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.
Her vague criticism of the program aside, Lipstadt agrees that Small was treading on dangerous academic territory. “You can teach about Islamophobia, but you can’t teach about Muslim anti-Semitism. If you were to teach about Muslim anti-Semitism, somehow you would be seen by some people as having a vendetta.” Lipstadt thinks that this political bias did play a role in YIISA’s demise, but that doesn’t excuse what she thinks was Small’s unnecessary blurring of the line between scholarship and advocacy. “I think there were people who were anxious to see it fail. But when you know there are people out gunning for you, don’t give them a bullet.”
Lipstadt’s concern raises a fundamental question in the debate over YIISA: Where does the realm of scholarship end and advocacy begin? YIISA was hardly more political or activist than a vast array of programs of dubious academic merit, whether African-American studies, Chicano studies, gay and lesbian studies, and so on, which have long been accepted as integral to American universities. Nor was Small’s approach any more partisan than those of Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi, Joseph Massad or other professors who teach about the modern Middle East at Ivy League universities. Moreover, it is difficult to see how one can avoid advocacy on the subject of anti-Semitism when producing scholarly work on the subject. When I posed this question to YIISA critic Jeffrey Alexander, asking whether or not a discipline like gay and lesbian studies is not inherently sympathetic to the plight of gay people, he replied: “Israel is not an oppressed group that we’re supposed to feel this enormous sympathy for, in the same way as gays and lesbians.”
Those inclined to see Israel as an aggressor, like Alexander, will see YIISA’s focus on anti-Semitism as a distraction from the real issue, which is Israeli aggression. And those inclined to see Israel as a victim will likewise view anti-Semitic ideology as a driving force in the persistence of the conflict and thus deserving of special concern. What nearly everyone involved in this dispute can agree on is that by giving the impression that Yale was no longer interested in promoting the study of anti-Semitism as a phenomenon, the university dealt with the matter poorly. “It was handled incredibly clumsily,” Burt told me. Samuels, the incoming director of YPSA, told me that he was one of a number of faculty governance committee members who signed a letter of protest to the president and provost about the closure of YIISA, arguing that it be given more time to reform. It was partly in reaction to this internal protest that the university decided to reconstitute the program with Samuels at the helm.
Samuels, who is widely admired by the people interviewed for this piece, is not a political animal in the same way as Small, who had cultivated a wide network of supporters in the worlds of media and philanthropy. Hinting that YIISA did not live up to scholarly standards, as many had criticized it for, Samuels told me that “the one thing I’m going to be very careful about is who is brought to speak, and I’m going to make sure that whoever comes is going to represent the highest possible scholarly caliber.” He also resents the criticism that studying historical anti-Semitism should have no place in a reconstituted YIISA. “I think it’s absurd to say that studying history is safe, and I think it’s dangerous to say that you can understand the current crisis in anti-Semitism without setting it into historical context.” Smith agrees, telling me that, “For someone like myself who teaches Plato and Machiavelli, it’s such an insult. If universities don’t study and keep alive the historical understanding of these things, which is not to say that the contemporary world will be ignored, but if we don’t keep alive the historical understanding of these things, who will? That’s the difference between a university and a think tank. I mean, we’re not a think tank. We’re not producing public policy. We’re trying to provide a framework of how to think about something.”
Small said he’s entertaining a variety of offers to park his initiative elsewhere. But he worries that the successful drive to attack and shut down YIISA is but the latest element in the international campaign to delegitimize Israel. “The role of the intellectual is to put light where there’s darkness,” he said. “When I see a reactionary social movement that wants to subjugate women, kill gay people, I have to speak out. And if I can’t speak out about contemporary anti-Semitism at Yale and in the world, then shame on them.”
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