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.
Continue reading: Ahmadinejad, “Crisis of Modernity,” and a $20 million donation. Or view as a single page.
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.”
Continue reading: politics in the realm of academia, conferences “like a broken record,” and YIISA “a victim of anti-Semitism.” Or view as a single page.
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.
Continue reading: Islamophobia and Muslim anti-Semitism, programs of dubious academic merit, and “Israel is not an oppressed group.” Or view as a single page.
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.”
James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.