Emory Ad­mits Racism

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt is the Dorot Pro­fes­sor of Mod­ern Jewish and Holo­caust His­tory at Emory Univer­sity. In 2000 she won the li­bel suit brought against her by Holo­caust de­nier David Irv­ing.

Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt on what it means for the dean to apol­o­gize.

‘Iam sorry. We are sorry.” It was with those un­scripted two sen­tences ut­tered in front of a stand­ing-room-only crowd of more than 400 peo­ple that Emory Univer­sity’s pres­i­dent, James Wag­ner, gave voice to a great wrong.

But first some back­ground. From 1948 to 1961, the univer­sity’s dean, John Buh­ler, led Emory’s den­tal school. Ev­ery year, a small num­ber of young Jewish men would be ad­mit­ted to the school. Then, at Buh­ler’s in­sti­ga­tion, of­ten within a year, many would be flunked out. Some of the luck­ier ones were forced to re­peat a year. Their lives were, in the words of one stu­dent, “a liv­ing hell.” They knew that ir­re­spec­tive of how hard they worked or how well they suc­ceeded, all would prob­a­bly be for naught. Many were told by Buh­ler that “Jews do not have it in the hands” for den­tistry.

Hu­mil­i­ated, they had to ex­plain to par­ents, many of whom had sac­ri­ficed greatly for their sons’ ed­u­ca­tion, that they had been ejected. Par­ents asked their sons, “Couldn’t you have worked harder?” Many of these men went on to stel­lar ca­reers in den­tistry; one be­came a car­diac sur­geon. De­spite their suc­cesses, most never spoke to their fam­i­lies about the shame they had felt.

Some in the At­lanta Jewish community knew what was hap­pen­ing, but in typ­i­cal South­ern Jewish fash­ion they elected not to make a fuss. Some com­mu­nal lead­ers were con­vinced that the students were try­ing to make ex­cuses. One brave soul, Art Levin, head of the lo­cal Anti-Defama­tion League, be­lieved them and chose to protest. He amassed sta­tis­tics show­ing that 65% of the Jewish students at the school were failed or had been forced to re­peat a class. He com­pared this with the med­i­cal school, where only 4% faced that fate. He was told that none of this hap­pened and it won’t hap­pen any­more. But it did.

In 1961, the dean, prob­a­bly feel­ing im­per­vi­ous, pre­pared an ad­mis­sion form with three boxes at the top. Ap­pli­cants were to pick one. The choices were Cau­casian, Jewish and Other. (It goes with­out say­ing that there were no African-Amer­i­can students at the school dur­ing those years.) Af­ter the ADL brought the ad­mis­sion form to the

Some felt the shame of fail­ure for decades and never spoke about it with any­one.

univer­sity’s at­ten­tion, Buh­ler re­signed, though Emory in­sisted that this was un­re­lated to the charges of anti-Semitism.

All might have re­mained as it were, if not for an ex­hibit cu­rated by Eric Gold­stein, a pro­fes­sor, on Jewish life at Emory. He in­cluded the ADL’s chart from the 1960s. One of the for­mer den­tal school students, Perry Brick­man, was shocked to learn how ex­ten­sive the dis­crim­i­na­tion had been. Brick­man pro­ceeded to spend the next four years find­ing the “boys.” He recorded in­ter­views with them. Many were still emo­tional about what they had ex­pe­ri­enced.

Af­ter com­pil­ing his in­for­ma­tion, Brick­man brought it to the univer­sity. Im­me­di­ately, the chair­man of the board of trus­tees, the pres­i­dent, the provost and oth­ers agreed that some­thing had to be done to ac­knowl­edge this wrong.

And so on the day af­ter Sim­chat To­rah, for­mer den­tal students de­scended upon Emory. They came from Cal­i­for­nia, Texas, New York, South Carolina, Ge­or­gia and many other places. They brought spouses, chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. The pres­i­dent did not say to them, “It did not hap­pen on my watch, but I am sorry.” He did not say that this dis­crim­i­na­tion was the prac­tice of the times. He un­equiv­o­cally ac­knowl­edged that such be­hav­ior di­min­ished the univer­sity, and he be­moaned the fact that it took so long for this apol­ogy to come. No more sin­cere al chet, or con­fes­sional, could have been ut­tered.

In some sense this is not a new story. Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing were rife with prej­u­dice and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Some kept mi­nor­ity students out. Some ad­mit­ted Jews (though hardly any African Amer­i­cans) but found var­i­ous ways to re­mind them that they were “guests” and “not quite at home.”

Over the years, uni­ver­si­ties, in­clud­ing Emory, have apol­o­gized for dis­crim­i­na­tion and for us­ing slave la­bor. Rarely have they been able to ad­dress the vic­tims di­rectly. It is one thing to speak — how­ever heart­felt — to ab­stract, name­less and face­less slaves, and quite an­other to look a man in the eye as he tells you how ashamed his par­ents were of his “fail­ure.” It is one thing to ac­knowl­edge quo­tas that kept hard-work­ing and tal­ented students from your school, and an­other to hear a man who has built a ca­reer as a car­diac sur­geon tell you that for 59 years he never told any­one, in­clud­ing his med­i­cal part­ners, of his “fail­ure.”

As I sat there, watch­ing these men’s faces, when Wag­ner ut­tered those words — “We are sorry” — I thought back to the late 1990s, when I learned that David Irv­ing was su­ing me for li­bel for hav­ing called him a Holo­caust de­nier. Emory im­me­di­ately stepped for­ward and set up a fund of $30,000 to cover ex­penses I in­curred dur­ing my fre­quent trips to Lon­don. Then, at my lawyers’ re­quest, I did not speak about what Emory did. When I asked the univer­sity’s gen­eral coun­sel why the univer­sity was do­ing this, he said: “This univer­sity be­lieves in moral en­gage­ment. We can think of no higher form of moral en­gage­ment than your fight against Holo­caust de­niers.”

This Oc­to­ber, Emory once again demon­strated that moral en­gage­ment as it apol­o­gized with grace. That the univer­sity’s ac­tions came on the day af­ter the end of the Jewish hol­i­days, when re­pen­tance is the dom­i­nant theme, made it par­tic­u­larly ap­pro­pri­ate. Though this mo­ment may not be recorded in the Book of Life, it will cer­tainly be recorded in the an­nals of Amer­i­can higher ed­u­ca­tion.

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