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.
Over time, Smith said, these divisions proved “very crippling” for the committee’s work. Geoffrey Hartman, a professor of literary theory and another committee member, said that Small “wouldn’t really alter the path of his direction with the emphasis on contemporary anti-Semitism,” and that this inability to reconcile the two competing visions was what led to the YIIPSA cancellation. “I think it was just a matter of programmatic expectations and wanting to now have a program on a broader basis,” Hartman told me. “Small’s heart was in the fight against contemporary anti-Semitism and alerting everyone to the dangers towards that—and that is certainly important.”
Critics of Yale’s decision, like Alan Dershowitz, have pointed to what they said was the unusually secretive and abrupt process in which the verdict was rendered. It was “made without even a semblance of due process and transparency,” Dershowitz wrote. “Never before have I seen such a lack of process and fairness in the termination of a program.” Yale, however, said that like other programs of its nature, YIISA simply came up for its fifth-year review. The four-person Review Committee, headed by economics professor Steve Berry, consulted with the 13-member Faculty Governance Committee to learn members’ thoughts about the future of the program. According to Ranis, a “majority of members of the governance committee appointed last fall did agree it should be given more time, but the review committee recommended it should be terminated.” Yale has refused to make the report public.
Yale denies that politics played any role in the decision to terminate YIISA. “I can say categorically that this was a decision made after an academic review by a distinguished group of professors,” Salovey wrote me in an email. “Politics played no role, and there were no outside pressures.” The word “politics,” especially in the realm of academia, can be parsed endlessly, and interviews with those who were officially consulted about the program by the review committee suggest that politics indeed did play a role. The most outspoken critic of YIISA has been sociology professor and governance committee member Jeffrey Alexander. Earlier this month, he decried the “political character” of YIISA to NPR. “It would be as if you had a center for the study of, let’s say, racism, organized by, let’s say the Black Panther movement,” he told a radio interviewer. Alexander offered more specific criticism in a conversation with me. “The ambition of the center was to tie criticism of Israel and current Israeli policies to anti-Semitism,” he said. “That was a theme hammered time and time again.” Alexander, who said that he is a Zionist, found it galling that an official from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, its director for combating anti-Semitism, opened last August’s YIISA conference. Here was the inevitable collision foretold in Small’s 2007 interview with the Jerusalem Post, in which he had expressed his interest in exploring the connections between extreme expressions of criticism against Israel and classical anti-Semitism. “The victim in Charles’ version of the center wasn’t so much Jews as it was Israelis, in my opinion,” Alexander said. “And I just couldn’t feel a lot of sympathy for the settler movement and the conservative, often hysterically anti-Arab right wing of Israel.”
Gustav Ranis, who told me that he was one of those governance committee members who advised the review committee to give YIISA another year to reform itself, said that “there was a little bit of a tendency to be too polemical in YIIISA rather than academic.” Steven Smith, the committee’s other co-chair told me that “it would be foolish to deny” that YIISA’s brushing against political sensitivities did not play a role in its being shut down. (He was quick to add that it did not play a “decisive” role.) “I think it was thought to be too politically partisan, too involved in a way that was also not part of its mission,” Alexander told me, adding that focusing more on historical anti-Semitism is a way of “de-politiciz[ing] the center.”
Robert Burt, a Yale Law School professor and member of the faculty governance committee, told me that the YIISA lecture series were “like a broken record,” with an almost single-minded focus on the Iranian regime. “I kept on hearing Ahmadinejad’s a bad guy, bad people, bad people, and basically what I was interested in was trying to understand this phenomenon, and understanding requires having an historical sense,” he told me. “It also requires making sense of the fact that Jews were not always scorned and reviled in Western society, there were periods when Jews were welcome.” Burt adds that, before he stopped attending the lecture series due to lack of interest, he noticed that the audiences, while relatively large, were composed mainly of “elderly members of the suburbs” and not students and faculty. (Small replies that “Yale prides itself on trying to be a good citizen of the Yale community, so if people from the community came, it’s Yale’s policy that that’s successful.) Ranis and Burt expressed a more quotidian objection to the conference: that it was held at the end of August, right before the academic year commenced, thus depriving Yale faculty and students the ability to participate.
Also complicating matters was YIISA’s unusual provenance: It was a pre-existing research institute (Small’s Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism), incorporated into Yale and run by an outside academic not on the university tenure track. “The problem was that Charles was not a Yale faculty member and Charles had no standing with the Yale faculty,” Smith said. “He saw Yale as a kind of place to raise his flag. His constituency was the kind of broader world of people interested in this subject. He was either distrustful or didn’t think it was important for it be a real member of the Yale community.” “The problem with YIISA from the beginning is that it came from the outside,” Robert Burt told me. In this analysis, it wasn’t so much the ideology of YIISA that was a problem but its structure. Setting up YIISA with an outsider like Small at the helm, Burt said, “was a mistake from the outset.” When I posed these concerns to Small, he told me he was aware of them and had proposed a tenured Yale faculty member be put in charge of the program (specifically recommending Maurice Samuels for the job) while he would remain as a research fellow. But that idea was rejected.
A former Yale faculty member and defender of the program told me that the effort to portray Small—his job status, his management style, and his academic background—as the reason for the closing of YIISA is a distraction from the real issue, which is the university’s political orientation. “Charles suffered from this systemic fault in the academy,” this former faculty member told me, saying that universities “exploit and dominate junior faculty in a disgusting sort of way.” There was an easy solution, this former faculty member said: “If the university wanted someone tenured, tenure Charles, he has the credentials.” (Small holds a doctor of philosophy from Oxford.) Indeed, if Yale thought that Small’s academic standing was such a problem, this former faculty member said, the university should have never incorporated his initiative into Yale in the first place. This source believes that the reason for YIISA’s demise was political and the explanations offered by the university of bureaucratic incompatibility and academic ineptitude are smokescreens: “Liberals at Yale who look at YIISA and say it’s a conservative front are correct because anti-Semitism is now of concern to the right and not really of concern to the left. Why is it not of concern to the left? Because the left doesn’t sympathize with Jews anymore. They sympathize with the other guys.”
One of the few academics involved in YIISA to support the university’s decision is Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory, who delivered a lecture as part of the program’s seminar series and participated in the “Crisis of Modernity” conference. Her initial reaction to the news that Yale was going to close YIISA was one of disbelief; she tweeted that the institute “ran first rate events,” called the move “disturbing,” and asked if the closing was “a political decision cloaked in pseudo claims & excuses” and if YIISA “was a victim of anti-Semitism, or, at the least, anti-Israelism.” Just a few days later she changed her position in an article for the Forward. “Friends of YIISA counseled the institute’s leadership that some of its efforts had migrated to the world of advocacy from that of scholarship,” she wrote. “There were a few presentations that gave me pause,” she wrote of last year’s conference. “They were passionate and well argued. But they were not scholarly in nature.”
When I asked Lipstadt what aspects of YIISA had “migrated to the world of advocacy from that of scholarship” and what presentations at the “Crisis of Modernity” conference “were not scholarly in nature,” she did not offer any specific examples. “You know, I’d have to go back and look at them,” she told me. “But I remember at the time. I can’t be more specific. I wish I could. I’m not dodging the question. It’s such generalized memories, but I remember thinking, this is not such great scholarship.” Lipstadt then cited Small’s 2007 call to haul Ahmadinejad before the International Criminal Court for incitement to genocide.
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