Shuttering Yale’s Center on Anti-Semitism

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Yale University announced yesterday that it is closing its Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA). According to Thomas Mattia, an official from the university’s Public Affairs office, the center is being closed down because it “was found in its routine faculty review to not have met its academic expectations.”

Faster than you can say ‘anti-Semite,’ Yale’s decision has launched a contentious debate.  Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called it “particularly unfortunate and dismaying” and a victory for anti-Jewish groups.  David Harris of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) said it would “create a very regrettable void” in anti-Semitism scholarship.

The trouble seems to stem from a 2010 YIISA conference entitled ‘Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity’ which focused on anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.  According to the Jerusalem Post and other Jewish media, unidentified sources said that Yale closed down YIISSA because of pressure from outside groups who wanted to shut down discussions around Muslim anti-Semitism, not because of any academic failures.  Not everyone who made the link between the shuttering of the center were anonymous, however.  Walter Reich, a professor at George Washington University and former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, wrote a fiery op-ed in the Washington Post decrying Yale’s decision, placing the blame on pressure from Muslim students, activists and others because of the discussion of Muslim anti-Semitism.  “Why did Yale kill the institute?” Reich asks.  “The answer is simple,” he says.  “The conference provoked a firestorm,” and as a result, “Yale administrators and faculty quickly turned on the institute. It was accused of being too critical of the Arab and Iranian anti-Semitism and of being racist and right-wing.”

The left-wing blogosphere has responded by calling the conference “flawed by an ultra-Zionist agenda that compromises its academic integrity.”  While not going so far as to call the conference an exercise in hate-mongering—as a PLO representative to the United States did—many bloggers wrote that by focusing primarily on anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, alongside other controversial topics like Jewish self-hatred, the conference became more focused on a certain political, rather than academic, agenda. Yet, like their conservative counterparts, many liberals have also argued against the closing of the center, advocating instead for a change of tone.

The bigger question is: Do we really need another institute that looks at contemporary anti-Semitism?  In the US alone, every major city has a museum dedicated to study of the Holocaust, which often sponsor lectures from professors and others on contemporary anti-Semitism.  Major American Jewish organizations from the ADL to the AJC to the Simon Wiesenthal Center focus significant time and energy on the topic.  Prominent American universities have Jewish studies departments, which tackle current anti-Semitism in academic fora.  A quick Google search will show that there is no shortage of conferences at any of these institutions with titles like “Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives” or “Antisemitism in Contemporary Europe.”  And that’s just the United States.  We haven’t even gotten to Israel.

In his op-ed, Reich argues that if Yale stands by its decision, another university should welcome the center onto its own campus, but another conference or lecture hosted at yet another university with experts or activists speaking on contemporary anti-Semitism is not going to put an end to this type of hatred.  In its mission statement YISSA’s director Charles Small called for a center that would “explore [anti-Semitism] in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary framework from an array of approaches and perspectives as well as regional contexts.”   As important as that kind of forum is, it already exists many times over. It would be a better use of resources to have a center that focuses not on less visible topics rather than the well-worn themes of hatred and anger.  It could look at questions like, what is being done around the world to counter forms of anti-Semitism?  Who are the leaders and activists engaged in that work and what lessons do they have to teach us?  Where are Jewish communities growing and flourishing?  What does that mean for world Jewry?  How do these lessons apply to others?  And so on.   To create a center at a big-name university aimed at fostering those kinds of debates would truly be something different.  Who will be the first to rise to the challenge?

3 responses to “Shuttering Yale’s Center on Anti-Semitism

  1. ..How To Study Anti-Semitism

    By Deborah Lipstadt

    Published June 15, 2011, issue of June 24, 2011.

