YIISA scandal: Yale's shameful decision to kill its anti-Semitism institute.

YIISA scandal: Yale's shameful decision to kill its anti-Semitism institute.

YIISA scandal: Yale's shameful decision to kill its anti-Semitism institute.

Scrutinizing culture.
July 1 2011 4:55 PM

Yale's New Jewish Quota

The university's shameful decision to kill its anti-Semitism institute.

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What's more disturbing, actually, after one digs into the matter a little, is the dismayingly docile role played by the Yale Jewish community, its Hillel-like Slifka Center and its most prominent rabbi, James Ponet (who was a contemporary of mine at Yale). I'm troubled by the community's compliant refusal to resist the hastiness of the decision to kill YIISA. And its inability to foster some discussion of what the hastily cobbled-together new acronym institution will be doing. The professor named to head it, Maurice Samuels, is well-liked (and in an email to me, he vouched that he would never disparage "advocacy" against anti-Semitism), but he has focused his academic work on the image of the Jew in 19th-century French literature. Some wonder whether this background is sufficient for the task of examining contemporary anti-Semitism.

A brief chronology to put this in perspective. YIISA, founded six years ago on the initiative of respected sociologist Charles Asher Small, was up for routine review.

The review followed that August 2010 conference held by YIISA on global anti-Semitism. Abby Wisse Schachter, who I believe was the first to report on this scandal, quoted Yale Deputy Provost Frances Rosenbluth, who said at the time of the conference that YIISA was "guided by an outstanding group of scholars from all over the university representing many different disciplines."

But after criticism of the conference by the official PLO "ambassador" and various anti-Israel bloggers on the grounds that the study of Islamic anti-Semitism is prima facie "Islamophobia," the conference on worldwide anti-Semitism seemed to lead Yale to a curious turnaround on the issue of YIISA and Yale's faculty.

Suddenly—surprise!—the "faculty review" of YIISA discovered, contra Deputy Provost Rosenbluth, that YIISA hadn't involved the faculty sufficiently. Rabbi James Ponet actually told me that YIISA's key mistake was holding the conference in August, when the faculty would be away enjoying their time shares or whatever urgent vacation plans they had. It seems to me that any lack of faculty participation in YIISA events by the Yale faculty throughout the years should be laid at the door of the Yale faculty, which did not give the danger of worldwide anti-Semitism a high priority, before, during, or after their precious beach time.


But the truly dismaying aspect of the affair to me was the timid and compliant response of the Jewish community at Yale and its representatives. When an institution like Yale, which had engaged in anti-Semitic practices for at least a half-century, kicks out an institute for the study of anti-Semitism based on a secret faculty report, does the Jewish community, led by its Slifka Center—and its rabbi, Ponet—insist on transparency? Or, at the very least, request that Yale release its critical report, insist on some time to evaluate it, see what YIISA's response was, seek a solution that would preserve five years of valuable work and study? Why not consider ways of improving YIISA if necessary? No. Instead of resistance or at least investigative wariness, the Yale Jewish community rolled over and chose not to rock the boat. In fact, Ponet sent cheerleading emails to me and other concerned alumni asking us to send messages of support to the Yale administration in favor of the killing of YIISA and the substitution of YPSA.

The most stressful moment in the long, uncomfortable email exchange I had with my classmate Rabbi Ponet came when I asked him what he meant when he said Yale acted "foolishly" in the initial stages of the controversy.

I was stunned by his answer. He said that by "foolishly" he didn't mean it was foolish of Yale to throw YIISA under the bus for secretive reasons. No, it was foolish because Yale didn't have its substitute, the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism, "fully in place". So it was not a "foolish" decision on the merits, he seemed to be saying; it was just the inept spinning when Yale killed YIISA that troubled him.

Better spinning, of course, would have meant a smooth upgrade in acronyms, not the stealth bureaucratic assassination that was exposed by Yale's foolishness. It would have made the killing of YIISA for "advocacy" against anti-Semitism less of a scandal. They didn't "have it in place." Ponet's line sounds like a description of inept maneuvering in the Bulgarian politburo before the collapse of the dictatorship. Thank you for your criticism, Comrade Ponet, these bureaucratic coups must run more smoothly.

When I replied with astonishment that this was what he felt was the "foolishness" at the heart of the matter, Ponet, perhaps realizing he'd let something slip that he probably shouldn't have, fired off a Sarah Palin-like rant against the media, denouncing me for caring more about a "scoop" than the truth and demanding that I concede that academics were more concerned with truthfulness than journalists. 

I had to laugh at that one, since Ponet would have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to have noticed that much of the postmodernist movement in the humanities at Yale is predisposed to deny the existence of truth and the "illusion of objectivity" and exalt the idea of competing "narratives" that might all be "true" in a certain way. Since objectivity was an illusion, Ahmadinejad's "narrative" of the Holocaust, by these standards, must be considered as valid as anyone else's. Ms. Schacter even reported in her piece on YIISA that one Yale grad seminar actually met with the great Iranian thinker and heard (with no "advocacy," one hopes) his views on the Holocaust and the lack of "scientific" proof of it.

In regard to academic truth and journalistic scoops, I asked Rabbi Ponet whether it was the Yale political-science department that uncovered the truth about Abu Ghraib or the lowly reporters he sneered at who risked their lives (not their time shares) to get the truth? Would he have preferred not to have had this "scoop" uncovered?

He has yet to answer the email. Henry Kissinger famously said academic disputes are bitter because the stakes are so low. But here, alas, the stakes are high. Rabbi Ponet and Yale will have a lot to answer for as the lasting consequences of their foolish and compliant behavior in the YIISA affair becomes more apparent and frank discussion of anti-Semitism becomes verboten on American campuses.