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.
From the program’s inception, Small took what many would later describe as an activist approach to his scholarship. One of his first, high-profile projects was to call for the arrest and trial of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide. “Ahmadinejad has consistently advocated the destruction of the State of Israel and the wiping out of its inhabitants,” Small said in a press release issued the day after Ahmadinejad delivered a highly controversial address at Columbia University in September 2007. “He freely uses the most pernicious forms of classic genocidal anti-Semitism.” Small doesn’t deny that he brings a set of passionate views to his work, seeing himself as part of a tradition of “engaged, critical” scholarship embodied by the likes of Princeton ethicist Michael Walzer and McGill philosopher Charles Taylor. In addition to this “engaged”—or, as his critics would say, crusading—research, was a relentless focus on the Middle East conflict to an extent that bothered those Yale faculty members charged with overseeing YIISA. The overwhelming majority of YIISA’s programming was indeed devoted to contemporary anti-Semitism, particularly Muslim anti-Semitism, and with a special focus on that produced by the Iranian regime. Sometimes programming would drift away from the topic of anti-Semitism per se and explore specific strategic and/or military threats against Israel. The initiative’s monthly newsletter often contained links to stories about Iranian uranium enrichment and weapons development—which, while worthy topics, might have surprised some members of the Yale faculty.
In part, Small’s focus on current events was the product of changes in his field of inquiry. Over the past decade, a new anti-Semitic discourse has arisen around the issue of Israel, one that seeks to “delegitimize” the state itself. It may now seem hard to believe, but in the 1990s, few people, even those working in professional Jewish organizations, were worried about a rise in anti-Semitism. “No one anticipated a serious resurgence of anti-Semitism in the breakup of Camp David,” said Steven Bayme, director of the contemporary Jewish life department at the American Jewish Committee. Most shocking was the “remarkable outbreak [of anti-Semitism], in September 2000, in liberal democracies,” particularly in Europe, Bayme said. And while the Arab press and Muslim governments had long used anti-Semitic discourse in their propaganda, it took on an especially gruesome quality after Sept. 11. The terrorist attacks and the subsequently declared war on terror also gave birth to a pernicious, worldwide trend in conspiracy theories about alleged Jewish power, which gained a disturbing degree of currency on the Western left. It was these forms of anti-Semitism—and not, say, the genteel American WASP variety or that expressed by fringes on the European far right—that Small perceived to be the greatest threat not just to Jews but to civilization itself.
Small, soft-spoken and bespectacled, belies the caricature of the fire-breathing right-winger painted by the critics of YIISA. He is a political liberal, but the thrust of his work nonetheless was discomfiting to many of his comrades on the left. A month prior to the launch of YIISA, Small co-authored a scholarly article in the Journal of Conflict Resolution titled “Anti-Israel Sentiment Predicts Anti-Semitism in Europe,” which found that Europeans holding hard anti-Israel views are 56 percent more likely to hold anti-Semitic ones as well. Such a finding may seem obvious to people familiar with the tenor of debate today in Europe, but it’s not difficult to see why such an academic endeavor might draw anger from professional critics of the Jewish state, who have become ever sensitive to accusations of anti-Semitism. “If a food or a drug was 56 percent more likely to cause cancer, it would be taken off the shelf,” Small told the Jerusalem Post.
With this coruscating approach, it was only a matter of time before YIISA earned the wrath of the PLO representative in Washington and the obsessively anti-Zionist blogger Philip Weiss, both of whom waged attacks on the program. A key to understanding what irked them can be found in a 2007 interview Small gave to the Jerusalem Post about the study linking anti-Israel sentiment to anti-Semitism. “Most people—such as the readers of The Jerusalem Post—know in their gut that when people accuse Israel of all sorts of horrendous things or hold it to a different standard, this is a form of anti-Semitism,” Small said. “But as scholars, we can’t act on our guts; we have to prove anti-Semitism. We have to produce material that can help scholars find out what’s going on.” By wading into the highly charged debate over what, or even if, criticisms of Israel qualify as anti-Semitic, Small was guaranteeing himself the wrath of many people, including those who would portray any attempt to talk about anti-Semitism within the context of the modern Middle East as a form of political slander.
