When the Dean Tore Down Jewish Posters

by Rafael Medoff

Controversy has erupted on American college campuses and elsewhere over anti-Israel extremists tearing down posters that feature photos of the Hamas hostages.

At Columbia University, a pro-Hamas student assaulted a Jewish student who was putting up one of the posters. In addition to the college students who have torn down the posters, the vandals have included an attorney from the New York County public defenders office, a Boston dentist, an employee of the University of Pennsylvania law school, and a professor at the Michigan Ross School of Business.

It’s bad enough when seemingly respectable people, such as attorneys or professors, engage in such reprehrensible behavior. But what about when a  dean at a university is the one committing the vandalism?

An incident of this nature took place in Boston many years ago, but it sounds like something from today’s headlines–and the lessons from it are as relevant as ever.

During the 1930s, a number of prominent American universities cultivated friendly ties with Nazi Germany. Prof. Stephen Norwood described in his book The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower how those schools invited Nazi representatives to speak on their campuses, participated in student exchange programs with Nazi-controlled universities, and sent delegates to Germany to take part in celebratory events at those institutions.

The fact that German universities had purged their Jewish faculty members and hosted book-burnings did not deter friendly overtures from schools such as Harvard, Columbia, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 1933, MIT president Karl Compton pressured Jewish students to refrain from sending a protest message to Adolf Hitler over the persecution of Jews in Germany. In 1937, Compton sent an MIT representative to participate in the bicentennial celebration of the Nazi-controlled University of Gottingen. When Compton was asked to hire a German Jewish refugee scholar for MIT’s mathematics department in 1942, he objected on the grounds that the department already had one Jewish professor, according to Prof. Laurel Leff, in her book Well Worth Saving.

Compton told his colleagues there was “a tactical danger of having too large a proportion of the mathematical staff from the Jewish race [since] the appointment of an additional member of the Jewish race would increase the proportion of such men in the Department far beyond the proportion of [Jews in the general] population.”

The poster-tearing incident took place in May 1934. That spring, the Roosevelt administration cooperated in the visit of the Nazi warship Karlsruhe to the United States, as part of President Roosevelt’s policy in the 1930s of maintaining friendly relations with Nazi Germany. The officers of the Karlsruhe were given tours of U.S. army and navy stations at the ports where they docked. U.S. navy vessels even provided boats, personnel, and equipment to help the Karlsruhe carry out military exercises off the Los Angeles coast the following year.

When the Karlsruhe docked in the Boston harbor in 1934, its officers and crew were entertained at both Harvard and MIT. Local Jewish organizations and other opponents of Nazism called for a mass protest.

James A. Wechsler—who later was an editor at the New York Post for several decades—was an anti-Nazi activist at Columbia University at the time and closely followed what was happening at MIT. He wrote:

“The officialdom of M.I.T. was…entertaining cadets from the ship with Dean [Harold] Lobdell as their personal supervisor. The Dean was distraught. He scurried through the building tearing down posters announcing the anti-Nazi demonstration. When one student accosted him during this performance, the Dean explained that the sponsors of the protest were not a recognized group—although they had been even granted official permission by the [administration] to use the bulletin boards.”

Benjamin Netanyahu earned his bachelor’s degree and his master’s at MIT in the 1970s. The student body has changed a lot since then.

MIT students were among the first to cheer the Hamas pogrom. On October 8—while 1,400 dead bodies still lay strewn throughout towns in southern Israel—the “MIT Coalition Against Apartheid” declared that it “hold[s] the Israeli regime responsible for all unfolding violence.” The statement endorsed the right of the pogromists “to resist oppression,” that is, to slaughter the Jewish infants who, apparently, were oppressing them.

Soon afterwards, hundreds of MIT students staged a pro-Hamas rally on campus. Among other slogans, they shouted “One solution: Intifada Revolution,” an obvious endorsement of Palestinian Arab terrorism against Israeli Jews.

MIT President Sally Kornbluth responded with an “even-handed” statement. Sure, the Hamas killings were “brutal,” she said, but “many innocent Palestinians” would also die. Yes, Jewish students say “they feel unsafe on our campus,” but “Palestinian students also fear being targeted.” And of course antisemitism is “corrosive,” but so is “anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hatred.”

The spirit of indifference to Jewish suffering, exemplified by MIT Dean Lobdell tearing down Jewish anti-Nazi posters in 1934, lives on today—both among those who tear down posters of Jewish hostages and among university officials, at MIT and elsewhere, who seem incapable of unequivocally acknowledging the victimization of the Jews, , without any ifs, ands, or buts.

(Jerusalem Post – November 19, 2023)