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Antisemitism Research Just Improved: Yale’s ‘Initiative’ for Studying Antisemitism is Axed

10/06/2011 16 comments

For some years now I have argued that the academic study of contemporary antisemitism has been badly compromised by the growing politicisation of the subject. Back in September 2008, in an op-ed piece for Ha’aretz, I wrote:

Practically the entire business of studying and analyzing current anti-Semitism has been hijacked and debased by people lacking any serious expertise in the subject, whose principal aim is to excoriate Jewish critics of Israel and to promote the ‘anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism’ equation.

A number of institutions, supposedly tasked with undertaking serious research on antisemitism, have contributed to this situation. One of the foremost of these is the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA), established in 2006, and I had it in my sights when I wrote my op-ed.

On 7 June Yale University announced that YIISA would not continue beyond the end of this academic year. Donald Green, Director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies where YIISA was housed, said in a statement that YIISA generated little scholarly work that earned publication in highly regarded journals, and its courses attracted few students. For all who genuinely support the principle of the objective, dispassionate study of contemporary antisemitism, the imminent demise of YIISA should come as welcome news.

Unsurprisingly, organizations that have contributed to the debasement of serious antisemitism research are not happy. The Anti-Defamation League’s National Director, Abe Foxman, said:

Especially at a time when anti-Semitism continues to be virulent and anti-Israel parties treat any effort to address issues relating to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism as illegitimate, Yale’s decision is particularly unfortunate and dismaying . . . it leaves the impression that the anti-Jewish forces in the world achieved a significant victory.

The American Jewish Committee said it was surprised and saddened by the decision. AJC’s Executive Director, David Harris, warned: ‘If Yale now leaves the field, it will create a very regrettable void’.

Foxman and Harris were relatively measured in comparison with the report in the New York Post headed ‘Yale’s gift to antisemitism’. The writer claimed that Yale ‘almost certainly [decided on closure] because YIISA refused to ignore the most virulent, genocidal and common form of Jew-hatred today: Muslim anti-Semitism.’ She also added: ‘Some suggest that Yale feels it can act with impunity because, earlier this spring, one of YIISA’s most powerful backers died; without his money and influence, the school can rid itself of a politically inconvenient nuisance.’

YIISA’s funders are not revealed by the institution so it’s possible that closure may have something to do with the withdrawal of funds, though the story may just be a rumour set running by those who suspect an anti-Israel agenda at work. But whatever the specific reason, it was obvious from YIISA’s inception that it would promote the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, focus heavily on criticism of Israel and prioritise the issue of Muslim antisemitism.

Among the first papers presented at YIISA seminars were those by Dr David Hirsh (2005), a sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London and founder of Engage, a website dedicated to opposing the boycott of Israel, Professor Shalom Lappin (2007), professor of computational linguistics at Kings College, University of London, and Professor Irwin Cotler (2006), professor of law at McGill University and a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. All three are well-known for their highly politicised approaches to current antisemitism.

Hirsh’s paper was essentially a continuation of his political battles with the anti-Zionist left over the issue of boycotting Israel, which he claimed was an expression of antisemitism. Lappin’s academic work is not in the field of antisemitism yet he was regarded by YIISA as a proper person to present a paper that linked modern anti-Israel sentiment in the UK with centuries-old English antisemitism and claimed that the political class in contemporary Britain had abandoned the Jews – and this was written at a time when, in Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government, Jews in Britain had never had a more pro-Jewish and pro-Israel national political leadership. Cotler has probably done more than anyone to popularize the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’ having been responsible for coining the phrase ‘Israel is the Jew among the nations’. His paper, effectively an exercise in sophisticated hasbara (propaganda for Israel), likened the current situation to the 1930s and developed a framework for identifying forms of criticism of Israel as antisemitic.

