Yale University’s International Conference on Antisemitism: A Canadian View
In 2006 Dr. Charles Small created the Yale Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) and this year established a new professional association, the International Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (IASA), which held its first conference last week at Yale University.
The three-day conference entitled Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity hosted presentations by 110 scholars on a wide variety of subjects including: Christian antisemitism and its Islamization; the role of the internet and satellite television in the proliferation of antisemitism; problems in contemporary academic, legal, and human rights discourse; anti-Israel lawfare; campus antisemitism; the genocidal threat of a nuclear Iran; the relationships between antisemitism and feminism, modernity, and anti-capitalism; Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of antisemitism; the prominent role of Jewish scholars in the intellectual assault on Israel; and case studies of the American, British, German, and Polish contexts. The conference program can be found here and video of all presentations will be available shortly on the YIISA website.
Keynote speakers included Menahem Milson, Professor of Arabic Literature at Hebrew University who also runs MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute); Ruth Wisse, Harvard Professor of Yiddish Literature; Bassam Tibi, Professor of International Relations at the University of Goettingen; Itamar Marcus, Director of Palestinian Media Watch; and, Irwin Cotler, MP and Professor of Law at McGill University.
A range of political, national, and intellectual perspectives were represented at the conference minus the contingent who asserts that contemporary antisemitism is nothing but an Israeli propaganda tool or a chimera produced by paranoid minds. There was some tension in the final presentation over the role played by Jewish academics—people like the late Tony Judt, for example—in contemporary debates over Israel and the future of the Middle East. There is considerable debate among scholars on the parameters that constitute legitimate criticism of Israel. It seems that both age and nationality is a factor in this conflict between scholars; there is both a generational and an Atlantic divide at work here.
In her presentation on the Holocaust Denial Meeting hosted by Iran in 2006, Deborah Lipstadt reminded us that while we must defend academic freedom we also have a professional responsibility to maintain academic standards of accuracy and scholarly methodology. In this context, her comment, “Minds can be so open that brains fall out” received an audible chuckle from the audience. Using a graph produced by the Stephen Roth Institute, Dina Porat argued that most antisemitic incidents are local in nature and should be seen as meeting points between the West and the Middle East instead of attributing violence against Jews worldwide strictly to Israel-related developments. It should be noted that 2009 reported the largest number of antisemitic incidents worldwide since 1945. Bassam Tibi discussed Islamism (not to be mistaken for the religion of Islam but understood to be a jihadist-totalitarian political movement) as the product of a deep crisis in the Islamic world not unlike the crisis Weimar Germany experienced after the First World War. Menahem Milson presented a variety of media clips from around the Islamic world translated by MEMRI and argued that the struggle to achieve peace in the Middle East requires that we confront and challenge its antisemitism. One of the most disturbing and upsetting sequences he showed the audience was a young Egyptian cleric celebrating the humiliation of Jews with accompanying Nazi footage from the Holocaust (clip #1999). Itamar Marcus made an interesting plea for an educational peace process to accompany the political version so as to help remove the deeply ingrained hatred from the region and its peoples.
One of the best plenary sessions of the conference was on the largely neglected subject of antisemitism in contemporary feminist circles. Phyllis Chesler discussed the very strange shift of feminist and queer scholars and activists allying themselves with radical Islamist politics in their struggle against Israel. She also characterized this strategy of cultural relativism as both a betrayal of feminist principles and of the women struggling for emancipation in the Islamic world. Nora Gold (University of Toronto) presented some of her successful strategies in trying to work across the Israel divide in feminist academic circles. Working from within progressive organizations, she has found that there are people who are unreachable in their hostility but there are also many others who are well meaning and ignorant in their hostile stance toward Israel, and some of these people are open to real productive dialogue (something I see as well among my students). This was perhaps the most hopeful and moving presentation of the conference, which concluded with Gold’s emotional confession of her Ahavat Yisrael. The personal nature of this plenary panel was greeted with applause and gratitude—and a few tears as well. More than several times during this conference people shared their frustrations and sadness about the chilling effects of anti-Israel hostility on long term friendships and working relationships in the academy. Surely, few things in life are as difficult as the loss of a dear friend over irreconcilable differences in perspective.
Readers in Winnipeg (and Canada) should be aware that we have our own newly established Institute for the Study of Antisemitism that is now affiliated with the International Association for the Study for Antisemitism. There are seven institutes for the study of antisemitism in the world today: The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at Hebrew University (established in 1982); The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University (1991); The Centre for Research on Antisemitism at the Technische Universität Berlin (1990); The Yale Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (2006); The Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University (2010); The Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London (2009); and, our own Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA) based in Winnipeg (2010). There is also a new initiative to study antisemitism in school curricula and on university campuses hosted by The Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. It is important to note that half of these organizations have been established in the last year or so—a chimera indeed.
The directors of these organizations (Robert Wistrich, Dina Porat, Alvin Rosenfeld, David Feldman, Catherine Chatterley, and Ken Marcus) have all been appointed Vice-Presidents of the new International Association for the Study of Antisemitism. At our first board meeting last weekend, I told my colleagues that, given adequate financial support from donors, CISA would like to host one of the upcoming annual international IASA conferences.
The Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA) is a registered charity and welcomes your support. Please make a tax-deductible donation to this important new scholarly initiative dedicated to placing the problem of antisemitism on the international human rights agenda and ensuring that Canadians are part of this discussion. Individuals interested in helping to build an endowment should contact Dr. Chatterley through the Institute website: https://www.can-isa.com