Last week Yale University announced its decision to close down its institute for the study of anti-Semitism. The move has been widely criticized as politically motivated. For its part, the university claims that the move was the result of purely academic considerations.
While not clear-cut, an analysis of the story lends to the conclusion that politics were in all likelihood the decisive factor in the decision. And the implications of Yale's move for the scholarly inquiry into anti-Semitism are deeply troubling.
The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA) was founded in 2006. Its purpose was to provide a scholarly approach to the study of contemporary and historical anti- Semitism. It was attached to Yale's Institution of Social and Policy Studies. It was fully funded from private contributions. Yale did not in any way subsidize its activities from the university's budget.
Since its inception, under the peripatetic leadership of its Executive Director Dr. Charles Small, YIISA organized seminars and conferences that brought leading scholars from all over the world to Yale to discuss anti-Semitism in an academic setting. Its conferences and publications produced cutting edge research. These included a groundbreaking statistical study published by Small and Prof. Edward Kaplan from Yale's School of Management that demonstrated a direct correlation between anti-Israel sentiment and anti- Jewish sentiment.
At a large conference last August titled, "Global anti-Semitism: A Crisis of Modernity," among other things, YIISA confronted the genocidal nature of Islamic anti-Semitism. The conference produced more than 800 pages of scholarly research materials on all facets of anti-Semitism, including anti-Semitism in Western academia.
Senior Yale lecturers like Yale's diplomat-in-residence and eminent international security studies scholar Charles Hill, and Yale's Sterling Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature and Holocaust survivor Geoffrey Hartman, served on YIISA's faculty advisory committees and participated in its activities. According to YIISA's website, several dozen Yale professors and lecturers from throughout the university community were associated with YIISA. Their participation in its activities contributed to the institute's comprehensive study of anti-Semitism. As the only center of its kind throughout North America, YIISA's activities were widely covered by the media. Small and other YIISA personnel have been regularly interviewed in the US and global media on subjects related to the world's oldest and most resilient form of bigotry.
In response to my query over the weekend, Yale's Press Secretary Thomas Conroy wrote that the decision to close YIISA was made by a faculty committee during a routine five-year review of the program. The committee "concluded that [YIISA] had not attracted a critical mass of relevant faculty or stimulated sufficient new research."
Yale Prof. Donald Green, who heads the Institution for Social and Policy Studies that housed YIISA, released a statement explaining that YIISA, like all other programs, was evaluated by two set criteria: Its success in publishing articles in top-tier academic journals and its success in attracting a large number of students to its courses. Green claimed that unlike his institute's centers for the study of American Politics, Agrarian Studies, Field Experiments, and its Ethics, Politics and Economics major, YIISA failed to achieve the required success in instruction and publication that would merit an extension of its operations.
On the face of it, these measures of success appear to be reasonable measuring rods of the worthiness of YIISA's continued operation. But upon reflection, the use of these criteria to determine YIISA's academic viability is deeply unfair. These criteria are reasonable for politically neutral or popular subjects like agrarianism or American politics. But sadly today, at Yale and throughout the world, the subject of anti-Semitism is steeped in controversy and an objective analysis of its various aspects is considered politically incorrect. Consequently, a decision to use routine standards of assessment for a non-routine subject is not a fair decision. Indeed, it is reasonable to argue that it is a politically motivated decision.
From several perspectives, YIISA's conference on anti-Semitism last August was a stellar success. The conference, which was held over three days, attracted more than a hundred top tier scholars and policymakers from around the world. It was heavily covered by the American and global media. In its willingness to address head-on the genocidal nature of Islamic anti-Semitism generally and Iranian anti-Semitism in particular, it was a path-breaking event in academia. The same can be said of its willingness to host open discussions of the prevalence and policy implications of Palestinian anti-Semitism.
But as far as campus politics were concerned, YIISA's conference was a failure. Like nearly all university campuses in the US, Yale is dominated by the political Left. YIISA's conference was denounced by the leftist blogosphere which alleged that it was discriminatory against Muslims.
The Left's rage at the conference was further incited by the PLO's decision to condemn the proceedings. In a letter to Yale's President Richard Levin, the PLO representative in Washington, DC Maen Rashid Areikat, demanded that the university disassociate itself from the conference.
Areikat wrote, "It's shocking that a respected institution like Yale would give a platform to these right-wing extremists and their odious views, and it is deeply ironic that a conference on anti-Semitism that is ostensibly intended to combat hatred and discrimination against Semites would demonize Arabs - who are Semites themselves."
Then there is Iran. In January 2010, Iran announced that it was instituting a boycott of 60 institutions. Yale was among them. Although the regime did not explain the reason for the boycott, university officials attributed Tehran's decision to YIISA's activities in spotlighting the regime's role in promoting genocidal anti-Semitism.
