Flash! Yale will study anti-Semitism

Center Field: After canceling one initiative, the Ivy League university is now launching a new one.

311_Yale logo (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Yale logo
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After abruptly cancelling the Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of anti-Semitism – and subsequently enduring two weeks of criticism – Yale University is now launching the new Yale Program for the Study of anti-Semitism (YPSA). Ignoring the past two weeks’ absurdities – the hysterics who called Yale anti- Semitic because of its decision and ham-handed handling of the issue – the new center is most welcome. That one of the world’s leading universities recognizes anti-Semitism as worthy of scholarly study is significant. This center should study anti-Semitism past and present, in the United States and the world – acknowledging the characteristics that define what Robert Wistrich calls “The Longest Hatred” and its many variations.
The Yale program’s mission is scholarship, not advocacy. YPSA should not be the ADL for PhDs. The program should not train the global Jewish orchestra’s violin section to play the haunting sounds of Jewish suffering in order to score points. It should not be the center for the Jewish entry in the great American victimology sweepstakes, with different groups quibbling over who suffered most. Nevertheless, scholars must study the issue boldly, no matter how politically incorrect their conclusions.
It is surprising how lonely this new program will be; there are few such centers in America. In an age of super sub-specializing, and despite campus hypersensitivity to all kinds of injustice, that five years ago there were no American centers studying anti-Semitism is scandalous. Dr. Charles Small deserves great credit for launching the first center in America, and for demonstrating how illuminating such centers can be.
Small needed to be a pioneer because anti- Semitism in America is often obscured by a cloak of invisibility. The “Longest Hatred” is today a most overlooked, masked and rationalized hatred. The obscuring is partially because American Jewish history is an extraordinary love story, a tale of immigrants finding a welcoming home suited to their skills, values and ambitions. American anti- Semitism does not compare to European anti- Semitism. The whys and whats of these differences are fascinating and also invite study.
The invisibility cloak works most effectively in hiding the “New anti-Semitism” – which singles out Israel and Zionism unfairly, disproportionately, obsessively. “Delegitimization” – an awkward term for an ugly phenomenon – is familiar to pro-Israel insiders, but means nothing to most others, many of whom simply explain all hostility by pointing to Palestinian suffering. This rationalist analysis ignores Israel-bashing’s irrational, often anti- Semitic, pedigree. The modern anti-Semite often claims, “I am not anti-Semitic, I am just anti-Israel or anti-Zionist.” And the discussion quickly becomes muddled, because there are valid criticisms to level against Israel and Zionism, as there are about all countries and nationalitisms.
ON CAMPUS today, the burden of proof usually lies with bigots to demonstrate they are not biased. Except, somehow, the burden usually falls on Jews when we encounter bias. Treating Israel as what Canadian MP Professor Irwin Cotler calls “the Jew among nations” frequently is anti-Semitic. Especially on campuses, the discussion is distorted because much modern anti- Zionist anti-Semitism comes from the Red-Green alliance – that unlikely bond between some radical leftists and Islamists. They should be natural enemies, yet they unite in hating Israel and Zionism.
Because so many professors and students are progressive, especially at elite universities, they frequently dismiss criticism of leftist anti-Semitism as McCarthyite or “neo-con.” But the anti-Israel hatred found on the Left has its own morphology and pathology. Good scholarship could explore its roots in the Stalinist 1930s and the anti-colonialist 1960s, could compare its European and American strains, while explaining what it says about the Left’s stance toward the Western world and the Third World.
More broadly, there is an historical mystery involved in how Zionism was tagged with the modern world’s three great sins – racism, imperialism and colonialism – and why Israel is compared frequently to two of the 20th century's most evil regimes, apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany.
In abandoning the realm of the rational, these accusations also demand study. Consider that Israel’s struggle is national not racial, so how is Zionism one of the few forms of nationalism deemed racist? Knowing that colonialism means settling land to which settlers have no prior claim, why are Israel’s origins called colonial? And how does imperialism properly describe the world’s 96th largest country holding on to neighboring territories it acquired after a war fought in self-defense, given that there are security as well as historic-religious reasons, and given Israel’s willingness to return the Sinai to Egypt in 1979 in exchange for the mere promise of peace? With so many absurd accusations piling up, and frequently echoing with historic anti-Semitic tropes, scholars can provide clarity – without addressing the right or wrongs of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
Scholars can also clarify the relationship between this genteel, often masked, “progressive” indictment and the cruder Islamist indictment – part of a systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism, ostracize Israel, and characterize Jews as apes and pigs, monkeys and shylocks. How central is this rhetoric to the Islamist movement? What is the significance of the ugly caricatures and words emanating from the Arab world? It is not anti-Islamic or anti-intellectual to note and analyze the centrality of Jew-hatred in this anti-Western ideology.
We need consciences, not scholarship, to condemn anti-Semitism, and we have institutes galore to track it.
Scholars can help define boundaries, create categories, sharpen vocabulary, explain origins, compare phenomena and provide context – also giving a reality check and warning of pro-Israel overreactions too.
Anti-Semitism has been around for too long, done too much damage, perverted too much contemporary diplomacy and campus politics, to be ignored.
Yale University should be congratulated for relaunching this program. Others should follow.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.