Anthony Corrales/Sun Staff Photographer

Jewish students light candles at a vigil following the killing of over a thousand Israelis on Oct. 7.

November 26, 2023

The History of Jewish Inclusion, Resilience at Cornell

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As Cornell’s Jewish community grapples with antisemitic threats and a tense campus culture following the start of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, The Sun explored the larger history of Jewish student inclusion and discrimination at Cornell.

When Cornell was originally founded in 1865, it was one of the only nonsectarian universities — and the first in the Ivy League. Due to their own experiences with religion, Ezra Cornell and A.D. White wanted to create an institution that was not dominated by a singular faith.

Although this initiative created opportunities for Jewish students, only a small proportion of Jewish students enrolled at Cornell in its early years. From 1878 to 1900, only about 30 out of 4,500 graduating students identified as Jewish or Hebrew, the original term for Jewish people. However, numerous students neglected to answer this form. 

With a national rise in the country’s Jewish immigrant population and an overall increase in University enrollment across all religions, by 1920, nine percent of Cornellians identified as Jewish. 

However, the rise in Jewish immigrants — specifically from Eastern European countries — in the U.S. also sparked concerns among higher education administrators and admission office leaders regarding the “Jewish problem.” Upon realizing the significant increase in the number of Jewish students in the student body, schools like Harvard and Columbia imposed quotas for the number of Jewish students who could be accepted. 

While Cornell never imposed official quotas, the University implemented a new admissions process in 1925, where a committee would “careful inquiry … each case as to the character, personality and general promise of useful service and citizenship. The information so gathered is being carefully scrutinized and from such information a selection will be made of those individuals who, in the judgment of the committee, seem to offer the most promise of future worth.” 

According to a Sun article published in 1929, the admissions committee at Cornell was known to look for the “right kind of man” for Cornell, which was “well known” as excluding Jewish students. During this time, Jewish students were also disproportionately discriminated against by the Honor System, a process created to ensure that students maintain honesty during examinations.  


Elissa Sampson, a visiting scholar in Cornell’s Jewish studies program, explained that many of the decisions that Ivy League institutions made in the early 20th century were to preserve their “elite recognition” through a student body that consisted of students from rich and powerful families. 

“At the time we’re talking about, Ivy Leagues weren’t about merits but about the elite,” Sampson said. “[The Ivy Leagues] were interested in social clubs and the fraternal atmosphere.”

Sampson explained that, in addition to bias from the administration in terms of admission, Jewish students across the country faced discrimination from their peers.

In response to social exclusion, Jewish students started their own campus organizations. Sigma Delta Tau, originally known as Sigma Delta Phi, was established at Cornell by seven Jewish women in 1917 after they faced discrimination from other sororities. Additionally, many previously established Jewish fraternities and sororities such as Alpha Epsilon Phi and Alpha Epsilon Pi created chapters at Cornell. 

Prof. Glenn Altschuler, American studies, explained that as the 1940s unfolded, the socio-cultural dynamics of Cornell continued to evolve, and more Jewish students enrolled in the University. Upon the end of World War II, there was a greater understanding of anti-semitism. Additionally, Altschuler explained that due to the implementation of the GI Bill, universities were pressed to increase Jewish student enrollment due to the large number of Jews who served in the U.S. Army during WWII.

While the number of Jewish students in the student body increased, Altschuler explained that Jewish students still faced discrimination from the administration and other students. 

“As more Jews were coming to Cornell after World War II and into the 1950s, anti-semitism didn’t go away on the Cornell campus,” Altschuler said. “In our book [Cornell: A History, 1940–2015], Prof. Kramnick and I talk about a message that an admissions person in the College of Agriculture sent that indicated ways of keeping Jewish applicants down. And there is some information in our book about antisemitism that some Jewish students reported in the 1950s.”

Altschuler highlighted the evolving inclusivity in higher education following the 1950s. 

“[There was] an opening up of higher education to people across all social and economic situations, to people of all religions, to people of all faiths or no faiths — and that certainly has become the norm in higher education,” Altschuler said. “Jews were early beneficiaries of that.” 

Antisemitic incidents, however, continued into the late 20th century. In 1980, antisemitic rhetoric was shouted outside the Young Israel living unit, now the Center for Jewish Living, and residents described facing personal harassment in preceding months.

Cornell’s approximately 3,000 undergraduate and 500 graduate Jewish students currently comprise 22 percent of the University’s population, according to Cornell Hillel. While Cornell has become an increasingly inclusive and welcoming campus to the Jewish community, Sampson believes that universities have to work at evolving from their origins.

Cornell, along with six other schools, is currently being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for potential antisemitism and Islamophobia propagated on campus.

In fall 2018, three swastika inscriptions were seen within and around North Campus residential buildings, less than a month after a gunman killed 11 individuals at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In spring 2019, a swastika was painted on Goldwin Smith Hall.

Last year, the Star of David was drawn next to a swastika on the ground near Beebe Lake and a banner that stated “Burn prisons, free them all, Attica to Palestine” was placed on the side of the Cornell Law School building that faces the Cornell Hillel offices. Just this past October, a Cornell student posted antisemitic threats on an anonymous messaging board, including one that threatened a mass shooting at the University’s kosher dining hall and encouraged students to follow Jewish students home with the purpose of causing harm.

“When you think about Cornell and its motto, you really get the sense that it is trying to be a secular institution, but its commitment to the secular is interesting and affects how it deals with new groups,” Sampson said. ”So Cornell has to evolve.”

Clarification, Nov. 27, 5:59 p.m.: This article has been sightly edited to provide clarification on Sampson’s belief towards the future of Jewish life at Cornell.