By Cindy Mindell
Last June, Yale University shut down the groundbreaking Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA), the first and only such academic initiative in the U.S. A year after YIISA co-sponsored an international conference on campus, “Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity, Yale officials accused the program of a lack of academic rigor as the rationale for terminating the five-year-old program. (In its place, the university created the Yale Center for the Study of Antisemitism.)
YIISA founder and director Charles Asher Small may have left New Haven, but he has not closed up shop. Quite the contrary: he has begun to create a U.S. academic network that will continue YIISA’s work and expand the scholarly exploration of modern-day antisemitism in all its guises. The new endeavor — called the “Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy” (ISGAP) – is actually the revitalization of an organization that Small had established prior to the formation of YIISA.
Small will discuss “The Challenge of Global Antisemitism During a Time of Silence,” on Thursday, Nov. 8, 7 p.m. at Temple Sholom, 300 East Putnam Ave. in Greenwich. For information call (203) 869-7191.
Just before flying to Israel to present a talk on American foreign policy and the “Arab Spring,” at the World Summit on Counter-Terrorism at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, part of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Small spoke with the Ledger about his latest efforts.
Q: Tell us a little about the revitalized ISGAP?
A: We opened a head office in Midtown Manhattan, and have a new executive coordinator and a new program coordinator. Elie Wiesel
joined us as honorary president (see story p. 36).
We have opened programs at four North American universities: a series of events at Stanford, both its California campus and its Hoover Institution in Washington, D.C.; an interdisciplinary research seminar series at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus and at McGill University in Montreal; and a course on antisemitism, discrimination, human rights, and international law at Harvard Law School. We’re working on finding events in which to participate in Europe and Israel.
Q: How do you explain the lack of university programs in the U.S. dedicated to the study of contemporary antisemitism?
A: There’s a profound denial in the U.S. that permeates its major institutions, from the academy to serious media outlets and policy-makers. There is a wave of reactionary social movements that are taking control and power throughout the Middle East and, in this country, there is an assumption that this is part of a “spring” and a democratic movement.
As long as there are free elections, everybody is content, but free elections don’t mean democratic elections and democratic societies, where the rights of women, gays, and religious minorities are respected.
I believe that this is a catastrophe in the making.
What are the implications that the new president of Egypt is coming to meet with President Obama? Morsi is a man who believes in the most pernicious antisemitic stereotypes of Jews imaginable, including the stereotype that Jews are responsible for 9/11. Where is the red line in the U.S. for dealing with antisemitism, among policy-makers and scholars?
There is a profound reluctance to deal with this issue. Instead, academics and policy-makers are stuck in lazy, weak, post-modern world views rooted in university cafeterias of the mid-’80s: this childish, disconnected world view that those people who were once colonized and who experienced great tragedies and difficulties at the hands of western European Christian colonial powers – we permit the most reactionary social movements to emerge in those places, and if you’re progressive and anti-colonist, you can no longer be critical of the people who were once colonized. Even if they implement policies that are abusive and ignore human rights, they’re beyond our reproach.
There’s a revolution in those countries, and the U.S. is sleeping through it, and this is a bipartisan, societal problem in this country. What exemplifies it is the notion that some Americans have that if you throw money at these people, buy them nice cars, they’ll change their world view, and that we need to understand their world view and their culture. But the truth is, reactionary movements are those that have to be confronted by people who care about human rights and democracy. We need to understand their objective in what they’re trying to achieve, and then find a strategy to stop it.
Q: What is the nature of contemporary antisemitism?
A: Contemporary antisemitism, like previous forms of antisemitism, is genocidal in nature, and it is not just a problem for Jews or Israeli Jews but also for those who care about human rights and democracy and human decency. Antisemitism begins with Jews but never ends with Jews. We see this pathetic slogan becoming true, with the tens of thousands of people being massacred in the Middle East as we speak.
We’ve always been saying that there are different phases of antisemitism: religious, racist/nationalist, and now the focus is on Israel.
Where antisemitism is different from other forms of discrimination is that, when the Jews didn’t accept Christ, the Christians said that Jews were blinded by the devil and were beyond salvation, and that if they didn’t accept the Christian messiah, it hindered the world from being saved. When Jews lived among white Aryans, they had to be eliminated in order to save the race and the nation. Today, Israel has to not exist or change its boundaries in order to stop the problems in the Middle East and the world.
The demonization of Israel is accelerating and there are people who delude themselves into thinking that somehow, they’re going to
be exempt from this problem. They say that it’s not antisemitism, but anti-Zionism. But when rabbis are being brought to trial in Germany for performing circumcision, where are the progressive activists, where is the outcry to defend the Jews of Europe? We don’t see it.
Q: With anti-Israel rhetoric and activity on many U.S. college campuses and in the classroom, how does ISGAP attract students and scholars who aren’t afraid to explore antisemitism in an academic setting?
A: The atmosphere on campus is deteriorating in Europe, Canada, and the U.S. At places like Yale, the mere fact that this issue is being studied by leading scholars from around the world, was beyond the Pale. It’s a little safer to deal with the history of antisemitism and with problems of the past. When scholars are committed to try to understand the current, contemporary manifestations and challenges of antisemitism, they’re accused of being politically biased, and of being advocates and not scholars.
We take a high-caliber, scholarly, interdisciplinary approach to this problem, this disease. Through ISGAP’s programming and curriculum development, we hope we’re going to engage in serious research projects and create a presence on important university campuses and that this will inspire students and scholars to deal with the issue. By our example, we hope that there will be other similar projects and programs as well.
There is always an hostility toward people dealing with these issues. But academics, people fortunate enough to be allowed to sit and think, have a moral obligation to find solutions and if we do not engage the problems of society that literally threaten the lives and institutions of democratic societies, we are failing morally and ethically and as intellectuals. I agree with intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, who says that it is the responsibility of an intellectual to shed light where there is darkness and if we walk away, we fail. That is the highest form of academic scholarship.
The real question is, why do some institutions turn away from this problem that has a profound legacy of destruction? If you look at power politics, where does funding come from for Ivy League institutions? Are there interests that don’t want to see these issues being raised? Then, at what cost do we sell our moral and ethical freedom?
Learn more about ISGAP at www.isgap.org
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