Yale anti-Semitism controversy: How did a concern with anti-Semitism come to be seen as the province of the right?

The history behind current events.
July 1 2011 4:56 PM

Left Behind

Yale solved its anti-Semitism crisis, but a deeper problem remains.

Yale. Click image to expand.
The controversy over Yale and anti-Semitism raises other questions

Some welcome news: After enduring several weeks of criticisms, both fair and foul, Yale University has launched a new program for the study of anti-Semitism that replaces the center it shuttered. The new director, Maurice Samuels, a professor of French literature (whose scholarship has examined attitudes toward Jews in 19th-century France), is someone I know and admire as a scholar and a person. Samuels has said to me and in his public statements that the reconstituted program won't shrink from uncomfortable aspects of anti-Semitism in the world today. There is every reason to take him at his word.

Why Yale closed the institute in the first place remains hard to discern. Universities, for all their talk of openness, can be as secretive and byzantine as intelligence agencies, and any reporting about academia, especially on politically fraught topics, has to be read cautiously. 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.

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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. Remarks that can be charitably described as disturbing emanate from left-liberal icons such as War-on-Christmas scourge Garrison Keillor ("All those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year") or Larry Summers nemesis Cornel West ("[Obama] feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart")—doing no visible damage to their reputations.

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. In many conservative hands, the identification of anti-Jewish sentiment or the defense of Israel's legitimacy too often commingles with vilification of the left, a lockstep Republican agenda, or, in some cases, anti-Islamic or anti-Arab stereotyping.

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.

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