Jewish mathematician ‘too white to be diverse’ says academic

Izzy Posen said he felt that he 'wouldn’t be appreciated for the odds I’ve overcome, I wouldn’t be accepted as a Jew'


A Jewish applicant for a teacher training scholarship says he was shocked to be told by his interviewer that a Jewish woman in Nazi Germany was too white to be “diverse”.

Izzy Posen, a 27-year-old Bristol University graduate, applied to the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications for a £26,000 scholarship for teacher training.

When he was asked at his interview to give an example of a “diverse mathematician”, he named Emmy Noether, a leading member of the Gottingen maths department in the 1930s until the Nazis dismissed Jews from university roles and she was forced to go to the USA.

Albert Einstein described her as “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began”.

But Mr Posen said he was told by his interviewer that “she’s white and we asked for someone who is diverse”.

Mr Posen told the JC this week: “I was very taken aback, I was very shocked. I mentioned Emmy Noether because she’s genuinely a role model, and I thought that somebody who overcame great difficulties is an inspiration for lots of women, Jews, and everyone.”

He said the interviewer had responded: “Your pupils might not know about the Holocaust, so they’ll hear Germany, they’ll hear white, so this won’t be representative for them.”

He himself overcame huge challenges to be able to study science; as a child in Stamford Hill, he was taught only in Yiddish and studied only religious texts. He secretly taught himself English and made the difficult decision to leave his Strictly Orthodox community at the age of 20 to acquire a secular education.

He said: “Why was [a question about] a diverse set of backgrounds taken to be specifically to be about ethnicity, and specifically non-white? For me, a diverse set of backgrounds meant somebody who overcame lots of odds; the system was rigged against them.

“So, Emmy Noether, a woman, who even today are very underrepresented in maths, especially then, who literally couldn’t teach under her own name, who got expelled for being a Jew, so there’s nothing more diverse than that. There’s nothing more of an inspiration for somebody who overcame lots of odds.

He said he felt that “I wouldn’t be appreciated for the odds I’ve overcome, I wouldn’t be accepted as a Jew. I’m not enough.”

From the reaction to a brief account of his experience on Twitter, he said, “Clearly this is something that many have experienced and the only way to tackle this is to call it out.”

ABOVE: A tweet from David Rich, Head of Policy at the Community Security Trust, who says he has "heard other examples from adult educational settings of the Jewish experience being excluded from discussions of racism & exclusion"

In a statement, Rosalind Azouzi, executive director of the Institute of Mathematics, said it was “very sorry” for any pain or hurt caused.

“Please be reassured that we take this very seriously and stand with the Jewish community who have suffered and continue to suffer from persecution, prejudice and discrimination,” she said.

In a further statement, the institute explained that a key intention of the application process was to “highlight the important role that teachers can play in widening the pool of mathematical role models to inspire young people in the classroom”.

Many hidden achievements in mathematical history had gone unrecognised “particularly the achievements of women and people of black and Asian heritage.

“We hope that as more stories are uncovered, the next generation of teachers will be able to identify these and share with pupils.”

She added, “The stories of Jewish mathematicians, and particularly those identified by Izzy were fantastic examples of diversity in mathematics. ”

The concern, it said, had been “whether it would be challenging to tackle this subject in a maths lesson, particularly if pupils had not yet been taught about the Holocaust.”

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