The Ivy League’s autumn of discontent

Dan Perry
5 min readNov 14, 2023

A major falling out between America’s elite universities and the Jews (or is it with liberals in general?)

Butler Library at Columbia University (photo by Chenyu Guan via Unsplash)

The Oct. 7 massacre is claiming a victim its Hamas perpetrators may not even have anticipated: the special relationship between America’s Jews, and many Israelis, and elite universities in the United States. This could have major consequences.

I am part of this community myself, having attended the University of Pennsylvania (affectionately known as “Penn”) and completed my master’s degree (in computer science, somehow) at Columbia. Both are part of the so-called Ivy League — eight venerable institutions that produced close to half the presidents of the United States. This experience was formative: we considered ourselves privileged (when that was still a good thing) and were taught to assume the pedigree would open doors for decades henceforth (which it did, as it were, to a degree).

I’m now involved with the Penn alumni group in Israel, which I volunteered for out of appreciation and nostalgia. This organization decided to sever ties with the university a few weeks ago — around the same time major Penn donors like the billionaires Mark Rowan and Ron Lauder announced they would halt donations. Penn’s endowment is over $20 billion dollars, Columbia’s is almost as high, and most of it comes from people like them. So why is all this happening, at Penn and across the Ivies?

It’s happening because the feeling is widespread among Jews that the university leaderships were either silent about the massacre a month ago of about 1,200 Israelis or somehow equivocal, insisting on evenhanded denunciations of “all violence.” Moreover, the rift was deepened by the general refusal of many universities to condemn or prevent pro-Palestinian rallies on campus that featured support for Hamas and at times physical threats against Jews.

These demonstrations, where students chant “from the rover to the sea” and wave Hamas posters, are attended by a mix of students of Arab background or of “progressive” inclination. This has brought ridicule upon clueless members of the LGBTQ community who seem unaware that in the type of caliphate Hamas and its fellow jihadists would establish, “the other” would be strung from rafters, hung from trees or shot in the street. The general assumption is that they are ignorant, and doubtless many are, or that there is antisemitism at play, and that is surely there as well. But I don’t think either is the main thing.

The main thing is that a huge proportion of young Americans (like young Europeans) despise Israel because of their wider generational commitment to fight oppression and promote multiculturalism — while Israel is seen as “white” and oppressing the Palestinians (which, in the West Bank, it disgracefully does). It’s not that they do not know Hamas are terrorists; a recent poll showed half of the 18 to 24 years olds in the US do know; they just support terrorism against Israel because of the “context.”

(Link here for poll)

This young generation in general holds opinions that astound all others, even people who are not that much older. Studies suggest a majority prefer “socialism” to “capitalism” in the US. Their widespread indifference to free speech, hostility to biting humor and innovative art, insistence on avoiding offence and support for “cancellations” all define them as illiberal.

Why did it happen now?

That’s an open question at the time when the world has more than enough other problems. Perhaps social media; perhaps the failings of the boomer generation and the roasting of the Earth. Either way it creates a clear division on the political left between liberals and progressives.

The Jews are overwhelmingly liberal (a term that confuses Americans, but let’s put that aside). Polls have shown that only 16% of them define themselves as conservative. Only 8% define themselves as progressive. The rest are liberals or moderates, and overall some three-quarters reliably support the Democrats.

These liberals observe see the young generation’s obsession with identity and paradigms of oppressed and oppressor, its propensity toward sometimes nonsensical narratives of “decolonization,” and they are shocked. And when they see major universities, media organizations and corporations succumbing to it, they are disappointed and start to think of fighting back. This gun was waiting to be fired; the past month’s events have been the trigger.

Of course, not everyone’s the same. Over 100 university leaders issued a statement standing with Israel in recent days — but the Ivy League was absent.

The Ivies’ divorce from the Jews has been happening at a slow burn already, largely because they started to diversify, which was reasonable enough. When I went to Penn and Columbia in the 1980s both were about 40% Jewish — an absurd disproportion considering Jews are 2% of the US population. Now perhaps a sixth of the students are Jews, and that figure will surely plummet further still.

Let’s hope the fences mend. It is hard to overstate the profoundness of the Jewish contribution to the top American universities (not just the Ivies), and realistically vice versa. The roster of Jewish thinkers at these institutions is a thing that would amaze. To save time, I’ll simply mention Albert Einstein, man of Princeton.

Pursuing higher education with a beer and a lab rat at Penn, 1980s

But what if not? And what if the donations really do dry up? Some think Arab donors will replace the Jews. Indeed, in the past two decades Qatar alone (a chief sponsor of Hamas) has reportedly poured some $5 billion into the elite American schools. The Islamists and the progressives would make strange bedfellows to be sure, and no one can say where all of this will go.

The Penn alumni in Israel are debating what to do next. Some want no further connection to the school (much of the anger is due to a September conference on campus called Palestine Writes which featured supposedly anti-Semitic and certainly rabidly anti-Zionist speakers). Others, myself among them, prefer to keep the door open and issue clear demands coupled with threats: For example, that they must henceforth treat support for Hamas like support for Isis, the Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan. Essentially the messages you be: You no longer care about free speech? Fine — restrict this particular form of speech. You think universities should take a public stand on current events? Great — take a stand on this event.

A large group of Harvard alumni calling themselves the Harvard College Jewish Alumni Association have organized to do something similar in response to silence from the leadership after dozens of student groups came out in favor of Hamas. They are urging that until the university mends its ways donations be limited to $1.

The Jewish alumni may be angry at the institutions, but they are terrified of the youth these institutions are succumbing to. Others might be terrified as well. In 20 years’ time these Gen Z progressives, currently making their mark as the useful idiots of global jihad, will be running the United States.

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Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.