    When the news of Yale University’s decision to close its Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism was first made public in early June, the sector of the blogosphere that addresses Jewish issues began to buzz. Discussion, charges and accusations flew. Yale’s critics praised YIISA as a beacon of academic scholarship that had made a significant contribution to this field of study. They charged Yale with caving in to pressure from Arabs and Muslims, both on and off campus, who could not abide the way in which YIISA boldly shone a spotlight on Muslim anti-Semitism. To these people, it appeared as if anti-Semitism itself had brought down an educational institution devoted to the study of this terrible malaise. I registered my initial response on Twitter, describing the shutting down of YIISA as a strange, if not weird, decision and wondering what had happened.

    Yale’s response to the wave of criticism constituted a classic reminder that even a place populated by exceptionally smart people can shoot itself in the foot with deadly accuracy. The university defended itself against charges of having succumbed to Muslim pressure by listing the Jewish studies courses taught at the school and stressing its extensive library holdings in the field. (Yale, admittedly, does have an excellent Jewish studies program, and its libraries have one of the best collections in Jewish studies worldwide.) Yale’s clumsy response constituted, as one blogger put it, the academic equivalent of, “Some of our best friends are Jews.”

    There is, however, another side to this story. Apparently, there were people on the Yale campus who were associated with YIISA and who were eager to have it succeed. These friends of YIISA counseled the institute’s leadership that some of its efforts had migrated to the world of advocacy from that of scholarship. They warned YIISA that it was providing fodder to the critics’ claim that it was not a truly academic endeavor.

    I have twice participated in YIISA’s activities. I gave a paper at one of its weekly seminar sessions on Holocaust denial and attended its conference last August. While serious scholars who work in this field gave the vast majority of the papers — and not dilettantes who dabble in it — there were a few presentations that gave me pause. They were passionate and well argued. But they were not scholarly in nature.

    According to sources at Yale, the university’s leadership unsuccessfully worked with YIISA in an attempt to rectify some of these issues. Part of Yale’s discomfort might have come from the fact that a Yale-based scholarly entity was administered by an individual who, while a successful institution builder, was not a Yale faculty member and who had no official position at the university. Yale has indicated that it is intent on axing YIISA and replacing it with an initiative that will address both anti-Semitism and its scholarly concerns. It is crucial that it do so particularly at a time when anti-Semitism worldwide is experiencing a growth spurt.

    Two lessons can be drawn from this imbroglio. First, there is a real need for serious academic institutions to facilitate and encourage the highest-level research on anti-Semitism. (Currently, the only one that exists is at Indiana University, under the leadership of Alvin Rosenfeld.) These institutions could explore why hatred persists even after the Holocaust starkly demonstrated what it could “accomplish.” What about anti-Semitism makes it so malleable that it is able to re-create itself in such a wide array of settings, cultures and ages? They might also ask why the world’s oldest hatred has recently been so little studied and analyzed. Exploring that conundrum is something a first-rate academic institution is uniquely qualified to do. Moreover, this research must focus not just on Christian anti-Semitism, but on Muslim anti-Semitism, as well. Today there are few universities where a young scholar who worked in this field would be granted a position or tenure irrespective of how bright and talented she is. This, too, is something well worth exploring.

    After cutting-edge academics have shed light on this issue, communal organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee among them, that are so adept at creating strategies to address the problem will have the diagnosis they need in order to help them move ahead with their work.

    Second, this struggle also demonstrates the necessity of differentiating between those who do advocacy and those who do scholarship. Both are critical — but entirely different — endeavors. Let us not forget how rightfully disturbed the Jewish community has been in recent years about the way in which advocacy and polemics have permeated so many university courses on the Middle East. Too many students who take these classes find that they have entered a zone in which advocacy masquerades as scholarship. This is unacceptable, irrespective of the source from which it emanates.

    Read more: http://forward.com/articles/138715/#ixzz1PXzBPVPeSee More

  2. If there is even the slightest chance that YIISA is being shut down because it “focused on anti-Semitism in the Muslim world”, then it should and must remain open. Anti-Semitism in the Muslim world is a growing and grave threat, not just to Jews, but also to the whole world. If an academic organization at a prestigious educational institution like Yale can’t survive after promoting a conference on global anti-Semitism, then who can?