While Small pinpoints the “Crisis of Modernity” conference as the final nail in the coffin of his baby, a meeting prior to the conference in the early spring of last year was the first sign things were going badly. That January, the Iranian government placed Yale on a blacklist, along with dozens of other “subversive” international organizations like the U.S. government-funded and Democratic Party-aligned National Democratic Institute, the Open Society Institute, and the BBC. What the university ought to have seen as a badge of honor, however, it seems to have taken as a lost investment opportunity, at least according to Small. Just a few months after the Iranian government put Yale on its blacklist, he was called into a meeting with a senior administration official, who told Small that the Yale Corporation, the university’s governing board, “was upset with me because Iran put us on this list. Once a member of the Yale community interferes with the others in the community,” Small was told, “this is a problem.”
While any large university is bound to be concerned about its public image, the notion that Yale would care so much about how it is perceived by a rogue regime like Iran strikes many as far-fetched. But Yale is especially sensitive when it comes to its image with foreign nations, even autocratic ones. For over a century—beginning with the establishment of a Yale-affiliated Christian missionary program in China in 1901—and especially under the near-two-decade presidency of Richard Levin, Yale has aspired to be the global university. Early in his term, Levin launched the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization in New Haven with a former President of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, at the helm, and created a World Fellows program that brings dozens of mid-career professionals to spend a semester in New Haven. Levin has focused particularly, and controversially, on China; his official biography notes that he has visited the country 15 times in the last 10 years. More contentiously, and for no real compelling reason, Yale initiated a partnership last year with the National University of Singapore to create a new liberal arts school in that police state to be called Yale-NUS College. Though Yale, like many other universities, operates a variety of study abroad programs, this is the first such program in which the Yale name is being lent to an educational institution overseas. It is not farfetched to imagine that a university that had decided to stake its global future on staying in the good graces of autocracies like China and Singapore would see Iran’s protests as a meaningful threat.
Critics of Yale’s decision to close YIISA point to several other ominous events as confirmation that the university has a growing soft spot for authoritarians. In January 2006 it was revealed that Yale had bid for a $20 million donation from Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal to start an Islamic studies center, losing out to Harvard and Georgetown. In 2009, Yale University Press decided not to print cartoons of the prophet Muhammed in a book about the controversy that ensued over their being published by a Danish newspaper (a decision for which I took the university to task at the time). Last September, just weeks after the conclusion of the YIISA conference, Yale lecturer Hillary Mann Leverett brought the students in her “U.S.-Iranian Diplomacy” graduate seminar to meet personally with Ahmadinejad, who was attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Leverett and her husband, Flynt, both former State Department and National Security Council officials, are the two most high-profile defenders of the Iranian regime in Washington, and they were chosen last year as inaugural senior fellows of Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, yet another prong in Yale’s transformation into a global university. Leverett told the Yale Daily News at the time that her students learned the Holocaust-denying Iranian President is “not a crazy, irrational leader.” Hardly a peep of protest was heard about this meeting on the Yale campus, certainly not from faculty or the administration.
In the months leading up to the August YIISA conference, other senior Yale administration officials made it clear to Small that they were annoyed with his work. One such official told Small last summer that there “shouldn’t be a center on anti-Semitism, maybe it should be a center on discrimination” more generally, Small said. Small said this official also told him that “we have to engage Islam, and not be too critical of Islam and that YIISA had been too critical of Islam.” Another senior Yale official, responsible for helping to publicize the conference, told Small that “at this stage in my life I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to listen to anybody. And I just want you to know that I was a roommate of [Columbia University professor and Palestinian advocate] Rashid Khalidi in college,” according to Small.
As a result of the controversy over the “Crisis of Modernity” conference, the university created a 13-member Faculty Governance Committee in October charged with overseeing the program and providing recommendations on how it could be fixed. Smith and Gustav Ranis, an emeritus professor of international economics, were chosen to co-chair the body. From the start, Smith told me, a division existed with committee members generally falling into one of two camps: Either they believed that YIISA should be what he called “an advocacy group” or that it ought to focus on “scholarly research.” The split was reflected further in disagreements over the program’s content, with those in the former camp believing that YIISA “should focus principally on contemporary events and, within that, especially Middle Eastern anti-Semitism,” Smith said, while those who favored the less engaged approach “felt it should be more broadly constructed, not ignoring the contemporary world, but should be concerned with studying the range of anti-Semitisms that have occurred in the range of history.”
Moshe Feldenkrais took the lessons of judo and his experiences in the Haganah and applied them to a philosophy of movement and self-defense that is long on theory and precise about technique