Decisions about academic programs rarely appear as the subject of op-eds in major newspapers. But In today’s Washington Post, Walter Reich, a George Washington University professor and a member of the international academic board of advisors of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA), denounced Yale’s controversial decision to terminate the initiative.
Reich noted that quite beyond the importance of the topic–and the fact that only one other U.S. university (Indiana) has a similar interdisciplinary program–“the quality and output of the Yale institute have been superb and wide-ranging. The institute has attracted scholars from around the world to study anti-Semitism and to present papers; has numerous governance committees, most of them composed of eminent Yale faculty; and has an international academic board of advisers . . . from other universities.”
He suggested that outcry over YIISA’s 2010 conference–which was denounced for focusing on anti-Semitism in the Arab world–accounted for Yale’s decision.
Ironically, in an interview in today’s Chronicle, Yale sociology professor Jeffrey Alexander seems to confirm Reich’s allegations. Alexander is a member of the center's faculty-governance committee, which the Chronicle describes as “a body that was created last fall in an effort to integrate the center's work with that of Yale scholars.”
According to the Chronicle, Alexander was “disheartened” by what he considered the “political tone” of the 2010 conference; “too many of the speakers, he believed, were using the reality of anti-Semitism as an excuse to dismiss public concerns with the Israeli government's behavior.” The article described Alexander as pointing to “Israel's military and settlement policies” to justify his complaint that YIISA’s gathering was too supportive of Israeli actions.
Alexander’s most recent books are The Civil Sphere, which, according to his faculty website, “includes discussions of gender, race, and religion, as well as new theorizing about social movements and incorporation”; and a very well-reviewed work, The Performance of Politics–Obama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power.
Yet neither these books, nor any other of Alexander’s recent publications, suggest any intellectual background with anti-Semitism in general, much less Arab anti-Semitism and its effects, the subject of Alexander’s complaints to the Chronicle. Perhaps Alexander is correct that a conference with such plenary speakers as Irwin Cotler (McGill University); Jeffrey Herf (University of Maryland); Richard Landes (Boston University); Deborah Lipstadt (Emory University); Meir Litvak (Tel Aviv University); Menahem Milson (Hebrew University); Dina Porat (Tel Aviv University); Milton Shain (University of Cape Town); Bassam Tibi (University of Goettingen); and Ruth Wisse (Harvard University) offered an inappropriate and excessively political interpretation of Arab anti-semitism.
Yet Alexander’s critique would seem to turn the concept of peer review on its head, making it appear as if Yale accepted the interpretation of a figure who lacks any significant research specialization in the field over the arguments presented at the conference by major players in anti-Semitism research. Morerover, Alexander’s critique would seem to directly contradict the words of Frances Rosenbluth, the deputy provost for social sciences and faculty development, who vehemently denied that the YIISA’s perceived message had anything to do with the university’s decision. “Yale,” she claimed, “is strongly committed to freedom of speech, which gives rise to a rich diversity of views on campus.”
The easiest way for Yale to end this controversy would be to release the report on which the university supposedly based its decision to terminate the initiative. Yet, to date, Yale officials have refused to do so. What are they hiding?