Scholarship and Anti-Semitism at Yale

By Ben Cohen
Monday, March 26, 2012

Almost a year has passed since Yale University shuttered the five-year-old Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Anti-Semitism, known by the unwieldy acronym "YIISA," and replaced it with the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism, or "YPSA."  The organizational shuffle produced a torrent of criticism in the Jewish and general press.  But nine months later, there is virtual radio silence about the new YPSA program.  So, how is it doing? And how does its approach differ from that of YIISA?

Yale asserted that it closed the old YIISA because the program paid too much attention to political advocacy and not enough to rigorous scholarship.  Yet, as Alex Joffe noted in these pages at the time, YIISA's scholarly product differed little from the output of other Yale programs that continue to flourish. 

Others said that YIISA signed its own death warrant by staging a 2010 conference focused on Muslim anti-Semitism. James Kirchick related an anecdote told to him by YIISA's director, Charles Small, who delivered the keynote. Small's mother was there, beaming with pride.  As Small left his seat for the podium, he whispered to her, "Ma, this is the beginning of the end." 

Sure enough, the PLO's Washington representative complained about the conference's depiction of Palestinian anti-Semitism.  The PLO protest was widely viewed as a factor in YIISA's demise.  Critics also linked Yale's anxieties about YIISA to its efforts to raise its profile in the Middle East, and its regret at losing out to Harvard and Georgetown on a $20 million gift from Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal for an Islamic studies center.  Against this background, dead Jews—victims of crusades, pogroms, the Shoah—were safer objects of study than live ones.

Maurice Samuels, the director of the replacement program, YPSA, specializes in 19th-century French literary and cultural history.  When Samuels was appointed, some asked whether he had the right academic background for the job.  "Modern anti-Semitism was arguably born in 19th-century France," he told me recently. "Today, France is on the front lines of the 'new anti-Semitism.'"  A few days after Samuels made this observation, the al-Qaeda terrorist Mohamed Merah gunned down a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

I asked Samuels about a comment by Yale's Jewish chaplain, James Ponet, in which he emphasized that the study of anti-Semitism has particular value for the light it sheds upon "other hatreds and prejudices that are operative in the world now."  Samuels did not disavow Ponet's position: "What he says is true and admirable, in its belief that the study of anti-Semitism has broad humanistic appeal."  But Samuels was firm that anti-Semitism is not just another hatred: "The religious and economic dimensions of Jew-hatred are pretty unique, as are the current ideological dimensions.  Anti-Semitism has provided a total worldview in a way that other racisms have not."

When asked about YPSA's research focus, Samuels cited his own work on "the interplay of philo-Semitism and anti-Semitism in France from the French Revolution to the present," as well as work by YPSA scholars on the Eastern European Holocaust, the association of Jews "with myths about the origin of credit in the early modern period," and the psychology of anti-Semitism and racism.

"I don't want to make comparisons with YIISA," Samuels told me.  However, his YPSA colleague, Yale sociologist Jeffrey Alexander, who once compared YIISA to a center for the study of racism that was run by Black Panthers, continues to stress the difference between YPSA and its predecessor.  For instance, Alexander told me, while the mullahs' anti-Semitism plays a critical role in Iran's attitude toward Israel, YIISA's emphasis on Iran reflected Israel's foreign policy imperatives.  YIISA's consorting with scholars who ascribed the worst intentions to Iran "just pushes people away," he said.  "When you get someone talking like that, it becomes a political talk about mobilizing the Left against Iran.  It's not an academic analysis of anti-Semitism."

Alexander also distinguished YPSA from YIISA on the question of anti-Semitism in Western politics.  When I asked him whether YPSA was in a position to bring clarity to the current controversy around the term "Israel-Firster," he replied, "YPSA as a corporate entity would not speak in that way, that's a difference with YIISA.  There are many groups that need to monitor these controversies, but YPSA isn't doing that right now."

Both Samuels and Alexander insisted that YPSA is engaged with current issues—for example, "the first systematic study," as Samuels described it, "of the representation of the 'other' in Palestinian and Israeli textbooks."  I asked Alexander whether he saw parity between representations of Arabs in Israeli textbooks and the bloodcurdling portraits of Jews in textbooks across the Middle East.  "I wouldn't say there's parity," he answered, but "there's a mutually-reinforcing circle of distrust.  Everything seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy." 

Samuels and Alexander reject the idea that they are shying away from Muslim anti-Semitism. Both share the conviction that YPSA must eschew political partisanship in its investigations of such issues. Nonetheless, their stance raises questions:  Is YPSA a neutered version of YIISA, filtering the virulence of Islamic anti-Semitism through the prevailing sensibilities of current Western social science?  Can one properly study prejudice without adopting certain normative assumptions?

Walter Reich—psychiatrist, George Washington University professor, former Holocaust Museum director, and a member of the former YIISA board of advisers—acknowledges the value of YPSA's scholarly concerns but sounds a warning: "A university program on anti-Semitism that does not pay due scholarly attention to the origins, nature, purposes, and goals of today's anti-Semitism would not be a serious undertaking," even if paying such attention "provokes criticism from, say, the political Left, or from those who oppose Israel."

Reich thinks "perhaps two or three years must pass before we can judge whether or not YPSA has struck a fair scholarly balance between the anti-Semitism of the past and the anti-Semitism of the present and the future."  Were the old YIISA still in existence, there would be no doubt about the passionate tone of its future work.  The new YPSA has yet to prove whether, in assessing anti-Semitism, calmer is better.

Ben Cohen is a New York-based writer who has written extensively on anti-Semitism. His essay examining the ownership of the term 'anti-Semitism,' "The Big Lie Returns," was published in the February issue of Commentary.

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