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Q & A with Prof. Maurice Samuels, head of Yale’s new antisemitism program

Prof. Maurice Samuels

By Cindy Mindell ~

In the wake of the much-publicized and hotly debated closing of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) in June, Yale administration quickly rallied to announce an alternative. The Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism (YPSA) opened in the fall, headed by Maurice Samuels from the Department of French. Samuels, who specializes both in the literature and culture of 19th-century France and in Jewish Studies, has taught at the university since 2006. An award-winning author, he is currently co-editing a 19th century Jewish literature reader and working on a new book on the relationship of antisemitism and philosemitism in France, from the French Revolution to the present.
Note: Regarding the difference between the “anti-Semitism” and “antisemitism,” Samuels explains, “I prefer ‘antisemitism’ because I think that the hyphen and capitalized S lends credence to the out-dated racial/linguistic idea that there is a Semitic people. This was a choice that my editors at Stanford University Press imposed and one that I have stuck with.”
Samuels spoke with the Ledger about his vision for the new program.

Why did you decide to take the director position at YPSA? What interests you about the new initiative? How did you develop your scholarly interest in antisemitism?
A: I’ve been working for a few years on the intersection of antisemitism and philosemitism in France from the French Revolution to the present. This project grew out of my last book, “Inventing the Israelite: Jewish Fiction in Nineteenth-Century France” (Stanford University Press, 2010), which examined the ways in which the first Jewish fiction writers in France reacted to anti-Semitic, as well as philosemitic, stereotypes in French culture. So my scholarly interest in antisemitism goes back a number of years.
After the closing of the old program, YIISA, the Yale president and provost said they would be open to a new program if it were led by a Yale faculty member. I volunteered because of my scholarly interest in the subject and because I felt that there was a real need for such a program. Currently, the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, at Indiana University, is the only other such program at an American university.

In your statement upon accepting the position you say, “Yale has some of the leading scholars in the world working on antisemitism and interfaith-relations in different contexts and from different methodological and disciplinary perspectives.” Regarding your mention of interfaith relations and antisemitism, what is the relationship between the two scholarly fields and how do you envision their shared contribution to YPSA?
A: Antisemitism of course implies a hostility toward, or negative perception of, Jews and Judaism. Interfaith relations are by definition much broader and include all forms of interaction between different religious communities – positive, negative, or neutral. I think that studying the way that Jews have been perceived through the centuries by members of other religions can shed light on current concerns. Similarly, I think that scholars working in a variety of different fields, including history, literature, political science, sociology, psychology, law, etc., should be brought together to address the issue.

What are some of the challenges specific to the academic study of antisemitism?
A: One of the problems is that hostility toward Jews can take so many different forms. In its classic Christian form, it was mainly a religious hostility. But in the 19th century, as Jews began to enter mainstream economic and political life, antisemitism began to express cultural fears and phobias. In some instances, it became a way of registering a fear of modernity itself. It was also at this time that Jews began to be seen as primarily a racial, rather than merely religious, group. I think that the so-called “new antisemitism” we see today borrows from all of these forms but also differs from them in ways that still need to be better understood.

Are there any student research projects already underway? If so, what topics are they exploring?
A: We are just about to list the first student research grants, which have been generously funded by the Salo and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation. These grants, which will range between $500 and $3,000, will support Yale undergraduate or graduate students who are researching any aspect of antisemitism. The money can be used for travel or for research at Yale. We will also be listing grants for Yale faculty as well. This is one of the key aspects of our program and it is our hope that these grants will stimulate important new research. We are very excited about this.

In light of the goal to better understand the causes and effects of antisemitism, can/should YPSA’s work extend beyond the academic setting into areas of policy? If so, how and where?  
A: YPSA is not a policy center or an advocacy organization.  Our work will be focused on scholarship. But if our work can help advocates and policy makers to combat antisemitism, that would be a great outcome.

What are some of the highlights for you so far in your new position? What is your vision for the program in Year 2, 5, 10?
A: The program is off to a good start. We have assembled a really great line-up of speakers for the year including Jan Gross, Alvin Rosenfeld, Deborah Lipstadt, David Feldman, Meir Litvak, and Jonathan Judaken. In addition, numerous Yale faculty will speak about their work, including Bruce Wexler, Timothy Snyder, Francesca Trivellato, and myself. We have a faculty reading group up and running. The first conference is being planned for next fall, and will be on past and present antisemitism in France. And I have just received the go-ahead from the Yale administration to invite a visiting professor to teach courses on antisemitism. I am hoping to be able to welcome a distinguished visitor next fall. So I’ve been very busy so far! I’m hoping to continue on this path in the years to come by inviting speakers and holding conferences that examine antisemitism in many different times and places. My goal is to make Yale the world’s leading center for the study of antisemitism.

Do you plan on addressing the issue of Muslim antisemitism?
A: Yes … that is definitely one of our areas of concern.  Alvin Rosenfeld just gave a very powerful talk on the Iranian threat to Israel.  And Meir Litvak will be coming to speak about antisemitism in the Muslim world.
For more information: http://ypsa.yale.edu

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