Yale University, Antisemitism, and the Left

Yale University

Yale University

Via Jewish Ideas Daily I first learned of the closing of the Yale University’s YIISA program, aka the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism.  At first it sounded like simple economics, or perhaps academic disagreements, but the more I read, the more I was persuaded that this was ironically a case of covert, perhaps sub-conscious, antisemitism.

The article by Ron Rosenbaum and originally posted in Slate, is rather long but well worth reading in its entirety.

To many observers, both inside and outside Yale, killing the program seemed a shockingly ill-considered act. Even supporters of the move, such as Yale’s Rabbi James Ponet, conceded (in an email to me) that it was “foolishly” executed. And considering Yale’s well-known anti-Semitic past—the university long had a “Jewish quota,” allowing in only a limited number of Jewish students per year, that it abandoned only in the 1960s—the decision is a shameful one.

Yale cited several reasons for killing YIISA, a program devoted to the cross-cultural examination of anti-Semitism that had been in operation since 2006. But many observers suspect the turning point was a YIISA conference last August called “Global Anti-Semitism: A Crisis of Modernity” which, while featuring 108 speakers from five continents, dared acknowledge the existence of anti-Semitism in some Islamic cultures. There has been talk—though no proof—of fear of offending potentially lucrative donors from the Middle East. Charles Small, the director of YIISA, “blamed radical Islamic and extreme left wing bloggers for the bad publicity,” according to the Yale Daily News, which also reported that Small “pointed out that it was the largest conference on antisemitism ever, and it would have been absurd for the conference to ignore Muslim antisemitism.”

It is worth noting that discussing the existence of anti-Semitism in some Islamic cultures does not imply there is anything essentially anti-Semitic about Islam. Small denied emphatically to me that any such Islamophobia was evident in the conference or in YIISA’s seminars. But while the backlash against YIISA’s conference included predictable protests from the official PLO representative and the group’s supporters in America, the more subtle—and yet ludicrous—objection to YIISA’s conference and YIISA’s work came—as Ben Cohen pointed out in the Forward—in the charge of “advocacy,” leveled by some YIISA opponents on campus. The charge that the program exhibited too much “advocacy” against anti-Semitism, as opposed to academic analysis of anti-Semitism. It seems unlikely that Yale tells its cancer researchers not to engage in advocacy against the malignancies they study, doesn’t it?

Having put their foot in it by closing the program and experiencing  backlash, Yale had to scramble to make things right.

Closing YIISA generated a backlash. In the face of scathing articles in the New York Post by Abby Wisse Schachter (the daughter, incidentally, of Harvard’s Ruth Wisse, one of the world’s leading Jewish-literature scholars) and in the Washington Post by professor Walter Reich(he wrote, “Yale just killed the country’s best institute for the study of anti-Semitism”), Yale had a PR problem.

One it solved by rushing into the breach with plans for a new acronym: YPSA! The Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism. An institution whose scholarly neutrality—absence of advocacy against anti-Semitism—would presumably be less offensive to anti-Semites.

In one blow Yale had, in effect, given censorship powers over the limits of the study of anti-Semitism to anti-Semites and the like, the people who cried “advocacy.” Not just at Yale but all across America. What timid college administrator anywhere is going to touch the subject in the wake of this incident? Why risk arousing a lynch mob of Israel delegitimizers? The decision could have a nationwide impact, discouraging scholarship in the field.

In addition, Yale was essentially inventing a new kind of Jewish quota: putting a quota on the anger that Jews could express against those who wish for their extermination. After all, such anger would be “advocacy.” Apparently YIISA exceeded its quota.

In a related article, also in Slate (h/t Normblog), David Greenberg wonders how the concern about antisemitism became the province of the right-wing. Where is the left on this issue?

Depending on whom you believe, a faculty review board killed off the original institute either because it buckled to the forces of political correctness or because the institute’s director, Charles Small, who had no other connection to the university, used his platform too frequently to air conservative, stridently pro-Israel journalistic advocacy. These accounts aren’t mutually exclusive.

