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?