By Adam Davis
When I returned to Cornell this past spring semester, the landscape of Central Campus had been noticeably altered. The construction site that had been an evolving but constant presence since the beginning of my freshman year had finally given way to a finished building. Klarman Hall now stood as a new and conspicuous architectural presence on East Avenue.
Klarman Hall was the first new building dedicated to the humanities to be built at Cornell in 110 years; the last humanities building constructed before it was Goldwin Smith Hall in 1905. Upon completion of construction, Klarman Hall was, as Simon Wheeler wrote in the Ithaca Journal, “connected to and surrounded on three sides by Goldwin Smith.” The two buildings were locked in an embrace. Given that both buildings house various humanities departments, it seems rather fitting that there should be some sort of rich symbolism in the construction of the new building and its union with the old. It’s perhaps just as fitting that this symbolism should come in the form of irony.
The namesake of Goldwin Smith Hall was, as the Dictionary of Canadian Biography summarizes, a “writer, journalist, and controversialist.” He was also a virulent anti-Semite who decried, in his essay entitled “The Jewish Question”, the Jewish population’s “peculiar character and habits” and “preoccupation with money-making,” and described Jews as “parasites” and “cruel usurers, eating the people as it were bread.” On the topic of the violent, anti-Semitic pogroms undertaken by Christian peasants in Eastern Europe, Smith opined in that same essay: “My contention is that the blame rests mainly, not on Christian bigotry, but on the situation created by the wandering and separatist habits of the Jews.” The Jewish victims (and Smith did attribute an exaggerated popular view of Jewish victimhood to a Jewish-dominated press) had simply gotten what was coming to them for their “wealth,” “ascendancy,” and—in a victim-blaming trope that has survived into the present day—“the fine dresses of [Jewish] women. ”
The namesake of Klarman Hall, Seth Klarman, happens to be Jewish. Klarman earned his bachelor’s degree from Cornell in 1979, and then went on to earn an MBA from Harvard; he currently manages the Boston-based hedge fund Baupost—an occupation which Smith likely would have referred to as “cruel usuring,” indicative of a “preoccupation with money-making.” The lead gift for the construction of Klarman Hall came from The Klarman Family Foundation, Seth Klarman’s philanthropic foundation which, according to Forbes, had approximately $350 million in assets as of the most recent public filing. In addition to its support for the construction of a new humanities building at Cornell and other causes, the foundation “maintains an unwavering commitment to demonstrating Jewish values and supporting the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
The Smith-Klarman complex that now stands on Central Campus is, metaphorically, an embrace between a proud Jew and an unabashed anti-Semite. But is it possible that the two have more in common than a plot of land adjacent to the Arts Quad? Goldwin Smith’s anti-Semitism was not, after all, the eliminationist anti-Semitism of Nazis, or even the religious-based anti-Semitism of Europe in the Middle Ages. Smith was a liberal and, as a commemorative bench outside of his namesake building will remind you, is noted for saying, “Above all nations is humanity.” And yet his universalism seems to have come up short in its confrontation with the “Jewish question” that plagued him and so many of his contemporary thinkers. Instead of seeing an acceptance of the different cultural and religious practices of the Jewish people as the logical extension of a universal embrace of humanity, Smith chose to juxtapose his own liberal universalism with the supposed backwardness and tribalism of the Jews. This is the paradox of Goldwin Smith’s thought, a paradox inadvertently hinted at in placing that quote on the bench outside of his namesake building: yes, universal humanity is great; but to have it you must first “fix” those elements of society that do not conform to your conception of what is modern.
What, then, is Smith’s answer to the Jewish question? As Professors Glenn Altschuler and Isaac Kramnick summarize it, the answer is a choice between “assimilation” and “repatriation to Palestine.” There could be no space, in Smith’s conception of the world, for Jewish Otherness within the context of other nations. The Jews either had to forgo their publicly expressed cultural differences—private practices could presumably still be protected by a liberal conception of freedom of religion—or settle in a Zionist state in Palestine. There, Jewish practices and identity could be the basis of a nation rather than the forces denigrating the internal unity of other nations. In this latter option, Goldwin Smith’s beliefs seem to be harmonizing with The Klarman Family Foundation’s assertion that “Israel is the one Jewish state.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that this nineteenth-century anti-Semite would object to the support for the Jewish state that has become so standard amongst modern Jewish organizations.
But the fact remains that most of the world’s Jews don’t live in that “one Jewish state,” and the vast majority of these non-Israelis live in the United States. What, then, of Smith’s call for assimilation? Have we American Jews performed this task satisfactorily by the standards of Goldwin Smith?
One way to imagine the reaction of Goldwin Smith, if we were to resurrect him and give him a look at Cornell University in 2016, is shock and horror. As of 2015, Hillel estimated that 22% of Cornell undergrads are Jewish. Moreover, the university is home to a Chabad chapter, a Hillel chapter, a Jewish Living Center, a kosher dining hall, three historically Jewish fraternities, two historically Jewish sororities, and a Jewish Studies minor. And yet isn’t this Jewish presence and success within an American university system that was established well before the great wave of Ashkenazi immigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries a fine example of the assimilation that Smith valued so highly? On the one hand, this population, these organizations, and this new humanities building all exist to prove Smith’s conception of Jewish “backwardness” wrong. But on the other hand, they exist as a shining example of a Jewish identity that, while maintaining institutions of cultural and religious autonomy, has been more or less comfortably incorporated into the dominant society. The modern day heirs to Smith’s brand of political and social thought, concerned as they may be with maintaining the apparently universal freedoms of Western liberal democracies, can now turn their attention away from the Jews. They are now free to look toward other potential threats to the foundations of society: newer-comers, with more foreign cultures and religions, and darker skin tones.
The Jewish American community, in its ascendance throughout the 20th century and especially after World War II, never undermined this persistent call from society’s powerful voices for homogeneity as a basis for social order. This isn’t to say that Jewish Americans never participated in movements that challenged the established order—Jewish participation in the radical anarchist and socialist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in the Civil Rights and New Left movements that took root in later decades, was notably high. But in a modern-day America where Jews as a group have found relative economic success and social acceptance, anxieties about refugees carrying dangerous ideologies, backwards religions, and non-assimilating cultures persist; the targets have merely changed. The institutions of the American Jewish community, led and influenced by men like Seth Klarman, never evolved to challenge these attitudes and ideologies, whether their individual members and leaders wished to or not. The role of the organized Jewish American community is to preserve Jewish identity and protect its place in American society. For better or worse, it doesn’t consist of institutions made to tear down Goldwin Smith Hall, but of institutions made to erect Seth Klarman Hall alongside it.
The paradox of Goldwin Smith’s thought—“Above all nations is humanity”—is that his universalism led to a particular bigotry against those he saw as outside of modern society. The paradox of the success of the modern Jewish community, symbolized by Klarman Hall’s embrace of Goldwin Smith Hall, is that it is a success that a nineteenth-century anti-Semite, with his constant concern for the separatism and backwardness of the Jewish people, would likely not have found unpalatable; it is a success which does not negate the basis of his thought.