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

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.

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

  1. Abe Hayeem says:

    Anthony, thanks for this excellent and comprehensive account of the tactics of pro-Zionist academia. Their attempts to stamp out valid criticism of Israel has become so overblown, and attempt its confaltion with Anti-Semitism is backfiring, andt already seems to be imploding with the cancellation of this odious Yale initiative.

    The answer to the nasty, well-funded hasbara apparatus is to continue with quiet determination and presentation of the facts. Israel’s tactics and brazen misdemeanors are her own downfall, and the message
    of her criminality is now even easier to perceive. Even avowed Israel supporters like David Cameron and William Hague can’t help but take a stand on critical issues like the JNF and settlements -for which they receive furious odium from the Melanie camp, who expect total loyalty to Israel, whatever it does.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Shalom Lappin says:

    So you would, then, presumably question the capacity of Noam Chomsky (a linguist), Edward Said (a literary scholar), and Jacqueline Rose (a literary academic), inter alia, to write cogently and in a rigorous scholarly mode on historical and political issues.

    • The case of your YIISA paper and these examples are not the same. Said and Rose may well write about historical and political issues, but they do so largely by drawing inspiration and insight from the fields in which they are experts. But I have had occasion to conclude that when they slip too far into the mode of writing history, they sometimes trip themselves up because they don’t have sufficient historical expertise.

      As for Chomsky, first–and this would apply equally to Said and Rose–writing about current political issues is largely a matter of expressing an opinion and then backing it up–usually but not always–with evidence. Something which anyone may do and legitimately feel qualified to do, on the level at which they choose to do it. Second, I haven’t read much Chomsky and I’m not a great fan of what I have read. But I do recall feeling that his grasp of historical processes and ways of thinking was sometimes weak.

      An appropriate parallel with professor-of-computational-linguistics-Lappin delivering a paper on antisemitism in Britain at a dedicated, academic, antisemitism research centre is trained-as-historian-with-20+-years-expertise-in-contemporary-antisemitism-Lerman delivering a paper on some aspect of computational linguistics at a dedicated, academic, computational linguistics research centre.

      Not acceptable is it? Or are you saying historical research and analysis combined with the study of manifestations of contemporary antisemitism is something that anyone can do?

      • Shalom Lappin says:

        Let us pass over the question of your scholarly or academic credentials, such as they are. This is not actually the issue here. In proper scientific and scholarly discourse one addresses the arguments presented rather than the background or identity of the person proposing these arguments. Instead, you have chosen to make your criticisms ad hominem. You have also seriously misrepresented the views that I expressed in my paper. I did not claim that Britain’s current “political class” or previous government was anti-Jewish or anti-Israel. I offered an extended historical study of anti-semitism in public life in Britain, and I suggested that certain tropes and themes that had entered contemporary mainstream British political discourse could be understood as at least partly conditioned by this tradition. Israel was actually not a major issue in the paper, except to the extent that anti-Zionism can, and occasionally does serve as a vehicle for the expression of hostility to Jews as a people (a widely acknowledged fact among scholar of anti-Semitism spanning a wide variety of political views on Israel, but a fact to which you are strangely obtuse). You also indulge in smear by association in suggesting that I am involved in advocacy of right wing Israeli government policies. You are well aware of the fact that this is grossly untrue, and that I have expressed strong public opposition to Israeli government policies and actions over many years, and in numerous published forums. It is entirely legitimate to disagree on important political issues and to express one’s disagreement forcefully. It is not legitemate to deliberately distort one’s adversary’s views and to engage in character assassination. Such conduct would not be permitted in a serious scholarly debate. Despite your pretension to expertise in scholarship in at least one area, you seem strangely unfamiliar with the normal conventions of scholarly debate. Packaging poorly argued propaganda and acrimonious personal attacks as reasoned criticism is a particularly distasteful piece of self-indulgence.

  3. Ben Cohen says:

    Firstly, your comments about Z Word are ridiculous. Why didn’t you just send a bloody email to ask me, or anyone associated with Z Word, why it joined The Propagandist? The reason is pretty simple: I no longer work for AJC and I wanted Z Word to be part of a bigger site with more traffic. Simple as that. But no, you’d rather engage in some frankly silly speculation about AJC giving up on the struggle against anti-Zionism.

