This weekend, hundreds of Jewish alumni will gather on campus to celebrate 100 years of Jewish life at Princeton, with panels on topics ranging from Philosophy of Religion and Modern Jewish Thought to Israeli-American Relations. This is a time of festivity and reminiscing on triumphs and progress. Indeed, there is much to celebrate. Today, the Jewish community on campus boasts many student groups, countless events and important scholarly work.
From the first moment I stepped foot on Princeton’s campus, my Jewish identity felt like a blessing. When I visited campus last year as a prefrosh, I was welcomed into the home of the Chabad family on campus. I had lunch at the Center for Jewish Life and was given a tour of campus by a Jewish student. Even before I had committed, being Jewish made me feel like I was part of the Princeton community.
However, this was not the case in 1958, the year of “dirty bicker.” In a year when all eating club bickerees were allegedly guaranteed a spot in one of the clubs, 23 students were excluded, 15 of them Jews. Dirty bicker made national headlines at the time, fortifying Princeton’s dubious reputation as anti-Semitic, a place where Jews, while able to attend the University, were deemed unclubbable — essentially social outcasts.
Most would rather not bring up the era of dirty bicker in a time of festivities: it is an uncomfortable topic that demands us to confront an uncomfortable history. While there is much to celebrate with regards to Princeton’s Jewish thought, alumni and, of course, the venerable tradition of the Latke-Hamantaschen Debate, we should also remember the less honorable moments in Princeton’s past.
We must recall that out of the ashes of dirty bicker rose Wilson Lodge, an inclusive home for students on campus that would be the foundation of the residential college system. Thus, while Princeton’s past is stained, it can take pride in its ability to learn and grow. The University has become a place where Jewish students can not only join eating clubs but also practice their religion with pride and dignity and become student leaders without fear of slander or discrimination (with some outlying exceptions).
However, Wilson Lodge, while a direct, positive response to the Dirty Bicker, is named after a man who believed in systematic segregation. Thanks to the brave work of the Black Justice League last year, the University has begun to reconsider Wilson’s legacy. While none of the institutions on campus named after Wilson have been renamed, the Princeton community can no longer hide or shy away from his questionable past.
This is an important step, but not one that brings full satisfaction to those hurt by Wilson’s degrading words. Much has changed for Jewish students at Princeton in the past 100 years, but much still demands change in the next century for Black students and other marginalized communities on campus. Our celebration cannot be wholehearted until all those at Princeton are fully welcomed. No student should expect anything less than the kind of hospitality and kindness I received, simply for being Jewish, in the first moments of realizing my identity as a Princetonian.
Princeton is still a place where inequality and elitism exist in socioeconomic, racial or religious contexts. Looking forward, the Princeton Jewish community should, and must, remember its roots as an unwanted people and use this collective memory to fuel actions taken with and on behalf of those on campus who feel marginalized — those who do not have an entire building for their use, like the charming CJL villa on Washington Road, or those who feel like their background or appearance excludes them in some way from the Princeton community.
Iris Samuels is a freshman from Zichron Yakov, Israel. She can be reached at email@example.com.