Math and Anti-Semitism Went Hand-in-Hand at Harvard for Decades

'A History in Sum' Sheds Light on Disturbing Past

Math Problem: George Birkhoff was instrumental in preventing Jewish mathematicians from being hired at Harvard.
Courtesy of Harvard News Office
Math Problem: George Birkhoff was instrumental in preventing Jewish mathematicians from being hired at Harvard.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published January 11, 2014, issue of January 17, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Birkhoff’s opinions had disastrous human consequences at a time when lives were at risk, and top scholars were desperate to flee fascist Europe with their families, but could not find American universities willing to hire them. Reinhard Siegmund-Schultze’s “Mathematicians Fleeing from Nazi Germany: Individual Fates and Global Impact” names 18 distinguished German-speaking Jewish mathematicians who were “murdered or driven to suicide by Nazis during the 1930s and 40s” and 72 more who were otherwise persecuted.

Einstein’s was not the only voice raised in protest. In his memoirs, Norbert Wiener, a Harvard student who would later have an eminent career at MIT (an institution also guilty of anti-Semitic hiring practices), declared that Birkhoff was “intolerant of possible rivals, and even more intolerant of possible Jewish rivals. He considered that the supposed early maturity of the Jews gave them an unfair advantage at the stage at which young mathematicians were looking for jobs, and he further considered that this advantage was particularly unfair, as he believed that the Jews lacked staying power.” Wiener further related that as he became more accomplished over the course of his studies at Harvard, he “became [Birkhoff’s] special antipathy, both as a Jew and, ultimately, as a possible rival.”

Paradoxically, Birkhoff was helpful in finding employment at other universities for a select few Jewish mathematicians such as Polish-born Stanislaw Ulam, Italy’s Tullio Levi-Civita, and France’s Jacques Hadamard. The Italian-American mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota noted in an essay, “Like other persons rumored to be anti-Semitic, [Birkhoff] would occasionally feel the urge to shower his protective instincts on some good-looking young Jew.”

Three years after Birkhoff died, a Jew was finally hired to teach mathematics at Harvard. Oscar Zariski (born Oscher Zaritsky in Dobrin, Russia) was an algebraic geometer of immense influence. Thereafter, Zariski attracted a number of gifted Jewish researchers to Harvard, such as Alexander Grothendieck (born in Germany in 1928 and currently living in France), a legendary innovator in algebraic geometry whose father was murdered at Auschwitz. “A History in Sum” rightly suggests that although times have changed at Harvard, sins of the past should never be forgotten. And in a curious twist of fate, a curve first described in Birkhoff’s research has been named posthumously in his honor — perhaps by some waggish researcher — as “Birkhoff’s Bagel,” so that posterity will forever link one of America’s most vehement mathematical anti-Semites with the deli counter.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.