The director of YIISA, Dr Charles Small, an academic with little experience of antisemitism research, had clearly put down a marker that Israel was going to be the central concern of YIISA. Had that concern manifested itself in scholarly papers objectively posing fundamental questions about the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, the nature of discourse about Israel, the relationship between Israel’s policies and antisemitism worldwide and so on, YIISA might have had an academic raison d’être. But inviting as speakers in the first few years people whose so-called ‘research’ was undertaken essentially to provide backing for preconceptions arrived at for political reasons, signalled that YIISA was to be a major centre for the further corruption of academic antisemitism studies. Not all who have given seminar papers or lectures at YIISA have been quite as blatantly partisan as my three first examples, though one or two have been worse. (A list of some of those exemplifying YIISA’s approach can be found at the foot of this post.*)

YIISA’s approach was fully exposed when it announced its first major conference, ‘Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity’, to take place in August 2010. A huge, 3-day jamboree, with 4 breakout sessions twice-a-day and 3 or 4 keynote lectures/plenary events each day, the conference was attended by many genuine scholars of antisemitism presenting bona fide academic papers, but a full panoply of participants attesting to the ‘new antisemitism’ agenda of YIISA was present. In May Small had already confirmed that ‘The largest number of papers, and therefore reflecting the greatest concern, address contemporary antisemitism and the demonization of Israel and those associated or made to be associated with Israel.’ There was a whole session devoted to the bogus concept of Jewish self-hatred, a keynote lecture by Itamar Marcus, a leader of the settler movement on the West Bank, titled ‘The central role of Palestinian antisemitism in creating the Palestinian identity’ and the conference opened with a speech by the Director for Combating Antisemitism at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The demonization of left-liberal Jewish critics of Israel and of Palestinians, the promotion of a Zionist-centric approach to antisemitism, the distortion and exaggeration  of Arab and Palestinian sympathy for antisemitism, the presence of presenters from NGO Monitor, Palestinian Media Watch and MEMRI – all of these elements of the ‘culture’ of the programme fundamentally undermined YIISA’s claim to academic respectability.

It’s obvious from the size of the conference and the scale of YIISA’s activity that the organization was very well funded. And as is the case with much of academia, scholars as well as self-styled experts and researchers follow the money. Who would doubt the credentials and orientation of a research outfit based at such a prestigious university as Yale? The extensive advisory and management structure, packed with well-known names, testifies to the pulling power YIISA had. But of course, the composition of these bodies largely reflected the Israel-focused orientation of the initiative.

Some academics who attended the 2010 conference or who accepted invitations to present papers within the framework of YIISA’s seminar series knew perfectly well what the place was about and deplored what it stood for. But a few I spoke to felt that they could not ignore the Yale centre, that it would not be good for their careers if they declined the organization’s invitations. Their view was that they could avoid compromising themselves by sticking closely to their research topics and not getting hijacked into inadvertently endorsing YIISA’s politics. I don’t doubt that this is what they did. They guarded their personal integrity. But they could not avoid their names being used as another brick in the wall of publicity being constructed by the operation.

Thee is no doubt that the closure of YIISA, which it seems will take effect within a month or two, will leave a large hole in the international network of institutes, think-tanks, agencies and committees that have so successfully propagated the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, helping to redefine antisemitism in such a way that, as I put it in my September 2008 Ha’aretz op-ed:

to warrant the charge of anti-Semitism, it is sufficient to hold any view ranging from criticism of the policies of the current Israeli government, to denial of Israel’s right to exist – without having to subscribe to any of the elements which historians have traditionally regarded as constituting an anti-Semitic view. And it puts out of bounds the perfectly legitimate discussion of whether increased anti-Semitism is a result of Israel’s actions.

YIISA’s cheerleaders in the commentariat are certainly unhappy. Ben Cohen, who set up and ran the Z-Word Blog for the AJC – a site, now defunct, devoted to ferreting out anti-Zionism and purportedly exposing the antisemitic tendencies of anti-Zionists, especially Jewish ones – questions the motives of the Yale officials responsible for taking the decision to cut YIISA adrift, implying that they don’t understand what antisemitism is all about and that they have handed a victory to Arab extremists and virulent anti-Zionists. He admits that YIISA’s approach was not ‘value-free’, but expresses bewilderment as to why it was singled out when ‘Any dispassionate survey of the social sciences reveals that there is precious little “value-free” research going on anywhere.’ This is an astonishing statement. Even if it were true, it doesn’t make YIISA’s politically compromised approach acceptable – two wrongs don’t make a right.

