Prof. Charles Small has been everywhere lately, testifying before the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee on anti-Semitism, meeting with Pope Francis in Rome’s Great Synagogue and organizing seminar series at universities across the globe.
The very image of an academic, Small has slightly receding white hair, a slim build and frameless glasses. In no other way does he match the stereotype of a retiring and shy academic, however.
The founding director of Yale University’s Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA), Small was at the center of a communal maelstrom in 2011 when the storied university’s administration decided to ax the center over what the administration and critics, such as Hebrew University’s anti-Semitism expert Robert Wistrich, claimed was a lack of academic vigor and aggressive politicization.
Prominent figures in the American Jewish community disagreed, however, with the heads of the several organizations, including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, panning the decision to oust Small.
Prominent Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt was one of those critical of Yale’s decision, calling it “weird” and “strange” and saying that the program “ran firstrate events” while the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East accused Yale of buckling to pressure from Iran due to the program’s tendency to focus on contemporary Islamist anti-Semitism.
While YIISA ultimately closed, the New York-based think tank that Small founded, and which had established the academic center, continued to operate and in recent years it has become the vehicle for an initiative to spread the study of contemporary anti-Semitism throughout the academic world.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, Small explained his current endeavors and what brought him to involve himself in issues of anti-Semitism in the first place.
Having been involved in Soviet Jewry protests and anti-apartheid activism in the 1970s, Small says that he was always interested in social justice issues, but that it was not until he was working in academia in Israel in the early 1990s that he began to become familiar with Islamic radicalism, the catalyst for much of his current work.
“It was through my engagement with a group of scholars that were trying to bring about reconciliation with Israelis and Palestinians that I actually became aware of the rise of radical political Islam and I became engaged in studying and reading – I devoured everything I could read about the Muslim Brotherhood and the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he recalled.
“And even though I went to very good universities like McGill and London and Oxford, I was never exposed to that ideological world view... As a student of radical political Islam I started to understand how they use anti-Semitism as a core ideological element of their world view and they use it to fuel the sort of reactionary social movements in a very disturbing way and I became very concerned in the mid-90s about this. Unfortunately, fast-forward 20 years later and my concerns are tragically being realized.”
It was his worry that these issues were not of great concern in the academic community that led him to create the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism in 2004, he related, saying that he initially “started ISGAP as a website in my house, a student of mine created a website, and we started to have events as an independent center and eventually in 2006 I moved ISGAP to Yale and that became the first university-based research center on anti-Semitism ever in North America. It was the first one.”
However, “in 2011 we were unceremoniously closed and then ISGAP moved to New York as an independent research center, so we’re keeping our independence but we’re doing program at universities.”
“I was offered to stay at Yale on the condition that I did not deal with contemporary issues in the Middle East and I simply refused and said goodbye and said thank you,” Small asserted.
He said that it was after a conversation with Elie Wiesel, ISGAP’s honorary president, two years ago, in which the Nobel laureate called for him to focus on Europe that he tried to start developing programs on the continent.
So far, ISGAP has held seminar series featuring a variety of academics on campuses around the world, including at the Sapiens University of Rome, the National University of Kyiv, NCRS/Sorbonne and Harvard University.
“I think what distinguishes ISGAP from other Jewish advocacy organizations is that there’s now a bunch of groups that are now fighting anti-Semitism on campus and what we’re trying to do and what distinguishes ISGAP from other Jewish advocacy organizations is we’re not a Jewish advocacy organizations and we’re fighting contemporary anti-Semitism – our tagline is ‘Fighting anti-Semitism on the battlefield of ideas’, and we’re the only organization or institute that’s fighting in the classroom,” he explained.
“We’re trying to create a space to study contemporary anti-Semitism, where faculty and students can come to a classroom, get informed reading lists and references, and have informed discussions and debates and even arguments in a rational high-caliber academic way.”
These seminar series are ISGAP’s way of promoting such topics within academia and “absolutely vital role,” said Dr. Neil J. Kressel of William Paterson University, who delivered a paper on “The Great Failure of the Anti-Racist Community: How and Why Contemporary Global Antisemitism Has Been Downplayed and Ignored” at an ISGAP seminar at the Harvard Faculty Club.
“I think that title reflects my deep concern that professors and academics around the world frequently have been, at best, misunderstanding and underestimating the dangers associated with contemporary Jew-hatred,” Kressel told the Post.
“Worse, more than a few professors have become fellow-travelers of the anti-Semites. It is disturbing to me that social scientists, humanities scholars, human rights activists, and others who have been at the forefront of the fight against other forms of racism have been essentially useless in the fight against contemporary anti-Semitism.
Under Charles Small’s tireless and bold leadership, ISGAP has been trying to raise awareness of the many facets of contemporary hostility toward Jews. The organization is fighting an uphill battle to keep scholars informed and aware as well as morally and intellectually honest.”
Human rights advocate and former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler, the co-chairman of the group’s international academic board of advisers, agreed, telling the Post that Small’s outfit plays “an important role in the understanding of the globalization of anti-Semitism with its campus seminars, its Oxford Summer Institute, its publications, and its policy initiatives.”
Asked what lies in store for the future, Small replied that his dream is to “provide material for the human rights community and the nongovernmental organization community and advocates in the Jewish community like the ADL and other scholars to fight anti-Semitism on the level of ideas and the level of ideology, which will then trickle down into policy and then into legislation.
“So our goal is to provide weapons to fight this scourge of contemporary anti-Semitism, which is accelerating.”
JTA contributed to this report.