The modern university is no longer made up simply of departments and regular professors teaching students. Ancillary centers, programs, and initiatives proliferate, undertaking research on every conceivable topic and, in exchange for use of the university’s name, bringing in prestige, money, and the occasional celebrity. The fates of such entities rarely make the New York Post. But anti-Semitism is not a normal subject.
Just how abnormal a subject it is, and how volatile its study can be, has come to public attention with Yale University’s termination of the Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) after five years of successful operation. Led by the sociologist Charles Small, YIISA was the largest research unit in North America devoted to examining an issue of great antiquity and urgent contemporary significance. Its mission was defined clearly: “to explore this subject matter in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary framework from an array of approaches and perspectives as well as regional contexts.”
Pursuant to that mission, YIISA annually assembled groups of scholars for seminars and conferences and published a series of studies. The scholars attached to the initiative included such figures as David Hirsh of Goldsmiths College in London, Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian attorney general, and Bassam Tibi, professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Goettingen. Dozens of other well-credentialed academics participated in YIISA seminars, with interns, graduate fellows, and Yale faculty members helping to realize the enterprise’s promise of becoming a “vibrant space” for scholarship, discussion, and debate.
But “initiatives” are fragile things, and this one, evidently, initiated more than its host had bargained for. At a 2010 conference titled “Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity,” experts from around the world gathered to deliberate the most dangerous global form of contemporary anti-Semitism, namely, the Muslim variety. Dangerous in more ways than one: the event’s discussions provoked the ire of some Yale faculty and students, as well as representatives of the official Muslim world; the ire evidently caused institutional discomfiture; and YIISA’s fate was sealed.
No doubt other considerations went into Yale’s decision to shut down this enterprise; it is difficult to know for sure. But the finality of the move, and the evasive rationales advanced for it, suggest a desire to dodge the issue. After all, universities rarely admit mistakes and even more rarely correct them. More typical are bureaucratic fixes: downgrading “programs” to “projects,” moving units to smaller office spaces (the academic equivalent of Siberia), or, in truly bad situations, replacing leaders and putting units in receivership. Why pull the plug so completely?
In any event, Yale’s stated reasons for terminating YIISA omit any mention of the 2010 conference or its subject matter. The university’s director of strategic communications, according to Abby Wisse Schachter who broke the story in the New York Post, asserted that the decision was made on the basis of YIISA’s failure to “serve the research and teaching interests of some significant Yale faculty and . . . [to] be sustained by the creative energy of a critical mass of Yale faculty.” Unspecified were the interests that were not being served or sustained, let alone the nature of the alleged failure.
To counter criticism of its action, Yale dribbled out a few additional statements. To Donald Green, the director of the institute where YIISA was housed, the problem lay both in YIISA’s professional standards and in its non-popularity: “Little scholarly work appeared in top-tier journals in behavioral science, comparative politics, or history. Courses created in this area did not attract large numbers of students.”
It may indeed be that course enrollments were low, but so are enrollments in any number of areas that universities deem worthy of study. In any case, such numbers are of little relevance to an entity like YIISA, which was by definition a research and not a teaching unit, and which held numerous events attracting public attention and open to the entire Yale community.
As far as publications are concerned, YIISA, just like similar centers and programs at Yale, published its own highly regarded monograph series that made its scholars’ work freely available for download. Since when is the wide dissemination of scholarly products no longer an important academic goal? Nor is Yale known for applying the “top-tier” criterion across the board. The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, for example, is a center-Left policy group currently directed by the former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo. It attracts wealthy and powerful speakers, some of whom are or may become Yale donors, and releases its reports and findings not in so-called “top-tier journals” but in various house-branded forms. It is hardly unique in this.
But the pious invocation of “top-tier” academic journals with their hoary review processes is itself specious. Offering a comparison with YIISA’s record in this respect, Green touted the “extraordinary number” of articles in such journals produced by yet another Yale research “initiative.” This is the Field Experiments Initiative, dedicated to “randomized studies of voter mobilization, peer counseling of homeless people, campaign activities in Africa, and the persuasiveness of televised campaign advertisements.” The fact that the jargon-laden study of campaign advertisements yields more placements in academic journals than do analyses of anti-Semitism speaks dreary volumes about the gatekeepers of so much of contemporary scholarship, about the subjects they consider respectable, and about the standards of judgment they apply.
And here we return to the unspoken nub of the matter. At its 2010 conference, YIISA dared to tackle, openly, the single deadliest form of contemporary anti-Semitism, bringing together for this purpose a bevy of “top-tier” scholars from around the world. It was, clearly, the very holding of such an event that raised hackles from within and without. One response came from Maen Rashid Areikat, the Washington representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization: “It’s shocking that a respected institution like Yale would give a platform to these right-wing extremists and their odious views. . . . I urge you to publicly dissociate yourself and Yale University from the anti-Arab extremism and hate-mongering that were on display during this conference.”
This, from an operative of a group whose very name is soaked with the blood of murdered Jews and whose doctrines have poisoned the minds and disfigured the passions of whole generations, including in centers of elite Western opinion. Asked about the possible influence of responses like Areikat’s in its decision to terminate YIISA, a Yale spokesman huffed that the university “doesn’t make decisions about individual programs . . . based on outside criticism.” Maybe so. But it would be naïve to suppose that Yale is anything less than super-sensitive to its institutional self-interest in a part of the world whose favor it may wish to court—and the all too palpable consequences of whose wrath it seeks to avoid.
It is well known, for instance, that Yale has long been seeking support from wealthy Arab donors. In particular, it has wooed Saudi Prince Alwaleed ibn Talal, who in 2005 gave $20 million apiece to Harvard and Georgetown for Islamic-studies programs. (Yale, which competed vigorously for the prize, made it to the final round.) True to their donors’ intent, such academic programs are faithful disseminators of the “narrative” of Muslim victimization. In the same connection, it should likewise be borne in mind that in 2009, alerted to the imminent publication by its own press of a scholarly book on the Danish-cartoons controversy, the Yale administration summarily intervened to yank images of the cartoons from the final product—on the grounds that their appearance might elicit “violence.”
That craven decision was made, allegedly, on the advice of experts gathered for the task, a number of them on the Yale faculty. The same or similar experts, one imagines, now constitute the unnamed “critical mass” whose “research and teaching interests” YIISA is condemned for having failed to serve. Among them, no doubt, are Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, formerly of the State Department and National Security Council and now senior fellows of Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. The Leveretts, strong defenders of the Iranian (and Syrian) regimes, famously charged the George W. Bush administration with ignoring crucial opportunities to negotiate with the mullahs of Tehran, and have criticized the Obama administration on the same grounds. In 2009, Hillary Mann Leverett took her graduate students to New York to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the United Nations; reportedly, he enlightened them on the absence of proof for the Holocaust.
There is no need to impute a conspiracy here; it suffices to recognize a confluence of factors—and a mindset. Exactly 60 years ago, the young William F. Buckley, Jr., in God and Man at Yale, published a withering critique of, in the words of a recent appraisal, “the intolerance of the academy toward unfashionable concepts, . . . the stultifying effects of elitist groupthink on thought, and . . . the failure of the university to engage a wide range of ideas fairly and in simple good faith.” At the time, the particular issue salient in Buckley’s mind was the academy’s refusal to engage the subject of God and man. Today, it is the refusal to engage the global campaign to defame, de-legitimate, and demonize the Jewish people. As the fact of anti-Semitism grows, including on some North American campuses, one large, serious academic effort to study anti-Semitism has been shut down.
Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.
This article is reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.