J. K. Rowling … confirmed Tuesday on Twitter that Jewish wizards attended Hogwarts.”
I was keenly aware of my Jewishness when I enrolled at Hogwarts in that faraway fall of 1949. To be sure, many of the more overtly anti-Semitic trappings were by that time long gone—the pork-levitation requirement dropped, Riding the Jew’s Horn renamed Quidditch, the school’s official symbol changed from the swastika to its current rather silly coat of arms (sensitively, if a bit belatedly, in 1938).Still, the anti-Semitism of my time, though subtler, wasn’t any less pervasive. This was the anti-Semitism of passing remarks—a well-meaning professor noting that my wand grip was “in the Semitic style,” or that my choice of a certain spell was “crafty.” It was the anti-Semitism of assumptions—no professor ever considered that I might desire to become an auror, or aspire to a position in the Ministry of Magic, even though Jews had been finding placement in both for decades. Instead, they simply assumed that I’d opt for a traditionally Jewish industry, such as the invisibility-garment trade, or wand wholesaling.
And it was the anti-Semitism of exclusion. Like all Jewish students in those days, I knew that I had no hope of admission to any of the four major houses. Instead, I faced the rather unappetizing choice of joining the Jewish house, Hilleliaria, or remaining unaffiliated. No Jew penetrated the major houses (other than Slytherin’s heavily Jewish house-elf staff) until my senior year, in 1956, when Hufflepuff admitted the star Quidditch player Meyer Levinson. I was friendly with Meyer, who was something of a hero to his fellow Jewish students, and he confided to me that, in Hufflepuff—though he was admired, even idolized, for his athletic talents—even he encountered the occasional contemptuous glance. It would be another twenty years before Ravenclaw became the first house to admit Jews in significant numbers, and it remained the singular house for Jewish, black, and gay wizards until full integration was enforced by an act of Parliament, in 1992. Yes, 1992.
These facts will likely surprise Hogwarts students today, especially those acquainted with the broader history of Judaism at their school. Jews were admitted as early as 1878, when Headmaster Eupraxia Mole, after receiving a justly famous letter from the Chief Dybbuk of Poland, recommended it. Assimilated wizards of Jewish ancestry began making their mark at the school long before that—probably the best known being Disraeli’s wizard brother, Nigel (Ravenclaw, 1829)—and the Jewish influence at Hogwarts extends back even further. Maimonides was warmly received in 1191, and though Spinoza’s invitation to deliver a series of lectures, in 1652, was met with protests, organizers were careful to note that it was the philosopher’s virulent anti-wizarding stance that they objected to, not his Jewish extraction.
A turning point in the story of anti-Semitism at Hogwarts came in 1920, when Jewish enrollment, buoyed by excellent Wizarding Admissions Test scores, peaked at thirty per cent. Complaints began to circulate that the “character of the place” was changing. These were vague comments, but no one mistook their meaning. The conservative Board of Governors (which, for the record, did not admit a Jew until Robert Rubin joined, in 1995) exerted enormous pressure on Headmaster Phineas Nigellus Black to “do something about it,” and the Class of 1926 was the first to be subject to the notorious Jewish quotas that would stand for almost fifty years. There were no hard numbers, of course—only a directive to the admissions committee to begin placing less weight on test scores and more on certain vaguely defined categories such as “character,” “fitness,” and “spell diction.” But it was enough.
Of course, the situation at Hogwarts had never been anywhere near as bad as at the universities in Eastern and Central Europe, where Jewish wizards as eminent as Freud and Einstein, unable to secure teaching appointments, were forced to use their magic in the service of formulating bizarre Muggle theories. Nor was Hogwarts ever the site of anti-Semitic violence, seen at too many of the Hungarian and Austrian wizarding schools during the tumultuous years after the First World War. There, student “demonstrations” often included the use of the so-called Jewish spells, cruel incantations that caused the peyes (side curls) to become scalding hot, the phylacteries to tighten around the wearer’s head—and, of course, the notorious “kipa spinner.”
No, Hogwarts was never the setting for any bigotry as brutal as that, and if I persist in recalling the minor injustices it is for the sake of guarding against future anti-Semitism in its most subtle forms. And so it is that, as I write this, I shed a tear of sadness but also of hope—for all the Jewish witches and wizards who have passed through the Entrance Hall over the years, and for many more to come.