Can universities study anti-Semitism honestly?

Recent history at Yale indicates that doing so might be too costly.

Yale University (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yale University
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last month, Yale shut down its institute for the study of contemporary anti-Semitism.
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 spawned.
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 mosques.
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 everywhere.
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.
Few 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 enough.
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.”
The PLO’s 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.
The conference, as well as the institute, were condemned as too “activist” for a university.
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.
The 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!”

The writer 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.