Yale’s flip-flop on anti-Semitism center

Editor’s note: Amitai Etzioni is a sociologist and professor of international relations at George Washington University and the author of several books, including “Security First” and “New Common Ground.” He was a senior adviser to the Carter administration and has taught at Columbia and Harvard universities and the University of California, Berkeley.

(CNN) — Yale University announced this month that it would close an institute dedicated to the study of anti-Semitism, the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism. In the wake of controversy over that decision, Yale has now announced that it will open a new center dedicated to the same subject.

Between the closing and opening lies a telling tale about research in a politically charged world.

Yale initially stated that it decided to close the original center after a routine five-year review because it “failed to meet high standards for research and instruction,” and “no core of faculty research or student interest has developed around the center.” Questions were immediately raised about whether academic performance was the only thing on Yale’s mind.

The institute’s critics charged last year that it was defaming Muslims. Nobody claims that the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism desecrated a holy place, marred a mosque or otherwise acted inappropriately. The critics merely pointed to papers delivered at a center conference on topics such as “The Central Role of Palestinian Antisemitism in Creating the Palestinian Identity,” “Lawfare, Human Rights Organizations and the Demonization of Israel” and “Self Hatred and Contemporary Antisemitism.” The conference included scholars from more than a dozen countries.

Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestine Liberation Organization representative to the United States and one of center’s most vocal critics, sent a letter in August 2010 to Yale’s president urging him to dissociate the university from the institute. Areikat’s letter, however, does not quote from the papers themselves but merely expresses disapproval of the speakers and of their chosen topics. There are many scores of papers in the academic world at large delivered each year, many of them critical of Muslims or of Jews, that are truly inflammatory, yet — in the West — one does not close down the places where they have been delivered.

Defamation is the same charge that was leveled against a Danish newspaper that published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Denmark protected the paper, its editors and cartoonists, and other papers across the world continued to publish them. It is the same charge leveled against Salman Rushdie for his novel “The Satanic Verses,” only instead of censoring him, Britain provided him shelter and enabled him to continue publishing.

Yale should not have closed the institute if only not to seem even to yield to such pressures. Imagine what we would have said if Britain expelled Rushdie because he did not have a permit to work or some other such reason we could not disprove.

Defenders of the closure argue that whenever they criticize Israel, they are charged with anti-Semitism. As I see it, assuming they are criticizing the policies of Israel rather than seeking to delegitimize it by claiming that the Jewish people are not entitled to a homeland, they are free to say all they want. And they, and all other critics of the Yale center’s papers, are free to counter speech of which they disapprove with more speech — but not with closing down one of the few institutes dedicated to the study of anti-Semitism.

In my 50 years on campuses — including at similarly highly regarded universities such as Harvard, Columbia and Berkeley — I have seen plenty of institutes that produced little and are still functioning. Universities that consider the mission of an institute to be an important one, but its output weak, can and do replace the director and beef up the faculty. In some cases, they even put the institute in what is called a “receivership,” which gives the university a free hand to reconstitute the institute. This is essentially what Yale finally did — by announcing that it will open a new center for the study of anti-Semitism this fall.

It matters little to me if Yale acted properly because it responded to a chorus of criticism or showed particular sensitivity to the issue because it maintained quotas that discriminated against Jewish students into the 1960s, or because it took into account that anti-Semitism is flourishing in many parts of the world, including in several Muslim nations. It did the right thing. Now it is up to the new team to show that they will go wherever their research points them, disregarding what critics who have pro-Palestinian or pro-Jewish agendas demand.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.