In ‘Yale, Jews and double-standards’, the Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick is convinced that the Yale decision was political and she sniffs a conspiracy. Dependent on Arab money, Yale gave into Arab pressure she argues. While she rightly says that ‘discourse on anti- Semitism has been corrupted by politics’, she is blind to the fact that it’s institutions like YIISA that have been responsible for the corruption of the subject. She would have us believe that it’s anti-Jewish prejudice that’s at the root of the problem, ‘ part of the anti-Jewish turn that so many universities are taking’. And she makes no attempt to justify YIISA’s existence on the grounds that it’s undertaking objective research. On the contrary, she admits that YIISA was part of the fightback against anti-Israel and anti-Zionist pressure in academia and in student life on campuses. Therefore the Yale authorities’ decision was ‘unfair’. Echoing Ben Cohen, she says that objective academic assessment of YIISA is impossible because the academic and intellectual worlds are biased against the open discussion of Palestinian and Muslim antisemitism. Perhaps she hasn’t read YIISA’s mission statement, which stresses academic objectivity. Sold to Yale as a bona fide academic institution, it hardly then seems reasonable to blame Yale for judging it on that basis. And neither Glick nor Cohen dispute the fact that its academic output was not up to scratch.

The wider issue raised by YIISA’s imminent closure is whether it’s a watershed moment representing a rolling back of the politicisation of academic antisemitism research. I doubt very much whether the UK Universities and College Union’s decision to distance itself from the EUMC ‘working definition’ of antisemitism can be linked to it, although the vote brought to public attention that the EUMC’s successor body, the Fundamental Rights Agency, has in effect dropped the definition – a potentially damaging blow to the lifespan of the ‘working definition’. But the demise of the Z-word blog is perhaps a sign of the times since the AJC is not an organization that would normally give up on such an enterprise after such a relatively short period. It likes to be seen to be engaged in political work for the long term. (Z-word claims it still exists as part of The Propagandist website, a ‘magazine . . . for political junkies, thinking conservatives and the anti-fascist left’, but it’s just one stream of comment on the site.)

More significant, although it’s not in the US, is the example set by the establishment of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London.  Its Director, Professor David Feldman, an eminent expert on Jewish history, is taking a rigorously objective academic approach to his task, while not in any way ignoring the complex interconnections between contemporary antisemitism, Israel, Islam, Islamophobia, racism in general and policy questions. Feldman has won plaudits across the academic world for his stance, which gives the lie to the arguments of Cohen and Glick that antisemitism cannot be studied dispassionately and value-free. And while the Pears Institute is not in the US, the international nature of the field of contemporary antisemitism research means that what Feldman does could have a very significant impact beyond the shores of the UK.  With YIISA out of the picture and Pears at Birkbeck looking very secure, some sanity may now return to the discipline.

I say ‘may’ because the combined forces of those institutions and groups which have a vested interest in maintaining the ‘new antisemitism’-based politicised approach to the subject are very strong. YIISA was important, but the ship sails on with the Israeli government and the entire political right-wing in Israel blowing a powerful wind into its sails. And it’s not impossible that American Jewish funders will try to persuade Yale to change its mind, or get the money together to transfer YIISA to another institution, or set it up as in independent body.

I am by no means alone in having smelled a rat when YIISA came on the scene. I already quoted from Mondoweiss. The Magnes Zionist blog also knew the score. In a post on 9 June Jerry Haber cuts to the quick:

The moral of this story? Take an important phenomenon which is worthy of study and have it hijacked by people with an ideological agenda, who organize conferences that revel in Islamaphobia and rightwing Zionism, mixing mediocre academics and non-academics with serious scholars, all of whom have axes to grind – in short, trivialize anti-Semitism in order to silence critics of Israel – and sooner or later, God willing, real academics will write it off as an embarrassment.

* Some of the individuals who spoke at YIISA and are representative of its politicised orientation: Anne Bayefsky, Barry Kosmin, Edward Kaplan, Michael Oren, Emanuele Ottolenghi, Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Dina Porat, Matthias Kuntzel, Gabriel Schoenfeld, Ruh Wisse, Gerald Steinberg, Alan Dershowitz, Hillel Neuer, Kenneth Levin, Richard Landes, Melanie Phillips, Shimon Samuels, Robert Wistrich.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

Categories: Antisemitism
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