Dr. Rafael Medoff
Dr. Rafael Medoffצילום: INN:RM

Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest is America and the Holocaust: A Documentary History, published by the Jewish Publication Society & University of Nebraska Press.

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!

The pro-Hamas students at Manhattan’s New School who recently blocked the entrance to campus trampled the memory of the Zionist scholar who co-founded the university, and of the refugees from Nazi genocide who served as its core faculty for decades.

For several hours on December 4, dozens of extremists physically prevented fellow-students from entering, waved Palestinian flags, and falsely accused Israel of committing genocide. One student walking by the pro-Hamas protesters told reporters that they encircled her and shouted accusations about her being a “colonizer.”

The protest was organized by the campus branch of Students for Justice in Palestine, which has praised the October 7 pogrom by Hamas in southern Israel, in which over 1200 Israelis were massacred, tortured, raped, or beheaded, with hundreds more abducted.

Before ditching class and picking up their bullhorns, the students should have taken a few minutes to read up on the history of their own school.

I wonder if they know, for example, that the university was co-founded by the philosopher Horace M. Kallen, who was one of the earliest leaders of the American Zionist movement. Kallen lectured and wrote tirelessly in support of creating a Jewish state in the Holy Land.

The New School’s Jewish roots don’t end there. In the 1930s, when many American universities refused to help German Jewish scholars who were trying to flee the Nazis, the New School stepped up. It created a new division, the University in Exile, for the specific purpose of rescuing fugitive professors.

Unlike today’s protesters, who hurl the term “genocide” at anybody they dislike, the refugee scholars who taught at the New School knew from first-hand experience what it’s like to be persecuted by a genuinely genocidal regime.

Although few Jewish refugees were permitted by the Roosevelt administration to enter the United States, a clause in the immigration law admitted foreign scholars outside the strict quota system. The New School used that provision to save 184 of the world’s most brilliant intellectuals. And they, in turn, vastly enriched the university—and the country—with their knowledge and experience.

The refugee faculty included some of the world’s most famous economists, legal scholars, psychologists (such as Gestalt pioneer Max Wertheimer), sociologists (including the founders of the authoritative journal Social Research), and political scientists. Some of them had served in earlier German governments and lent their expertise to the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal initiatives and, later, America’s war effort.

Refugee Hans Simons began his association with the New School in 1935 as a professor of political science. He went to become dean of its School of Politics, Director of International Studies and finally, in 1950, president of the university. At the time, the New School had 5,000 students and just a single building.

In the decade he was president, Dr. Simons initiated an expansion effort that saw the student body grow to 8,000, along with the construction of two new buildings—both named after Jewish philanthropists who generously funded them.

I wonder how many of the pro-Hamas students who make use of the Jacob M. Kaplan Building or the Albert A. List Building each day know about Kaplan and List, sons of the immigrant generation who had to drop out of school as teenagers to support their families. Their sweat and toil made it possible for today’s students to enjoy a comfortable campus life.

Probably few, if any, of the pro-Hamas students know how the New School came to adopt the phrase “To the Living Spirit” as its official motto. The backstory is that a building at the University of Heidelberg, in pre-Hitler Germany, bore a plaque urging students to “be the Living Spirit.” When the Nazis rose to power, they tore down the sign. They also purged Jewish faculty members and instituted a completely Nazified curriculum.

As a demonstration that the New School’s University in Exile would represent the very opposite of the totalitarianism to which Heidelberg had succumbed, the school adopted the old Heidelberg slogan as its own.

Despite protests by New School faculty members, prominent U.S. universities, including Harvard, Columbia and Yale, sent delegates to take part in celebrations at the University of Heidelberg in 1936. It was part of the broader tragedy of Ivy League schools cultivating friendly relations with Nazi Germany. (What else is new?)

As for Zionism and Israel, New School co-founder Kallen was far from the only Zionist in the New School’s illustrious history. Stella Adler, a strong supporter of Israel, chaired its drama department, and among her students was Marlon Brando, an equally ardent Zionist. Brando later recalled how the refugee scholars “enriched the city’s intellectual life with an intensity that has probably never been equaled anywhere during a comparable period of time.”

New School drama alumni Ben Gazzara and Shelley Winters were active in a pro-Israel group in Hollywood; a statement they and other entertainers drafted—back in 1976—warned that Israel was “the target of total planned destruction” by its Arab enemies. Another alum, Walter Matthau, famously clashed with Vanessa Redgrave over her film supporting Palestinian Arab terrorists.

In short, American Zionists and European Jewish refugees made the New School what it is today. They must be spinning in their graves at the spectacle of New School students cheering on the mass murderers of Israeli Jews and slandering the Jewish state. (And let us hope this article does not lead them to try to tear down the college itself, ed..)