Until the middle of this century, America's elite Ivy League universities restricted the number of Jewish students they accepted, and Jews were often banned from campus social organisations.
So emotions have run particularly high at one such university, Princeton, since it reported a sudden and dramatic drop in the number of Jews on its campus.
A committee that was already studying admissions practices at Princeton has now recommended increasing the size of the incoming class as a means of widening its diversity, a suggestion the school's trustees were expected to adopt next year.
Justin Harmon, the university's spokesman, said: "The issue of Jewish enrolment is something we're going to continue to watch." In 1985, about 16 per cent of Princeton's entering freshmen were Jewish. This year, that figure had fallen to about 10 per cent, or about 60 fewer Jewish undergraduates than there were five years ago.
Most of Princeton's peer institutions enrol higher percentages of Jews, according to Hillel, the leading Jewish-American campus organisation. At Yale, 29 per cent of undergraduates are Jewish, at Harvard 21 per cent, at Swarthmore 20 per cent and at Amherst 16 per cent. Jews make up about 11 per cent of the student body at Stanford and Dartmouth, and 12 per cent at Williams. About 2 per cent of the United States population is Jewish.
"It's puzzling to me because the university has tried to make it clearer than ever that we welcome the presence of Jewish students on our campus," Princeton president Harold Shapiro, who is Jewish, told the campus newspaper. "This is pretty much of a mystery to me. I don't have a good explanation."
The trend at Princeton has focused attention on quotas that are meant to give religious groups preference in admission. It is an irony not lost on critics of affirmative action, who point out that many of the activists who once protested against racial and religious quotas are now agitating for them in the name of heterogeneity on campus.
Others, including many Jews, have said the debate is much ado about nothing. "Where is it written that Jews have to be a certain percentage of the student body?" said Rabbi James Diamond, adviser to Princeton's Jewish students.
Princeton officials are now worried that the highly publicised discussion will discourage Jewish students from applying.