Jews at Williams: Inclusion, Exclusion, and Class at a New England Liberal Arts College by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is both an interesting read and a source for dozens of fascinating anecdotes. Let’s spend a month or so going through it. Today is Day 3.

Sigmund Balka ’56 writes in the forward:

I did, however, have two personal experiences of anti-Semitism that remain with me today. The first was simply a drunken classmate who, as I was waiting for a ride back from the Smith College campus, drove by and shouted out the window, “Jewish Turkey” and continued on his way. “Turkey” was the campus name given to those who were non-affiliates. I always thought the term “non-affiliate” was telling since it was stated as the negative of affiliation. I would have preferred to be called “independent.”

If this was one of the two most anti-Semitic acts that Balka witnessed (in the 1950s!), then Williams was among the least anti-Semitic places on Earth.

I am also always a little skeptical about the actual amount of anti-Semitism that underlies comments like this. Assume that the classmate did not like Balka. What if he had shouted “Fat Turkey” or “Ugly Turkey” or “Stupid Turkey?” Would that be better? Why? Indeed, if Balka were overweight or not handsome or not smart, he might have found these insults much more distressing than one which mentioned his faith.

Needless to say, drunken Williams students have been insulting each other for 200 years. That isn’t nice, but it is also fairly endemic to this fallen world of ours. In several of the more recent cases we have investigated at Williams, it was likely that the insultor did not truly harbor prejudice in his heart. Instead, he picked the most wounding words he could come up with.

The chef saw me and started shouting all over the dining room, “You goddamn Jew, why don’t you go back where you came from.” A professor who had assumed the task of being present for meals with the students immediately shouted at the chef that he was fired. This brought a round of applause from my fellow students who disliked the chef’s attempts at cooking. The next day I received a message from the administration asking me to please come in for a meeting. When I arrived I was welcomed by a senior administrator, who sat me down and began to apologize for what had happened. He informed me that no anti-Semitism would be tolerated and, intending to offer me comfort, assured me that one of the college food servers had a brother-in-law who was Jewish and that the college purchased its meat products from a distributor who was Jewish. This line of apologies inspired me to ask, “But sir, why do you think I am Jewish?” I saw the administrator’s bulbous face get redder and redder. I actually became fearful for a moment; it seemed possible he would suffer a stroke over his transgression, having named as a Jew someone who was not Jewish. After a pause, I assured him that I was indeed as he had thought. He was much relieved, normal color returning to his face.


Again, if open anti-Semitism resulted in getting fired, then just how anti-Semitic could Williams have been?

Also, what is the backstory? Who was this chef? What did he do after the College fired him? A central task for every historian is to develop empathy for everyone, not just for the “good guys” in a specific time period.

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