When Yale shuttered its Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism last month, critics saw anti-Israel political correctness. But the project may simply have been a casualty of the university’s global ambitions.
Charles Small remembers the precise moment when the fate of his Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, known by its acronym YIISA and pronounced “yeesa,” was sealed. On August 23 last year, he was preparing to give the welcoming address at the largest academic conference ever convened on the subject of anti-Semitism, a conference he had meticulously planned for over a year. Some 500 people were in the audience to attend the three-day event, “Global Anti-Semitism: A Crisis of Modernity,” including more than 100 academics from 18 countries working in 20 academic disciplines. While the conference featured panels like “Christianity and Antisemitism” and “Law, Modernity and Antisemitism,” the clear thrust of the confab was to shine a light on contemporary Islamic anti-Semitism, with a particular focus on the declared enemies of the State of Israel. Small, a lecturer at Yale, was sitting between his parents, who had traveled from Montreal to witness their son’s crowning professional achievement. Before he rose to speak, Small’s mother turned to him. “Charles, Yale must be so proud of you,” she said. “You can stay here the rest of your career.”
“Ma,” he replied. “This is the beginning of the end.”
Whether the August conference was the cause, Small’s prescience was confirmed last month, when news of the program’s demise was leaked to the New York Post. On June 6, the Post’s Abby Wisse Schachter reported that a four-member Yale faculty review committee had decided to close the program just several days earlier and then laid out a narrative that took hold among YIISA’s supporters: that the university had caved into pressure from a cadre of academic leftists and malign foreign influences, both of whom were made uncomfortable by a program they portrayed as a stalking horse for extreme right-wing supporters of Israel. As evidence, Schachter pointed to a letter written in the immediate aftermath of the August conference by Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s ambassador to Washington, to Yale President Richard Levin, in which the PLO representative said it was “shocking that a respected institution like Yale would give a platform to these right-wing extremists and their odious views” and “deeply ironic that a conference on anti-Semitism that is ostensibly intended to combat hatred and discrimination against Semites would demonize Arabs—who are Semites themselves.” Schachter also cited an op-ed in the Yale Daily News by a Syrian-American Yale Law student, who, in reaction to the conference, wrote that “the university cannot preach tolerance and inclusion while simultaneously also providing a haven for bigoted ideas about Muslims and Arabs that often form the basis for Islamophobic sentiment in this country.” After five years running the institute, Small’s time at Yale had come to an end: YIISA would shut its doors on July 31. Small was given three months’ severance, the minimum required under Connecticut law.
In the aftermath of the “Crisis of Modernity” conference and the controversy that ensued, Yale took a series of measures to reform YIISA, but to Small’s mind the die was cast: He had treaded on a subject—anti-Semitism in the Muslim world—that was simply too controversial for the university. Though he had hosted talks by academics on this topic from the very start of the program (in addition to lectures on a wide variety of subjects from “Legitimating Nazism: American Universities and the Third Reich” to “Memetics and the Viral Spread of Antisemitism Through ‘Coded Images’ in Political Cartoons”), the “Crisis of Modernity” conference thrust the phenomenon onto the international academic agenda in an unprecedentedly high-profile way. Anything that had even the faintest whiff of “Islamophobia” touches the third rail of the American academy, and, for Small, there was no way Yale was going to let the program continue.
Yale offered a different set of reasons for discontinuing the program, beginning with the explanation that it fell short of the Ivy League university’s exacting academic benchmarks. “YIISA suffered the same fate as other initially promising programs … that were eventually terminated at ISPS because they failed to meet high standards for research and instruction,” Donald Green, a professor of political science and director of the university’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies, which oversaw YIISA, told the Yale Daily News. Jewish bloggers placed the decision to close YIISA within a broader context of a politically correct university succumbing to the demands of shadowy outside Muslim forces. Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee issued statements of concern about YIISA’s closure, and the controversy was further fueled by academics from around the world who had participated in YIISA over the years, like Walter Reich, a George Washington University professor and former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, who charged in the Washington Post that YIISA was closed because it was “accused of being too critical of the Arab and Iranian anti-Semitism and of being racist and right-wing.”
Yale then announced, in a move that would receive mixed reactions from YIISA’s supporters, that this was not to be the end of the university’s pioneering work in the study of anti-Semitism after all. On June 17, two weeks after the announcement that YIISA would be discontinued, the school’s Jewish chaplain, Jim Ponet, sent a mass email to Yale alumni (I am one) acknowledging the “loud outpouring of reaction on the part of students, faculty and alumni around the world.” In response, Ponet wrote, “I think that within a few days Yale will announce that a reconceived YIISA, under new faculty leadership, has been established.” Three days later, Yale Provost Peter Salovey wrote an open letter announcing the creation of the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism, to be headed by Maurice Samuels, a professor of 19th-century French literature. YPSA, Salovey wrote, “will encourage serious scholarly discourse and collaborative research focused on anti-Semitism, one of the world’s oldest and most enduring prejudices, in all of its forms.”
But the creation of YPSA did not quell the impression that Yale was timorous about discussing contemporary Muslim anti-Semitism; indeed, its decision to name a professor of 19th-century French literature as the new program’s head only reinforced that conception. A boast in Salovey’s letter—that YPSA would be able to utilize “the Fortunoff Video Archives of Holocaust Testimonies and the 95,000 volume Judaica collection,” held within the Yale library—was proof positive, critics said, of the new program’s intention to focus on anti-Semitism of the historical rather than contemporary variety. “The sad truth is that dead Jews—victims of crusades, pogroms, the Shoah—are safe terrain for academia,” Ben Cohen, a former associate director of communications for the American Jewish Committee, wrote in the Forward. “Live Jews, however, are a much more daunting proposition.”
Due to the nature of its subject matter, YIISA was bound to be contentious. “I’m probably not shocking you to say that if it’s a Jewish organization, everybody’s fighting all the time,” jokes Steven Smith, a Jewish professor of political theory and the author of a book on Baruch Spinoza, who last year was appointed to co-chair an oversight committee created in the aftermath of the August conference. While the university publicly claims that politics played no role in YIISA’s dissolution, both supporters and detractors tell a story of the program’s demise that is more complicated than either side is willing to admit. It is one in which the endlessly contentious realms of academic politics, Jewish communal life, anti-Semitism, and the Middle East inevitably collided.
The story of YIISA begins in 2004, when Small created the Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism and Policy. Disturbed by the global rise of anti-Semitism in the aftermath of the Second Intifada and the Sept. 11 attacks, Small, then working as director of urban studies at Southern Connecticut State University, decided that the world’s oldest hatred was deserving of serious academic inquiry. Eying nearby Yale, he brought the idea to Salovey, then dean of Yale College. “I had a PowerPoint presentation,” Small recalled. “I met with him and was very nervous. He loved the idea. He gave me chores to do, and when I’d go off and do them and I’d come meet him, he would give me other things to do, get faculty support, raise money. He was very helpful, very honest.”
YIISA got off to an auspicious start; unlike most academic centers, its very founding earned headlines. The institute’s international board of academic advisers was a who’s who of Jewish academic heavyweights: former Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, historian Benny Morris, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, future Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, and Robert Wistrich, author of a recent 1,000-page book on the history of anti-Semitism. In addition to a regular seminar series, the program also published a small number of working papers and hosted a variety of visiting faculty and post-doctoral fellows.
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