Should We Remove the Names of Antisemites? Not Always
Below is an open letter to the president of Bryn Mawr College
Dear President Cassidy,
Your August 22 letter to the Bryn Mawr community announced that the college would eliminate M. Carey Thomas’ name from Thomas Library, because she promoted antisemitic and racist views. As both an alumna of Bryn Mawr and a Jew, I personally oppose this decision.
It is true that Thomas held and promoted antisemitic and racist views. She refused to hire Jewish faculty members. She also tried (unsuccessfully) to keep Jews out of a Bryn Mawr preparatory/feeder school in Baltimore; her close friend, Mary Garrett, pushed back against this effort. Thomas was also horrified when her sister, Helen, married a Jew.
Nevertheless, given recent instances of antisemitism being couched as anti-Zionism — and being perpetrated by persons trumpeting inclusiveness (like the Chicago gay-pride controversy) — I believe that battling antisemitic views from 100 years ago has little to do with accepting or respecting Jews today.
More importantly, grading Ms. Thomas today on whether all of her values satisfy contemporary standards ignores what she achieved for Bryn Mawr, and women’s education generally. Despite her flaws, Thomas remains worthy of the honor conferred by naming the library after her.
One sign of emerging maturity is a child’s recognition that her parents are fallible. That does not make them wholly evil — just as they were not wholly good before. Growing up is partly learning to accept our parents as they are, and respecting the role that they played in raising us, regardless of their failings.
Bryn Mawr College is largely Thomas’ creation. She was its first dean and second president — in effect, its mother. I hope that Bryn Mawr community members today do not share her antisemitism or racism; and yet, to blot out her name, is like a child rejecting her mother for being imperfect.
If we only respect those we deem perfect, we will have no role models. If Bryn Mawr desires to recognize and apologize for Thomas’ flaws, it can do so without eradicating her name — for instance, by acknowledging her antisemitism and racism in plaques prominently placed within the building. But the college community will not flourish if it despises its own origins.
Rather than demonstrate inclusiveness by excluding Thomas’ name, I would rather that Bryn Mawr rectify its actual exclusion of a freshman last year.
In September 2016, the Bryn Mawr community harassed a young woman into leaving the school a month after arriving, because she voiced political views that others at the school objected to. After the controversy erupted, I wrote to you and the college trustees asking about the college’s response. The only answer that I received was a brief “no comment” note referencing negative media — as though the problem was bad publicity, rather than the school’s failure to support this young person while community members attacked her in a way that I believe violated the school’s honor code and free-inquiry mission.
What removing Thomas’ name — and the harassment that the student in question was subject to — have in common is a demand for absolute conformity to contemporary morality. Yet this ideological intolerance harms a college — because a college depends upon the open exchange of ideas.
Several college presidents and chancellors have spoken out about the value of engaging with diverse ideas, including Robert Zimmer at the University of Chicago, Laurie Patton at Middlebury and Carol Tecla Christ at UC-Berkeley. As a Bryn Mawr alumna, I am disappointed that you have not joined that list. I hope that this will soon be rectified, and that Bryn Mawr will demonstrate inclusiveness by being inclusive.