Last month, Yale shut down its institute for the study of contemporary
The reasons for that shut-down, and the furor surrounding
it, suggest that it may not be possible to have a university program on that
subject that’s either honest or responsible.
The institute – the Yale
Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, or YIISA – was
established in 2006. It was the first such institute in America, and one of the
few in the world. It sponsored research, visiting lectures and scholars; hosted
post-doctoral students; taught courses; and created the International
Association for the Study of Anti-Semitism.
The need for such an
institute was immense, and has grown more immense still. Anti-Semitism, which
has fueled countless spasms of murderous violence during its two millennia of
existence, finally fueled the Holocaust – a convulsion so massive that
anti-Semitism was, for 50 years, driven underground. Though it was common and
even fashionable in Europe and elsewhere until then, those who believed in it
afterward were embarrassed to admit it in the wake of the evil it had clearly
No longer. During the past decade, anti-Semitism is again in
style. It’s once again expressed in polite society.
It stalks Europe
(once its heartland), but its new center is, overwhelmingly, the Arab/Muslim
world, where the motifs that were typical of Europe for centuries are expressed
regularly on officially sanctioned television, in newspapers and in
Across the Middle East, the debunked Tsarist forgery The
Protocols of the Elders of Zion has been revived. Jews are portrayed as
conspiring to control the world, poisoning non-Jews, and draining the blood of
gentile children to bake matza.
THIS REVIVED anti-Semitism has been
melded with anti-Zionism. Not all anti-Zionists are anti-Semites, but all
anti-Semites are anti-Zionists.
Given the widespread acceptability of
anti-Zionism, some anti-Semites have insisted that they’re “only” anti-Zionists,
and that Israel and the Jews have become the new Nazis, perpetrating a Holocaust
of their own. In the Arab/Muslim world, calls are heard not only for the
annihilation of Israel, but also for the extermination of Jews
Which is why the institute Yale shut down was so needed. It’s
doubtful that in the 1930s, an academic institute documenting and studying anti-
Semitism, and warning the world of its dangers, would have averted the
Holocaust. It’s even doubtful that a dozen such institutes, or 100, would have
done so. But in the decades after the Holocaust, hands were wrung and tears were
shed so that no government, and very few organizations, said or did anything as
the anti-Semitism that preceded the Holocaust again grew in ferocity and scope.
Most just turned their backs, uttered their regrets, and moved on.
understood, and fewer still acknowledged the murderous possibilities, although
the central “lesson” of anti-Semitism was articulated piously and cheaply by a
grim-faced and suddenly-enlightened world: “Never again!” Why, then, in the face
of anti- Semitism’s fast-spreading return, did Yale shut its anti-Semitism
institute – especially in light of the school’s own shameful history of limiting
the admission of Jews? If you read the statements by Yale spokesmen, you would
think the institute just didn’t cut it academically – that it hadn’t captured
the interest of either Yale’s students or its faculty, and just wasn’t good
But if you believed that, you’d be wrong. The institute sponsored
plenty of talks, visiting scholars and postdoctoral students, several of whom
did valuable research and presented significant papers. Yale faculty members sat
on its advisory and governing boards.
THE INSTITUTE’S undoing, it turns
out, was that it organized a conference last August that spawned a whirlwind of
politically and ideologically sensitive criticism. Because so much of that
conference focused on the main source of contemporary anti-Semitism – the
Arab/Muslim world – it was called “Islamophobic.”
representative to the US accused the conference of demonizing Arabs. The
Internet exploded with excoriations of both the institute and Yale. Yale
faculty, as well as scholars elsewhere, turned against it.
conference, as well as the institute, were condemned as too “activist” for a
Never mind that some of the presentations were by serious
experts – a distinguished Arab who described the growth of anti-Semitism in the
Middle East, for example. And never mind that other university departments,
centers and events devoted to widely recognized evils, and routinely embraced by
universities, regularly sponsor conferences and lectures at which some
participants express opinions that could be considered “activist” – about, say,
racism, the subjugation of women or gays, genocide, human trafficking,
violations of human rights, nuclear proliferation, or even scientific subjects
such as global warming, cancer or AIDS.
Ordinarily, when universities
review programs and find deficiencies, those programs are given time to remedy
themselves. In this case, the institute was simply clamped shut, based on an
investigative report that the administration declared confidential.
report provoked a new round of excoriations, this time from the institute’s
supporters. Again, the Internet went wild with accusations, at which point Yale
administrators – instead of admitting that their judgment was hasty and that
they might have made a mistake – triumphantly announced a new institute. The
make-up of the new institute, and Yale’s behavior with regard to the old one,
don’t inspire confidence.
Some of Yale’s critics have claimed that the
university’s administrators shut down its first anti-Semitism institute for
venal reasons – that it’s seeking large donations from Arab sources. I don’t
believe that for a minute. I think it’s simply very hard for Yale, or any other
university, to focus honestly and responsibly on contemporary anti-Semitism,
because doing so invites accusations of “Islamophobia,” and universities simply
cannot tolerate such accusations.
Besides, examining the explosion of
anti-Semitism in the Arab/Muslim world, much of it aimed also at Israel, leaves
some faculty members (themselves uncomfortable with Israel) uncomfortable with
the study of the anti-Semitism aimed at Israel.
It seems likely that the
new institute will support the study of historical anti-Semitism – about which
an endless number of books and articles have already been written – or
contemporary anti-Semitism, that touches on the phenomenon in the Arab/Muslim
world but holds back from sponsoring research that includes the kinds of value
judgments that logically flow from such study.
And it seems likely that
administrators at other universities, learning from Yale’s painful experience,
will vow, if they’re asked to start such an institute: “Never again!”
is the Yitzhak Rabin memorial professor of international affairs, ethics and
human behavior at George Washington University, and a member of the
international academic board of advisers of the Yale Initiative for the
Interdisciplinary Study of anti-Semitism.
He is also a lecturer in
psychiatry at Yale and a former director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
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