    The answer is, so far, only one other institution, and that is Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, which sponsored the conference “Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives” this spring. It is true that when you google “Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives” you get a lot of results. But most, if not all, of the results are related to this one particular conference. Are one or two serious academic conferences on this topic enough?

    Symi Rom-Rymer seems to think that a better use of academic resources would be to focus on “what is being done around the world to counter forms of anti-Semitism?” The problem with that is that is that in order to counter anti-Semitism, its current forms must be identified, defined and quantified – which is exactly what YIISA was trying to do. We can’t counter anti-Semitism if there is no clear delineation of what and where it is. And the lack of such a cataloging is a big issue in today’s world, particularly if it is taboo to even discuss the possibility of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world without being called an Islamophobe.

    This is why we need to look clearly at what caused the “firestorm” over the YIISA conference. Dr. Deborah Lipstadt says that “a few presentations” at the YIISA conference were not “scholarly in nature”, and that some academics at Yale place the blame on YIISA itself for “providing fodder to the critics’ claim that it was not a truly academic endeavor.” Dr. Lipstadt gives us no indications of who the suspect scholars are, and neither does Yale. Without that, how can anyone reach a reasonable conclusion about what happened?

    If the vast majority of the papers presented at the YIISA conference were the work of serious scholars, as Dr. Lipstadt says, we can conclude that the firestorm boils down to just a few of the presenters.

    I think that William Reich gives us a good idea of which presenters these might be in his Washington Post piece:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/saving-the-yale-anti-semitism-institute/2011/06/13/AGRjAjTH_story.html

    The answer lies in a letter Reich references written by Yaman Salahi, a Syrian American law student, to the Yale Daily News, in which he accuses YIISA’s conference of “fueling “anti-Arab bigotry and Islamophobia”. This letter can be found at: http://www.law.yale.edu/news/12233.htm

    Salahi names four presenters in his letter who he found to be anti- Arab, anti-Muslim and promoters of “anti-Muslim bigotry disseminated under Yale’s banner”. These are Itamar Marcus, Barak Seener, Ruth Wisse, and Richard Landes. I urge anyone reading this to research their backgrounds and work, and then decide for themselves if YIISA should be shut down because they – or others doing work like them – made presentations at YIISA’s conference.

    Wikipedia says of Itamar Marcus that:

    “As Director of Research for the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMP) from 1998 to 2000, Marcus wrote reports on Palestinian Authority (PA), Syrian and Jordanian schoolbooks. In February 2007 together with Sen. Hillary Clinton he released a report on the newest PA schoolbooks at a press conference in Washington.

    Marcus testified before the Education Subcommittee of the US Senate Committee on Allocations, documenting the Palestinian Authority’s indoctrination of children to seek death as Shahids –Martyrs… He has also presented before members of Congress, and to members of Parliament in numerous countries including, the European Union, Britain, France, Canada, and Australia, and has lectured in universities and conferences world wide.”

    For more about Itamar Marcus, see:
    http://www.palwatch.org/pages/aboutus.aspx

    Should American academia exclude speakers like him and the others named by Salahi from presenting at scholarly conferences?

    What kind of message does Yale send to other colleges and the world by shutting YIISA down?

    If we want to defeat anti-Semitism in the world today, we must address it in the Muslim world. So the real question here is, in my opinion, how do we do that considering the firestorm that even suggesting that such anti-Semitism exists ignites?

  3. all good stuff….but they didn’t put out a single scholarly paper. It just doesn’t pass muster at Yale. Yale has now reassigned this to a real professor and it will have some real academic cred and not be tainted as being an advocacy group…. We need the advocacy groups but this isn’t the forum for that. Yale totally mishandled this. They could have made the changes before the announcements…..

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