Checking In on Yale’s New Anti-Semitism Program

Did the shuttering last year of a Yale institute created to study anti-Semitism have anything to do with campus politics? The university denied it. But the Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA) was eliminated amid attacks from Palestinian representatives and anti-Israel faculty.

To deflect suggestions that the campus was simply indifferent to the problem, the university created a new program, the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism (YPSA), headed by Maurice Samuels, a specialist in 19th century French literature.

So what, exactly, is YPSA doing? Ben Cohen has an important article looking at Yale’s revamped anti-Semitism initiative. Cohen correctly points out that it’s premature to pass final judgment on YPSA’s quality and agenda. But he discovered that those expecting the new program to explore politically sensitive issues–even if, as occurred with YIISA, doing so meant confronting powerful campus constituencies–are likely to be disappointed.

The announcement of YPSA’s creation made clear that the new program would keep away from the sorts of issues that had disturbed the anti-YIISA faculty, chiefly attempts to explore the linkage between anti-Semitism and contemporary anti-Israel forces and attitudes. “Professor Samuels and his colleagues,” indicated the university, “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.” Naturally, it’s only a coincidence that these sources focus on issues that predate Israeli independence.

Cohen unsurprisingly discovered that Yale sociologist Jeffrey Alexander–author of The Performance of Politics-Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power–is delighted with the new program. Despite lacking any research background in anti-Semitism, Alexander was appointed to YIISA’s board and aggressively advocated the old program’s termination; he complained that YIISA featured too many speakers eager “to dismiss public concerns with the Israeli government’s behavior,” especially “Israel’s military and settlement policies.” A self-described Zionist whose comments on Israel make Peter Beinart look like a defender of Israeli security policies by comparison, Alexander declared last year that “Israel is not an oppressed group that we’re supposed to feel this enormous sympathy for,” like gays or African-Americans.

Alexander seemed dismissive of the idea that YPSA could explore any topic on the contemporary scene that might rebound against Israel’s critics. According to Cohen, “When I asked [Alexander] whether YPSA was in a position to bring clarity to the current controversy around the term ‘Israel-Firster,’ he replied, ‘YPSA as a corporate entity would not speak in that way, that’s a difference with YIISA. There are many groups that need to monitor these controversies, but YPSA isn’t doing that right now.'”

When YPSA was created, however, Director Samuels seemed to suggest that this is just the sort of task in which the new program would engage: “Contemporary anti-Semitism,” he stated publicly last year, is best studied through an approach of placing “current events into historical context.” Certainly it would be worth exploring the “historical context” of the term “Israel-firster.” But perhaps discovering this context–that a term recently used by such left-leaning groups as CAP and Media Matters has an anti-Semitic origin–is something Professor Alexander would prefer to avoid.

Alexander and Samuels are not opposed to YPSA avoiding all contemporary matters, however: it appears they simply want the studies framed in such a way that will reflect the more general anti-Israel attitudes on campus. As an example of YPSA’s exploration of contemporary issues, Samuels told Cohen about “the first systematic study of the representation of the ‘other’ in Palestinian and Israeli textbooks.”

At first blush, it might seem a little odd for a program in anti-Semitism to commission a study of Israeli textbooks. Cohen reported that he “asked Alexander whether he saw parity between representations of Arabs in Israeli textbooks and the bloodcurdling portraits of Jews in textbooks across the Middle East. ‘I wouldn’t say there’s parity,’ [the sociology professor] answered, but ‘there’s a mutually-reinforcing circle of distrust. Everything seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.'”

So, there’s the message from Yale’s new anti-Semitism center: we need more scholarship designed to find a link, however tenuous (or non-existent), between some aspect of Israeli conduct and blatant evidence of anti-Semitism in Hamas instructional techniques. It would seem that Professor Alexander and his colleagues got just what they wanted when they replaced YIISA with YPSA. But not to worry: as Yale administrator Frances Rosenbluth assured outsiders after the decision to terminate YIISA was made, “Yale is strongly committed to freedom of speech, which gives rise to a rich diversity of views on campus.”

KC Johnson

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.

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