Due to the boycott, Yale professors involved in research in Iran were forced to end their activities. These professors reportedly blamed YIISA rather than Iran for the cancellation of their research projects.
Deputy Provost and Political Science Professor Frances Rosenbluth served on the faculty committee that reviewed YIISA's performance and concluded that the university should close the center. In recent years Rosenbluth appointed Judge Richard Goldstone and Iran-regime apologists Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett to serve as senior fellows at Yale's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Last September the Leveretts brought their students to New York to hold a seminar for them with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Unlike the YIISA conference, the move did not stimulate any significant controversy at the university.
Sources involved with YIISA allege a senior university official privately complained that "YIISA's activities harm the Yale Corporation." The clear insinuation was that due to YIISA's activities, Yale has had difficulty raising money from Arab sources.
Politics arguably has also played a role in YIISA's difficulty in publishing articles in top tier academic publications and even in attracting students to its courses. Today the discourse on anti- Semitism has been corrupted by politics. In the current atmosphere, publishing scholarship on topics like Islamic Jew hatred, or anti-Semitism and progressive politics is widely viewed as a career ender. Scholars who are interested in these subjects are therefore likely to opt out of publishing articles or books on them.
By the same token, the toxic nature of the intellectual environment related to anti-Semitism, anti- Zionism and contemporary forms of both arguably renders top tier journals averse to publishing articles on them. So too, in light of the politically correct echo chamber that governs university politics and appointments, it is eminently reasonable to assume that an article about these subjects would be harshly treated in peer-reviews.
In this context it is worth recalling the history of cowardice at Yale in the face of Islamic criticism. In 2009, Yale University Press was slated to publish a book about the 2005 Muhammad cartoon controversy. When the decision was met with furious responses from various Islamic quarters, Yale caved. It decided to censor the cartoons that were the subject of the book from the book itself.
In short, the discriminatory atmosphere that dominates academic discourse on anti-Semitism generally and Islamic anti-Semitism in particular makes it difficult to use the generally objective assessment tool of the number of publications in top-tier journals to judge the academic value of YIISA.
As for student participation, the predominance of political correctness on university campuses acts as a deterrent for students who would otherwise be drawn to courses on the subject. A Yale student who aspires to an academic career will be quick to recognize the study of anti-Semitism - and particularly its contemporary manifestations - is an academic dead end.
There are Jewish organizations that are dedicated to educating university students about anti- Zionism and anti-Semitism in all their varieties.
Foremost among these organizations is Stand With Us, which in its 10 year history has become active on scores of campuses in the US and worldwide. Stand With Us publishes fact sheets and booklets to inform students about the facts regarding Israel and the Middle East that are systematically removed from their course syllabuses.
While significant, the contribution these groups make to the discourse on anti-Semitism is generally limited to the level of student activism. Professors and their politically correct measuring rods for academic worthiness are largely insulated from their efforts.
The inequities in the academic treatment of research and instruction on anti-Semitism make Yale's decision to close YIISA all the more lamentable.
Indeed, in and of themselves they justify a move by Yale and other universities to aggressively promote YIISA's activities and establish similar institutes. If a top-ranking university like Yale had been willing to truly back the academic study of anti-Semitism, it would have empowered students and faculty alike to research and study the subject.
In their responses to inquiries about the decision to close YIISA, Yale spokesmen were quick to say that Yale remains committed to studying anti-Semitism. They pointed to Yale's Hebrew and Jewish studies courses as proof of the university's support for free inquiry on the topic. But their protestations ring as hollow as the message of YIISA's closure is clear. The study of Islamic anti-Semitism is an academic third rail. Do it at Yale and you are done for.
YIISA's closure also sends a clear message to Jewish donors concerned about the anti-Jewish turn that so many top universities are taking. To date, wealthy Jewish donors have operated under the assumption that they can impact the hostile discourse on Jewish issues on campus by providing piecemeal support for specific programs. In the case of YIISA, Jewish donors believed that they had developed a beach head in a hostile campus environment that would bring a dose of reality into the otherwise hallucinogenic discourse on Israel and the Islamic world.
Yale's decision to close YIISA indicates that the piecemeal approach is not effective. One institute cannot impact the virulent faculty hostility to Jewish related issues on campuses like Yale. It also cannot compete with the deep pockets of Arab governments.
YIISA's closure indicates that a new strategy of concentrating Jewish philanthropic resources is required. Supporting a handful of carefully selected universities will probably have a greater longterm impact on the general discourse on issues like contemporary anti-Semitism than spreading smaller amounts of funding across a larger number of institutions.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.