April 30, 2009

Goldwin Smith’s Anti-Semitism Fuels Anger

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New light has recently been shed on the character of one of Cornell’s jeweled alumni and benefactors: Goldwin Smith, as revealed through his own and others’ writing, was an influential anti-semite.
Professors Glenn Altschuler, american studies, and Isaac Kramnick, government, verified these findings in a co-authored Cornell Alumni Magazine article last month.
Smith was a renowned intellect and professor at Oxford University at the time of Cornell’s inception. He left his post in 1868 to help launch Cornell’s humanities department and teach English and constitutional history, giving the new University instant credibility.
It was in Toronto, Canada, where Smith moved after only three years in Ithaca, that he became publicly active in expressing his anti-semitic views.
Author Alan Mendelson spends the first portion of his recently released book, Exiles from Nowhere: The Jews and the Canadian Elite, detailing Goldwin Smith’s anti-semitic politics and influence. When the book was brought to Altschuler and Kramnick’s attention, they performed independent research to confirm Mendelson’s claims.
“We went well beyond the book and looked with care at Smith’s writings,” Altschuler said.
They found that Smith published many scathing anti-semitic articles in periodicals across the globe. He recognized that Jews have faced persecution throughout history, but claimed that they are responsible for the “repulsion” they provoke in others. Their “peculiar character and habits,” including a “preoccupation with money-making” make them “parasites” and “enemies of civilization.”
Smith helped shape the anti-semitic politics of Canada at the time, especially through Henri Bourassa and Mackenzie King, two men who adopted many of Smith’s views and demanded that Canada keep its gates shut to Jewish immigrants. Smith proposed two possible solutions to the “Jewish problem”: assimilation or repatriation to Palestine.
Altschuler and Kramnick’s article aroused heated responses from Cornell alumni, as can be seen by the slew of angry response comments on the alumni magazine website, many of which suggest that Goldwin Smith Hall be renamed.
“I will never feel the same about Goldwin Smith Hall, knowing that the building which is so identified with the College of Arts and Sciences has its name after a racist … who held viewpoints that are the antithesis of what Arts and Sciences stands for,” said Mark Belnick ’68, member of the Arts and Sciences alumni advisory council. “It is such a horrible contradiction.”
Belnick wondered why Smith’s anti-semitism took so long to surface, especially in a community that is touted for its openness and diversity.
“Cornell was the first Ivy League school to admit women. Our motto stresses equality and freedom. It was the only great university in the United States at the time to be founded as a secular institution. Stringent quotas never afflicted Cornell even in years where Ivy League schools had severe ones, for Jews for example … all this makes Smith’s anti-semitism very shocking.”
Smith even had a famous motto of his own: “Above all nations is humanity.”
Altshucler and Kramnick explained that the journals in which Smith was publishing were relatively obscure, a likely reason that his anti-semitism has not come to light before now. While the professors acknowledge the shocking discovery, they both feel that removing Goldwin Smith’s name from a 100-year-old building is excessive.[img_assist|nid=37372|title=Stirring controversy|desc=The namesake of Goldwin Smith Hall, above, is drawing criticism as an anti-semite.|link=node|align=right|width=|height=0]
“The recruitment of Goldwin Smith to leave Oxford in England where he was a very eminent professor gave an instant legitimacy to Cornell which was essential to its conception,” explained Altschuler. “While this side of Goldwin Smith is certainly disturbing, I think that when people think about changing the dedication name of a 100-year-old building, the bar should be very, very high.”
As an alternative to changing the name of the historic hall, Kramnick suggested that next to the praise of Smith’s life and accomplishments in the lobby, a plaque be installed which explains that his writings reveal “a strident anti-semitic reading of European history.”
The decision to take any such action lies with the Board of Trustees, according to the Arts and Sciences Dean Peter Lepage.
“I think that it’s unfortunate that a prominent person like Goldwin Smith has expressed such views that are contrary to the beliefs Cornell was founded upon,” Lepage said. “But you also have to ask why the building was named after him. You have to look at the rest of the story. His life was bigger than his anti-semitic views.”
Simeon Moss ’73, director of Cornell press relations said that he is not aware of any petition or active efforts at the University to alter the name of the building or its interior displays.