Who killed YIISA? It's a kind of academic murder mystery. YIISA—for those who have not caught the scant coverage of this deeply disturbing development—stands for the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism. Or should I say stood for that, till Yale, in a cowardly, clumsily-executed maneuver, abolished the program in the first week in June.
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?
I should note before I defend YIISA further that I have spoken both at YIISA, and at Yale's Hillel-like Slifka Center (which, shamefully, in my view, failed to defend YIISA), and I also edited a 700-page anthology on the question of contemporary anti-Semitism, Those Who Forget the Past. Finally, I should add that I had a highly positive experience as a student Yale, with no noticeable exposure to anti-Semitism.
As for the integrity of the work the center was supporting, consider, for example, this list of YIISA seminars examining anti-Semitism from a comparative perspective. It gives you a sense of the cosmopolitan range of its cross-cultural studies of the prejudice.
Apparently, I'm not alone in finding the center's work worthwhile. 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.
Let us step back a moment and listen to professor Reich in the Washington Post, and particularly to the way he deals with the advocacy question. Reich, a lecturer in psychiatry at Yale Medical School, a professor at George Washington University, and a member of the YIISA board of advisers, is a calm, cheerful man, but you can tell from his tone the righteous anger he feels:
For the past five years, [YIISA] has flourished in New Haven, Conn. On a small budget it has sponsored research, visiting fellowships, papers and presentations on the most abiding and lethal hatred mankind has ever known—the one that brought us the Holocaust and that is once again racing around the world. A few institutes for the study of anti-Semitism have sprung up globally—a couple in Israel and some in Europe and North America. Yale's is the first in the States and the first to be closed down.
And here is how he described the conference that—merely by mentioning Islam—gave the anti-Semites a club with which to bully Yale:
Such eminent scholars as Bassam Tibi—a Syrian emigre, a distinguished professor at the University of Goettingen and a devout Muslim—spoke about anti-Semitism in that part of the world, as did other authorities. To be sure, some presenters expressed alarm and took an activist stance—as do some presenters at academic conferences on genocide, human rights, women's studies, African American studies, Hispanic studies, gay and lesbian studies, and nuclear proliferation.
So: It's okay for those who study racism, sexism, and genocide—or for other victims of oppression—to express advocacy, even activism, in conferences at Yale. But not Jews. Quota on that at Yale.