    Secondly, you clumsily distort what I said about “value-free” research. My point is that much social science research incorporates a value system – in YIISA’s case, it is the recognition that antisemitism is a social problem. Examining its causes, its consequences and its influences necessitates analysis of its mutations, including anti-Zionism. Even if you do not accept (as I do) that anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism, you’re not seriously going to argue that anti-Zionism is never antisemitism?

    Thirdly, neither Caroline Glick nor I conceded that YIISA’s output was academically “not up to scratch.” Again, this is your feverish imagination working overtime. I specifically said that YIISA published some excellent papers and ran an exciting seminar series! Might I suggest that one factor behind your display of schadenfreude is your absence from the speaker list?

    Next time, Antony, do your research.

  4. Ben: Your comment ended up in my spam file, which I rarely check. As you can see, I retrieved it and approved it.

    It’s midnight here now. Too late to reply tonight. I’ll post a reply tomorrow.

  5. Mark Elf says:

    Wonderful piece this. I especially like the title but the content looks very thorough.

    It’s a good question whether the UCU’s ditching of the EUMC bogus definition and the axing of YIISA represent a trend but I certainly hope they do.

    I’m not so sure whether the demise of the Z-word blog is particularly relevant to the issue though. Ben Cohen no longer works for the AJC but presumably the blog was approved by others at the AJC who don’t seem in a hurry to replace it. But is it relevant to the infiltration of academic research on antisemitism by Israel advocates?

  6. Ben:

    First, on Z-word. I stand corrected. If you tell me it was your choice to move it from AJC, I of course accept your explanation. But you put words into my mouth: I never said that AJC was ‘giving up on the struggle against anti-Zionism’. When I speculated that ‘it was perhaps a sign of the times’, I was referring to ‘the rolling back of the politicisation of antisemitism research’, and the possibility that AJC itself might now be seeing the politicisation as unhelpful. And since I worked closely with AJC back in the 1990s over a 5-year period, and have followed its doings ever since, I reserve the right to speculate on the motives for its actions.

    Second, on ‘value-free research’, I don’t distort what you mean at all. I quote directly from what you say. But what you do in your gloss on the issue (in your response) is, in my view, completely misunderstand where a ‘value system’ comes in to the question of research on antisemitism. It’s there at the outset, in any bona fide scholar, in the form of a fundamental rejection of what antisemitism stands for. I would not trust a scholar who started out from the assumption that ‘I’m approaching this subject from a neutral standpoint, not making any judgement about whether antisemitism is right or wrong’. But the good scholar says: ‘I’ve made my views clear: now, however, I can proceed to research and analyse in as dispassionate a manner as possible.’ The value-system doesn’t come in the form of seeing antisemitism as a ‘social problem’: practically all social science involves investigating ‘problems’. You can frame something as a problem without making a value judgement about it.

    And of course its mutations and forms and manifold expressions have to be examined, including where antisemitism takes the form of anti-Zionism. That you can even ask me the question as to whether I would ever ‘argue that anti-Zionism is never antisemitism’ shows you can’t have read anything I’ve written about the subject.

    Third, your paragraph that begins ‘This is an unfair comparison’ gives the distinct impression that you concede that the academic quality of YIISA work was not of a high quality but that there is an excuse for it. Namely, that the subject is not approved of in political science departments, that it goes against the grain—a kind of Cinderella subject—and therefore it’s understandable that YIISA was not yet producing work of the quality of a subject you believe is more universally acceptable like agrarian studies.

    In order to produce this explanation you make various assumptions, about ‘howls of disapproval’ for example, that I find very questionable.

    But then you provide as your first example of ‘did produce some’—again, a comment that sounds like you’re really saying ‘did produce some, but not very much’—the Hirsh paper, which I briefly criticise in my post. If that paper had been submitted to me by an undergraduate, I would have given it back with the following instructions: ‘Start again, curb your verbosity, cut out the value-laden attacks on people for whom you clearly have an animus, work out precisely what questions you want to ask and proceed on the basis of a clearly worked-out structure. And no more than 30 pages maximum. There are some good ideas here, but they’re just not thought through.’ I haven’t read the other examples you give, but I have read the Lappin and Cotler papers and I could give you equally strong reasons why they are academically weak. As for Glick, while it’s true that she talks about ‘cutting edge research’ and ‘800 pages of scholarly research material’, frankly this sounds like she’s reading from YIISA press releases and her actual examples are highly problematic. And then she produces the same dubious argument that you use: that the criteria for judgement are ok for any other subject but the one YIISA was studying.

