Yale’s Anti-Semitism Blunder

Yale University sparked international outrage when it announced, in early June, that it would shortly close the highly regarded, academically productive, and financially healthy Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Antisemitism, known as “YIISA.” YIISA’s high-profile director, Dr. Charles A. Small, had emerged as an international leader in anti-Semitism research, culminating in his election to the presidency of the International Association for the Study of Antisemitism. Nevertheless, he had also become controversial for taking positions that critics contended were overly sympathetic to Israel or overly hostile to Israel’s enemies. Although Yale’s actual motivations will remain murky as long as it refuses to disclose the report on which its decision was made, Yale’s stated reasons for the closure are highly suspicious, and it increasingly appears that its actual reasons were more political than academic. In the face of mounting criticism, Yale has established a new Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism. The new YPSA program is already controversial, largely because it has become linked in public understanding to YIISA’s closure. Despite the unfortunate circumstances surrounding its establishment however, YPSA may ultimately prove to be a significant and valuable player in international anti-Semitism research.

Breaking the story of YIISA’s closure in the New York Post, Abby Wisse Schachter wrote that Yale had “almost certainly” shuttered the program “because YIISA refused to ignore the most virulent, genocidal and common form of Jew-hatred today: Muslim anti-Semitism.” The Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman was among the first to criticize Yale’s decision, arguing that “The decision to end the Center was a bad one on its own terms, but it is even worse because it leaves the impression that the anti-Jewish forces in the world achieved a significant victory.” Having twice spoken at YIISA, my own view is that YIISA was the most prominent university-based anti-Semitism research center in the United States, and its closure has a distinct odor of politics.

Understandably, Yale’s administration denied that it had closed YIISA for political reasons. For example, Yale’s deputy provost, Frances Rosenbluth said that the action was taken “solely on the issue of faculty leadership and involvement.” This explanation has been questioned, however, in light of the two dozen Yale professors, including a few intellectual superstars, who had joined YIISA’s various committees. Yale Professor Donald Green, who as Director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies was responsible for overseeing YIISA, gave a different explanation. Green argued that YIISA had “suffered the same fate as other initially promising programs… that were eventually terminated at ISPS because they failed to meet high standards for research and instruction.” Green cited the Center for the Study of Race, Inequality and Politics as an example of another academically unsuccessful program which Yale had similarly been forced to close. Green’s explanation has been vigorously rebutted. For example, Yale undergraduate Uriel Epshtein, replied that Green’s example does not provide a “valid comparison” because the center which Green cited “was defunct for years before it was shut down in 2004 and the last published article from the center that I was able to find was from 2000.” Prominent anti-Semitism scholars from around the world have come to YIISA’s defense, pointing to YIISA’s impressive academic accomplishments.

In the wake of this politically charged controversy, Yale stunned the academic world a second time, within a matter of days, when it announced that it would open up a new anti-Semitism research under different management. The new center, YPSA, would be run by Maurice Samuels, a respected historian of nineteenth century French literature and Jewish studies. Despite Samuels’ sterling reputation, the appointment of a historian with his background has been viewed cynically by those who suspect that Yale’s intent has been to shift the focus of anti-Semitism studies away from the contemporary Muslim world. After all, it was the latter focus which appears to have led Yale to terminate YIISA and its pioneering founder, Charles A. Small. In response to such concerns, Samuels circulated a forceful statement pledging that YPSA will address both contemporary and historical anti-Semitism. “Like many,” he wrote, “I am concerned by the recent upsurge in violence against Jews around the world and YPSA will address these concerns.”

Despite Samuels’ statement, other critics have expressed concern that Samuels will focus his first YPSA conference on anti-Semitism in France rather than on the Middle East. In my view, this is not a fair criticism. Samuels is, after all, a France expert, and France has seen a troublesome surge in anti-Semitism. The more important question, it seems to me, is whether Samuels plans to address contemporary as well as historical anti-Semitism — and Muslim as well as Christian anti-Semitism — at such conferences. The answer is that he clearly does. Moreover, he has obtained a commitment from Yale to fund such activities rather than relying upon Jewish community contributions. While Yale’s treatment of YIISA and Charles Small was highly problematic, Samuels deserves an opportunity to demonstrate that YPSA can make a valuable contribution to the study of both contemporary and historical anti-Semitism. Based on my own conversations with Samuels, as well as his public statement, it seems to me that some of YPSA’s critics today are as unfair as YIISA’s critics were in the past. YPSA will not be another YIISA, but it deserves an opportunity to prove its worth on its own terms.