A few weeks ago, Yale announced that it had terminated the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-semitism (YIISA). The official version of events, according to university spokespersons, cited two reasons: (1) an alleged failure by Yale professors affiliated with the institute to produce a sufficient level of scholarship; and (2) an alleged lack of interest from Yale students in courses related to anti-Semitism. This official version always seemed a little dubious, since Yale refused to release the evaluation report on which it allegedly based its decision. Yale’s action drew condemnation from a host of Jewish groups, most prominently the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
Very quickly, beginning with an op-ed from Abby Wisse Schachter, an alternative explanation emerged: that Yale had shuttered the program because YIISA events had explored anti-Semitism in the contemporary Arab world, a line of inquiry that runs perilously close to offending the campus politically correct (and potential Middle Eastern donors to Yale).
This alternative theory was (unintentionally) confirmed by Yale professor Jeffrey Alexander, a sociologist with no apparent research interest in anti-Semitism who nonetheless was appointed to the center’s faculty-governance committee. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Alexander believed that YIISA’s 2010 conference was insufficiently scholarly, and instead featured too many speakers eager “to dismiss public concerns with the Israeli government’s behavior,” especially “Israel’s military and settlement policies.” He urged closing the program immediately, rather than giving it a chance to reform.
Monday brought news that all but confirmed that Yale had acted against YIISA for political rather than scholarly reasons. Despite the alleged poor production of Yale scholars interested in anti-Semitism, and despite the alleged lack of interest of Yale students in courses on the topic, Yale announced that while YIISA would not rise again, the university had decided to establish a new interdisciplinary institute dealing with anti-Semitism. The Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism will begin work this fall, under the leadership of Maurice Samuels, a professor of French and author of Inventing the Israelite: Jewish Fiction in Nineteenth-Century France.
So what’s the difference between YIISA and the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism? The New Yale Program, Samuels strongly implied, will avoid anything resembling the pro-Israel positions that so offended Alexander and like-minded colleagues. “Contemporary anti-Semitism,” he wrote in a statement supplied by Yale’s public-affairs office to the Chronicle, is best studied through an approach of placing “current events into historical context.” Yale’s official announcement also steered the new program heavily away from anything that might offend campus left-wingers eager to demonize Israel or to minimize the linkage between anti-Semitism and contemporary anti-Israel attitudes: “Professor Samuels and his colleagues have Yale’s remarkable library resources at their disposal, including the Fortunoff Video Archives of Holocaust Testimonies and the 95,000-volume Judaica collection of the Yale Library.”
Samuels’ program, of course, is better than nothing, especially if it is able to increase course offerings and research support to Yale students. But Yale’s handling of this affair, from start to finish, gives the lie to any claim of freedom of thought on the New Haven campus.