    Finally, you demean yourself by resorting to snide speculation about my reasons for being critical of YIISA. In all frankness, had I been invited to give a paper at a YIISA seminar, I would have accepted, even knowing that the orientation of YIISA was fundamentally at odds with some of my ways of approaching the subject and some of my conclusions. I have always been ready to engage with people who disagree with me. Sadly, I can’t say that the other way round. But since I saw from very early on that YIISA was contributing to the damaging politicisation of antisemitism research, I knew that I would not be invited to speak, and I was quite content with that.

  7. I’ve been wondering whether to post a reply to Shalom Lappin’s diatribe. On the one hand, why bother to take seriously the writing of someone who has revealed himself to be a fantasist. On the other, by leaving it standing on my blog without response I may inadvertently give anyone who happens upon this exchange the idea that I have conceded by default. So, for the record:

    Checking the veracity of his accusations against me is a simple matter:

    1. I criticised the arguments in his paper and whether he had sufficient expertise to write it. I did not attack ‘the person’ but appealed to reason.

    2. In my critique of his paper, I never said that he claimed that ‘Britain’s current “political class” or previous government was anti-Jewish or anti-Israel.’

    3. Israel was definitely a ‘major issue’ in the paper. It seems most odd to deny this fact. At least be ready to stand by your own argument.

    4. He seems never to have read anything I’ve written about the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. I have always acknowledged that ‘anti-Zionism can, and occasionally does serve as a vehicle for the expression of hostility to Jews as a people’ (see my Ha’aretz op-ed of 12 September 2008 for example).

    5. It’s nonsense to say that I ‘indulge in smear by association in suggesting that’ he is ‘involved in advocacy of right-wing Israeli government policies’. If he means by this that I’m suggesting that simply speaking at a seminar or conference at YIISA an individual is involved in such activity, I would be smearing some close friends of mine who went to YIISA. As I responded to Ben Cohen above, I would have spoken at YIISA myself had I been invited and would therefore have been smearing myself. Absurd.

    6. I did not distort his views (he gives no evidence) or engage in character assassination.

    7. If he wishes to question my credentials as an expert on antisemitism, I have no problem with that, but using words about me like ‘poorly argued propaganda’, ‘acrimonious personal attacks’, and ‘particularly distasteful piece of self-indulgence’ is surely a transgression of ‘the normal conventions of scholarly debate’, of which he so falsely accuses me.

    This exchange is now closed.

  8. Willem Meijs says:

    Dear Antony.

    Thank you for an excellent background account of developments surrounding YIISA.

    As regards the UCU’s motion to dissociate itself from the EUMC ‘working definition’, it may be of interest to point out that just one day after that vote an article appeared, written by myself and Sue Blackwell, in which this definition figures rather prominently. The article is NOT an instance of anti-semitism research, but an academic linguistic study of the development over time of the words ‘anti-semitic’ and ‘anti-semitism’ in dictionary definitions and in public discourse as they appear in large collections of texts (‘corpora’) and the World-Wide Web. You can find the article here:

    The fact that this appeared just one day after th UCU debate was entirely serendipitous (but nice, all the same!): in fact we wrote the article more than two years ago and presented it at a corpus linguistics conference in Lancaster (UK). That it took so long to appear is entirely due to the peer review process that followed, and the editors doing a rather thorough job preparing the papers that came out of the conference for publication.

    Here’s part of our Abstract:

    “Some words are loaded with connotative associations that make them highly sensitive elements in public discourse, especially political and legal discourse. This is certainly the case with the words ‘anti-semitic’ and ‘anti-semitism’.

    While ‘Semites’ and ‘semitic’ were originally used to refer to a broad ethnic category that included both Arabs and Jews, their derivatives ‘anti-semitic’ and ‘anti-semitism’ came to be applied, from first use, almost exclusively to people of Jewish ethnicity or religion, meaning roughly ‘hatred of / hostility towards Jews’. In some quarters over the past few decades there has been a further semantic shift, involving an extension of the meaning of anti-semitism to include criticism of, or hostility towards, the state of Israel. This paper traces these semantic shifts both in evolving dictionary definitions and in public discourse as evidenced in the Bank of English and the World-Wide Web.”

