the Zionists really are in control of things. How are we supposed to handle this?
First of all, it’s more common than an overpriced coffee at a Starbucks. You explained very nimbly that this is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t type of situation. Like, “give us $5 million and we’re gonna hire someone who is completely anathema and completely on the outskirts of what everyone thinks.” Nine times outta nine, you look at the quote-unquote research of these people, and it’s like absolute, borderline hysterical. Like blood libel, like Israel is harvesting the organs of Palestinian children.
And then if the community says boo, the department is like, “well, now you’re interfering with academic freedom. You give us all the money and then have no say.” You absolutely cannot win. Which brings me to the bigger question, what do you do? I think the great realization is that what we’re actually really after isn’t a diploma. What we’re really after is education. And you can no longer get that education at a university. Then the solution is pretty much akin to what Jews did when they didn't have permission to join the swanky country club down the block, which is to start something of their own.
The solution is pretty much akin to what Jews did when they didn't have permission to join the swanky country club down the block, which is to start something of their own.
Forget the donors withdrawing their $5 million. Imagine the parents withdrawing their kids and tuition and saying, “look, we’re gonna take this money. We’re going to create a community Kollel, and all the most brilliant kids are going to come and sit in the Kollel. They're going to study math, they’re going to study science, they’re going to study literature, they're going to study Gemara. They’re going to study some Halacha, they’re going to study poetry. And at night, they’re going to teach.” “Mrs. Weiss,” the local orthodontist and “Mr. Cohen,” the local tax assessor are going to come in for lessons. That creates a true communal organization, an organization or a solution in which the kids don’t have to leave their homes and go to some weird, far-flung place and become part of a different community and learn to repudiate the values of their parents. It also allows a real kind of education that is free from all the pitfalls that the modern university has designed precisely to sort of disempower and dishearten us. There are a lot of creative solutions to this. We just have to break our prestige addiction and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t care anymore about the Columbia degree. I care about the essence of my education, and I’m simply not getting it anymore at the university.”
That’s such a good way to put it, “prestige addiction.” I’m all for creative solutions. Beyond ideology, sometimes I wonder if high school students are learning anything at all. Why would I send my child to school to learn nothing, and they don’t have any life skills, and then I’m going to send them for more nothing and now they’re 24 and have nothing but debt? Maybe we should just have tutors for a few subjects and have them get jobs so they have a nest egg.
You’ve reached the end of the thought process. You’re absolutely correct, and you've figured it out. Congratulations. That’s it. First of all, every educational survey that you read — and by now having become a complete obsessive I have read a lot — says that there is precisely one truly reliable indicator of academic success, which is the ratio of teachers to students.
A lot of people from my age like to look at college kids and be like, oh, snowflakes, they’re so sensitive. I’m a hundred percent with them. I love them and I feel their pain and my heart breaks with them, because think of how they grew up. They grew up in these weird environments that didn’t really teach them anything. They were made a million promises like, “Hey, if you work really, really hard and get into this school and your parents will pay a quarter of a million dollars a year for this ridiculous education, you will then go and have some magical life.”
Then they arrive at a reality in which there are no jobs. There are no guarantees. They understand right away that they actually don’t have the basic skills. They understand that they don't have the basic skills to deal with stuff. And then they get really angry. And when you get really angry, you start supporting all kinds of ideas or ideologies that upend the social order. I hate how they chose to channel it, but I think the emotional reaction is correct. Why not save your kid from that?
When you talk about homeschooling, the first thing people say is, “oh, but the social thing.” It’s precisely to not be in these social settings that I want to homeschool my kids. A 10 year old needs to spend time with other 10 year olds, but also with an 83 year old and also with a 42 year old, because that’s how communities work. I have good friends who homeschool their kids. As part of their 10 year old’s day, he goes across the street to help his 91-year-old neighbor, to check in on her, see if she has any tasks around the house. That doesn’t just teach you empathy and community. It just teaches you how to be a human.
I wonder if people still believe that we can change from the inside. We can’t just complain from the margins. We gotta be in there making change. But I think I know what your answer is going to be.
I have spent a very long time thinking about potential tweaks and ways to change from the inside. When I wrote my piece telling Jews that we should no longer send kids to school, I got a lot of letters and phone calls and emails, including from seven presidents of universities. Some smaller, but some pretty major. In every case they’re like, “I thank you for sounding the alarm, but you have to know this is alarmist and we could still fix them inside and change. So kindly tell me how do we change from the inside?” And after about 15 minutes of fumbling and stumbling, each one of them said, “well, we really can’t.” Can I imagine a future in which you take radical steps like abolishing tenure and appointing public governing boards and doing really like vast overhauls to a system? Sure. Would that be effected in my lifetime or my kids’ lifetime? Probably not. It's actually much easier to build something new than to fix something so broken.
Any final thoughts about what those who are struggling with disillusionment can do?
Our core existence as a people begins quite literally with an institution burning down. We’re standing there in Jerusalem in 70 and not 1930, but 70 and watching the core institution that defined us for 500 and something years burn to a crisp. Rather than say, “oh, well we don’t know what to do without the temple,” we said, “we’re gonna figure out a way that would let us carry all this energy that went to the ritualistic practices to our own families, to our own communities.” So our own life, this is what we always do. We cannot become tethered to these institutions, because they served their purpose. They’re great, they were great for grandpa, they were great for dad, they were great for me. They’re not great for my kids.
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Choose the school and professors carefully. The best strategy today would be to major in a field in which grading is objective, i.e. science, and take humanities electives with professors who are fair and not hostile. This means that Jewish students need to have intensive, traditional European training in math, physics and chemistry, with the theorem proofs in math, to be equal to students coming out of the best schools in France. Looking back on large schools vs. small schools, at a large school, individual students are not noticed as much, and it’s easier to just be one of the crowd and get through, especially for a doctorate.
Yes, modernity is a challenge for some. Should Jews stop sending their kids to college? You've got to be kidding here!