The institute’s website shows that, whatever its sins, it hosted estimable scholars and serious journalists, many of whom would have no truck with the right-wing politics that the center was accused of promoting. Ideally, the center should have been fixed, not nixed—a decision with which the Yale administration has belatedly come to agree.

But if Yale has remedied its blunder—and, one hopes, even improved its center—the flap about its closure still raises important historical questions: How did a concern with anti-Semitism, whether scholarly or political, come to be seen as the province of the right? How did liberalism—historically the philosophy of toleration and equal rights—come to be so squeamish about confronting Jew-hatred in its contemporary forms? Though little asked or discussed, these questions form a troubling undercurrent to the debate.

In the last decade or so, noxious attitudes toward Jews once voiced only on the far left and far right have gained a curious acceptance—indulged or explained away, if not actively promoted, by mainstream liberals.

My fellow liberals are especially muted when anti-Semitism takes the form of anti-Zionism. Yes, yes: Criticism of Israel isn’t necessarily anti-Semitic. Everyone agrees about that. What liberals seem to have a hard time admitting these days is that criticisms of Israel can ever be anti-Semitic. Common sense and social science both tell us there’s a correlation.

The widespread liberal ambivalence and silence on the issue has left the task of speaking out against anti-Semitism to conservatives. This is unfortunate, not because the right’s voices are unwelcome, but because ideology and partisanship corrupt the discussion.

Partly as a result, the small number of liberal intellectuals who regularly address anti-Semitism—people like Paul Berman, Jeff Goldberg, Alan Dershowitz, and Ron Rosenbaum—get labeled, or libeled, as neocons or Likudniks. Those epithets reveal just how much the right has come, at least in American journalistic discourse, to own the terrain of supporting Israel and calling out anti-Semitism.

The historical reasons for this shift are complex. Although the reasons predate 9/11, the terrorist attacks and the events they set in motion have a lot to do with the rapidity of the change in the last decade. For many liberals, especially Jews, September 11 had the effect of awakening them to the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in the world, after having long treated anxieties about Jew-hatred as an atavistic obsession of their parents.

For others, however, the attacks triggered what might be called a double backlash. Liberals (and many conservatives), anticipating an outbreak of nationalistic anti-Islamic feeling in an angry and wounded country, admirably took pains to fight negative depictions of Islam. But those laudable demonstrations of toleration sometimes became muddled, leading some liberals, as Leon Wieseltier put it, to start “granting Muslims a reprieve from the rigors of liberalism.”

Read it all. It is well-worth the time invested.

Prof. Norman Geras in his blog Normblog discusses Rosenbaum’s article and adds these pertinent comments:

Greenberg then offers some explanations. I won’t try to cover all of them; you can read them here. They include: the muting of liberal criticism when anti-Semitism takes the form of anti-Zionism, many liberals being reluctant to concede that condemnation of Israel could ever be anti-Semitic; identification, in the same quarters, of left-liberal concerns about anti-Semitism with neocon viewpoints; not wanting to go along with ‘negative depictions of Islam‘ and therefore minimizing the ‘role of anti-Semitism in Islamist ideology’ (both italics mine); and foreign policy alignments discouraging sympathy for Israel and encouraging tolerance for anti-Semitic tropes about the Israel Lobby. Such developments, Greenberg says, have ‘opened the door to the frank expression and reflexive rationalization of anti-Semitic views’.

Here is an observation I would add on my own behalf. Within the left, this state of affairs should not just be seen – too comfortably – as reflecting on the relation of left-liberals towards the anti-Semitism of others; as if anti-Semitism were something external to the left itself. No, it is an internal problem.

Read it all. It is not long and here too your time will have been invested wisely.

UPDATE 10/7/11: Israel Matzav brings two more items about the closure of YIISA which are well worth the read.

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1 Response to Yale University, Antisemitism, and the Left

  1. Pingback: Global Anti-Semitism on the rise | Anne's Opinions

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