Yale’s New, Neutered, Anti-Semitism Program

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.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

2 thoughts on “Yale’s New, Neutered, Anti-Semitism Program

  1. To GZuckier:
    Eventhough it may not be easy, let us distinguish Islam from Arabs as an ethnic group or nation [ummah `arabiyyah] as the pan-Arab nationalists would have it. Indeed, Islam upholds the Arabic language and the Arab nation as superior to others, Arabs can of course be educated to believe in equal human rights for everyone, including Jews, etc. However, Islam as a religion with a rather fixed doctrine has a special hatred for Jews and Judaism. According to the Quran and later Muslim tradition, Islam, like Christianity, has a special hatred and contempt for Jews. There is even a Muslim tradition blaming a Jew –a Jewish woman– for killing Muhammad. I don’t believe that it is racist to study the Judeophobia of the Quran and Muslim doctrines and teachings.

  2. As someone loosely associated with Yale who attended many of the Institute’s seminars, I can state as a fact that a common thread running through YIISA’s work was precisely “placing current events into historical context”, specifically establishing the link between modern antisemitism in the Middle East and its roots in Christian Europe and Nazi politics; and thereby disproving the quasi-racist suggestion that there is some inherent historical Muslim or Arab antisemitism which can never be eradicated. It is equally obvious that this linkage is not widely understood by the public, including the academic world outside this niche field; which in turn contradicts Yale’s claim that the Institute has failed to generate substantial scholarship. Finally, I can attest that any suggestion of the individuals involved harboring any bias against Muslims or Arabs, other than condemning their governments’ cynical promotion of antisemitism as a political weapon against Israel, is completely false. Ironically, by terminating YIISA, Yale has struck a solid blow against the kind of nonpartisan analysis of the Middle East conflict which is necessary for an equitable solution, as well as harming several people whose hard work towards ending gratuitous hatreds should be rewarded rather than punished.

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