Columbia’s Token Jew: Looking Past Seixas

 

Despite its strong Episcopalian beginnings as King’s College, Columbia College has one of the longest-to-date histories of Jewish studies and involvement, dating back to its initial President, Samuel Johnson. The study of Hebrew along with other ancient languages was encouraged by both Johnson and his successor, Myles Cooper, and one Jew, Gershom Mendes Seixas, was even appointed as a trustee of Columbia College in 1784.[1] All three of these notable Jewish landmarks in Columbia history are currently displayed on the University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies (IIJS) webpage. However, what these proud statistics fail to account for are the gaps in Jewish representation at Columbia College, as well as how Jews had to integrate into “American” society, a definitive change from their Jewish identity, if they wished to participate in any capacity at Columbia College, a claimed secular institution for higher learning.[2] Columbia College was one of the most open colleges towards Jews in the United States, however, its Jewish tolerance was just that, with only one Jewish trustee from the College’s inception to 1928.[3]

Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first and only Jewish trustee of Columbia College until the 20th Century, was exactly the type of person Columbia College needed on their still relatively newly developed board of trustees. The good he could do for the College outweighed the negative of his religion, and it was this ends-justifying-the-means mentality that led to the College’s Jewish “acceptance”. Seixas himself was not a college graduate, but he was well-versed in Christian and secular texts as well as Judaism. What truly made him an asset to Columbia College and New York City’s Protestant elite, however, was his unfailing patriotism during the American Revolution.[4] Then King’s College, Columbia was the staunchest supporter of the crown of the colleges in the colonies during the American Revolution, and paid dearly for this misplaced endorsement.[5] The then college president Cooper fled the school, and the subsequent years as a college on the losing side of the war led to a “nearly fatal shutdown” for King’s College.[6] The college was renamed and revived in the 1780s, in part aided by the powerful Patriot names on its board of trustees, including Alexander Hamilton and Gershom Mendes Seixas.[7]

Gershom Mendes Seixas, a portrait

Seixas was a powerful revolutionary name for the newly revamped Columbia’s board of trustees, and it was this that earned him his place, in spite of his religion. An outspoken advocate of American independence, Seixas persuaded his split congregation of Shearith Israel that they should close in 1775, rather than continue to run while the British Armies occupied New York. Although he personally did not support war, in his sermons Seixas asked for God to bless Congress, the Revolution, and George Washington, as he saw the Americans’ side of the war as a fight for individual freedom that could extend to religious acceptance for American Jews.[8] From the very beginnings of discontent between Britain and its colonies, “the Patriot Jewish Minister of the American Revolution,” as Seixas was known, was a vocal supporter of the American side of the Revolutionary War, going so far as to lead a majority of his congregation north out of New York for a “seven years’ exile…abandoning in a single day homes and fortunes”.[9] At the time, an overwhelming majority of clergy of other religions supported Britain, leaving a relatively small pool for Columbia College to choose from in their quest to tote themselves as a Republican University, and separate Columbia College from its toxic Tory roots.[10]

 

Columbia University medal of Seixas, with an inscription made after his death.

At the inception of King’s College, long before Seixas was appointed to Columbia’s board, the college showed a tolerance for Jews (in terms of the biblical language of Hebrew) that was par the course for American colleges of the age. The first two presidents of King’s College, Johnson and Cooper, supported and even stressed the study of Hebrew for its theological value and historic significance.[11] However, what the IIJS website implies is that this course of study was in some way connected to a tolerance for Judaism, when in fact it shows no specific support for Jews beyond that of any religion with Judeo-Christian roots. The Jewish bible is not only an intrinsic part of Judaism, but the foundations of Christianity: their Old Testament. Hebrew, therefore, is an ancient language with religious significance to Christians in the same vein as Latin in the New Testament, and these early Columbia presidents’ support of Hebrew instruction is memorable not as a Jewish landmark, but a values system akin to Jeremiah Day in his unwavering support of the teaching of ancient languages at Yale University.

Support and tolerance are not interchangeable terms, and the IIJS webpage, unintentional as it may be, is a perfect example of the tolerance, not support, that King’s College afforded to Jews in its early years. Three bullet points in the beginning are all of the evidence of Jewish tolerance pre-1860, and of those mentioned — Johnson’s support of Hebrew instruction, Cooper’s support of Hebrew instruction, and Seixas’ appointment as trustee of Columbia College in 1784 –, only the last one has any arguable significance to the college’s treatment of Jews.[12] Even then, Seixas is only an example of Judaism overlooked rather than persecuted, a far cry from religious acceptance. In Stand Columbia, a comprehensive history of Columbia University, King’s College is cited as having only one “identifiable” Jewish student, Isaac Abrams (KC 1774), in its entire existence.[13] The only other mention of Judaism at Columbia pre-1860 in the textbook is a single line stating that Seixas was the board’s only Jewish member at its inception. Mentions of Jewish involvement at Columbia College before the year 1860 are positive only in the lack of mention of Antisemitism, which is hinted at in the very sparseness of the records of Jewish affiliation with Columbia. IIJS claims Columbia University’s curriculum as “one of the most distinguished and longest-standing traditions in the academic study of Jewish civilization,” neglecting in this classification to recognize the exception that early Jewish participation was, instead claiming it unjustly as a “fostered” tradition.[14]


[1] “IIJS History”, Columbia University,

iijs.columbia.edu/IIJS_History.php.

[2] “The First American Jew: Gershom Mendes Seixas”, Jspace,

http://www.jspace.com/news/articles/the-first-american-jew-gershom-mendes-seixas/15579.

[3] “C250 Celebrates Timeline: The Butler Era”, Columbia University,

http://c250.columbia.edu/c250_celebrates/people_and_ideas/people_ideas_4.html

[4] “Gershom Mendes Seixas”, Jewish Virtual Library,

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Seixas.html

[5] McCaughey, Robert A. Stand, Columbia: a history of Columbia University in the city of New York. Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 44.

[6] Ibid, 49.

[7] Ibid, 55.

[8] “Gershom Mendes Seixas”, Jewish Virtual Library,

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Seixas.html

 

[9] “Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas ‘The Patriot Jewish Minister of the American Revolution’”, Berman Jewish Policy Archive, http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/downloadPublication.cfm?PublicationID=5473

[10] Ibid.

[11] “IIJS History”, Columbia University,

iijs.columbia.edu/IIJS_History.php.

[12] Ibid.

[13] McCaughey, Robert A. Stand, Columbia: a history of Columbia University in the city of New York. Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 44.

[14] “IIJS History”, Columbia University,

iijs.columbia.edu/IIJS_History.php.

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