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Yale closes antisemitism research program

Jewish Ledger | 6-17-11

Earlier this month, Yale University announced that it will be closing the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) in July.
Founded in 2006 and directed by Dr. Charles A. Small, YIISA is the only U.S.-based program of its kind, dedicated to the scholarly study of contemporary antisemitism.
The story first broke on June 6 in the New York Post, in an article by Abby Wisse Schachter. Citing an email from Charles Hogen, Yale’s director of strategic communications, Schachter wrote, “…YIISA had failed a key test: It was supposed to ‘serve the research and teaching interests of some significant group of Yale faculty and …be sustained by the creative energy of a critical mass of Yale faculty.'”
An official statement released by the university cited Donald Green, director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, where YIISA is housed:
“YIISA 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.”
Schachter was not shy in guessing at the university’s motives: There’s antisemitism and there’s antisemitism.

As a field of study, the old-fashioned, Christian variety was okay, but might the real reason for the shutdown be Yale’s reluctance to examine the  contemporary brand, i.e. Muslim antisemitism?
Over the last week, a flurry of articles and blog posts on the subject has presented a range of reactions, mostly shock and outrage, and much speculation as to the university’s true motivations. Abe Foxman from the ADL and David Harris from the American Jewish Committee have weighed in, urging Yale to reconsider. Elie Wiesel told the Ledger, “I deeply regret this decision. Yale should have known better. After all, antisemitism is unfortunately present everywhere, and its damage is real. I hope the Initiative will be allowed to continue its work.”
Whatever their political view or degree of sympathy, many journalists and bloggers seem to agree that something significant happened at the inaugural conference of the International Association for the Study of Antisemitism (IASA), co-sponsored by YIISA and hosted by Yale last August.
Titled “Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity,” the conference brought together scholars from throughout the world, representing several academic disciplines, as well as journalists, diplomats, government officials, and policy analysts. Presenters examined the topic from various angles, and focused largely on modern-day antisemitism, as expressed in modern-day anti-Israel and anti-Zionism manifestations.
Following the conference, Schachter reported, PLO “ambassador” to the U.S., Maen Rashid Areikat wrote to Yale’s president, Richard Levin, “It’s shocking that a respected institution like Yale would give a platform to these right-wing extremists and their odious views.”  An op-ed in the Yale Daily News by a second-year Yale Law School student took the conference to task for promoting anti-Muslim rhetoric. Several scholars who had presented at the conference responded with an open letter to the president and scholarly community of Yale. An excerpt reads:
“It has come to our attention that, despite its manifest virtues and successes, the YIISA conference has been erroneously described in the Yale Daily News, by politicians and a contingent of motivated bloggers, none of whom attended the conference or read a single paper, as providing a platform for ‘anti-Arab and anti-Muslim speakers’. Therefore, as speakers at this conference, and as listeners to the panels, lectures and discussions that were part of this conference, we write to assert that these accusations are false, and that the conference was in keeping with the scholarly mission of a great research university.”
“We understand well that efforts to examine prejudice and the hatred it fosters against the Jewish people have been and will be attacked in this manner for political reasons. In fact, calling scholars who work on this issue racists and Islamophobes is a grotesque reversal of the facts. The purpose of those who attack scholars who study antisemitism is to suppress scholarly research on these important matters, offer legitimacy to Jew-hatred…”
“The tragic and infuriating fact is that there is much evidence that a great deal of contemporary antisemitism inspired by Islamism has appeared in recent years in printed books, on internet websites, in newspaper columns and on widely watched television stations in Iran and in the Middle East. When scholars at the conference drew attention to these facts they repeatedly made clear that they were not doing so in order to make generalizations about all Arabs, Iranians and certainly not about Islam in general. They were bringing attention to unpleasant facts.”
Among the conference presenters and signatories of the open letter was Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University and a member of the IASA interim executive committee.
“YIISA did a lot of important academic work,” she says. “Regarding last year’s conference, I don’t think anyone there was arguing that criticism of Israel equals antisemitism. Yes, some papers were less scholarly and more polemical, but the truth of the matter is that the conference also stood out because, more often than not, you don’t hear this kind of attitude and expression of hostility toward Jews openly discussed in academic circles.”
Irrefutable is the fact that, in certain segments of the Muslim or Arab world – but not in its entirety – there are expressions of antisemitism, Lipstadt says, sometimes in the guise of criticism of Israel, sometimes more direct. “And it’s become a taboo subject, due to political correctness,” she says. “Talking about it is seen as Muslim-bashing; people say, ‘You sound like Sarah Palin, you sound like the people opposing the mosque near Ground Zero.'”
Lipstadt takes issue with the way the university has chosen to treat the program. “My bottom line is, was YIISA a perfect academic entity? No,” she says. “Was there room for improvement? Yes. Should it be shut down? I don’t think so. You hand the leadership a program of what needs to be enhanced and give it two years to improve, but not with only 30 days’ notice.”

Dr. Charles Small

While the conference was YIISA’s largest event to date, the center has been engaged in several other scholarly activities since its inception. Chief among them is its signature weekly seminar series, co-sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy. Presenters are leading scholars and researchers from throughout the world, many of whom have published papers in prominent academic journals. YIISA publishes a series of working papers, edited by director Charles Small, and supports a program of graduate fellows and post-doctoral associates, as well as visiting professors and visiting fellows.
Some of the more pointed criticism toward Yale comes from Dr. Martin Kramer, senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the Wexler-Fromer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy. “No one knows what lurks in the hearts or minds of Yale administrators,” he recently told the Ledger. “We know that they already have a disgraceful record of stifling free expression – at their own university press – that might give offense to Islamists and their fellow travelers. We know that they have tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to lure Prince Alwaleed, financial front man of the House of Saud, to make an eight-figure gift to the promotion of Islam-West relations. YIISA may have become an obstacle to that quest. One thing is certain: Yale’s declared ‘academic’ rationale for pulling the plug smells foul.”
YIISA director Charles Small is yet unavailable to comment on the university’s decision.

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