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.

Yale University. Click image to expand.
Yale

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.

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.

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