    Willem Meijs

  9. delia ruhe says:

    Antony, you are exactly right: the antisemitism research environment has greatly improved. As someone who teaches the history of antisemitism in the West, I deplore the way in which the “new antisemitism” requires me to spend the first two or three weeks of my course deconstructing it before I can get on with the real stuff. So thanks for this.

    • Delia: Thanks for this comment.

      I have a question you might be able to help with. If you’re teaching the history of antisemitism somewhere in N. America, is it the case, as defenders of YIISA allege, that there is a negative attitude to research and teaching contemporary antisemitism in N. American university political science departments? It sounds rather far-fetched to me, especially since a strong pro-Israel atmosphere still prevails. Also, if you look at the UK, antisemitism is supposed to be much more prevalent than in N. America, and yet I’m pretty certain that good teaching and research on contemporary antisemitism would have no difficulty finding a university home, as long as there was outside funding attached to the proposal. Any thoughts?

  10. Ben White says:

    One of those who has attacked the decision to close YIISA is Clemens Heni, who was a post-doc researcher there. His piece was published on SPME and linked to by Engage.

    On his Facebook account on Friday, he displayed the kind of scholarly, nuanced approach to the issue for which YIISA and its cheerleaders are famed:

    “Hillary Clinton embraces Islamism, Pro-Iranianism, and Antisemitism, Turkish style”

    • Auntie says:

      I think it is much more important for an academic institute to be established to “understand why some people are antisemitic”.

      The answer is very simple. Instead of antisemitism being a phenomenon which has persisted and mutated for about 2000 years, it is actually better understood as a response to the actions of Jews – i. e. :

      ” One is the state of Israel, its ideology of racial supremacy and its subsequent crimes committed against the Palestinians.”

      and also

      “The widespread bias and subservience to the Israeli cause in the Western media”

      Right, Ben?

  11. Anthony, as someone who attended the conference and who has written quite a bit about this issue, I think this post does get things just about right. The problem is that this area in the study of antisemitism has become a minefield. And I am not wholly sure that your views are above the fray. This debate about the so-called “new antisemitism” has degenerated into a dialogue of the deaf that proceeds as a fight to to the death on both sides. For my views, see:

    On the whole, I agree that YIISA was more of an advocacy group and less of an academic institute than it purported to be. But part of the “objectivity” that you call for is about getting the facts right. Since you were not at the conference yourself, you don’t know (or don’t directly indicate) that there was a minority voice at the conference where a group that included David Feldman, David Hirsh, Robert Fine, Lars Rensmann, Sebastian Voight, and Lara Trubowitz among others were wrestling with these issues at the margins of the conference and so it was not without its critics even there. Moreover, Hirsh’s views in particular are not as unbalanced as you depict them here. And a number of the people you suggest YIISA’s views were not at the conference: no Michael Oren, no Dershowitz, no Wistrich, no Kuntzel, among others. This is a pregnant list of names. Their views were patently in evidence, but they were not. So if this was just intended as a list of the “new antisemitism” theorist, then fair enough–they are its outstanding spokesmen.

    In should be added that in addition to David Feldman’s efforts, Scott Ury, who has recently replaced Dina Porat as Head of the Stephen Roth Center for the Study of Antisemitism and Racism is equally committed to the same academic discussion of the subject. Perhaps the times they are a changin’.

    But I remain skeptical. I believe it is going to worse before it gets better because as the blog indicates, “Context is everything.” And the context is on quicksand and the next couple of years in the Arab-Israeli conflict are going to be difficult and may be some of the most tragic yet. More than anything it is this context and comparative and historically sensitive frameworks that is missing from both sides in this rhetorical warfare.

    The caveats aside then, I do think the post captures both the problems with the current discussion of contemporary antisemitism and with YIISA.

  12. Jonathan: For some inexplicable reason WordPress treated your comment as spam so it was not automatically posted at the time you wrote it. I only just noticed this a few minutes ago and ‘unspammed’ it and posted it.

    So this is a belated thank you for your comments, which are very interesting and helpful. Perhaps I should first clear up points where you feel that I have not been in possession of the facts. Yes, I was not at the conference (not exactly my fault) so I knew nothing about the group you describe which, at the margin of the conference, was wrestling with the issues I raised. I am indeed pleased to hear that this occurred and in a sense I’m not surprised since I knew from the provisional participants list that YIISA put on its website before the conference took place that people like yourself and David Feldman, who I know are strong advocates of the kind of non-partisan, scholarly approach to the study of contemporary antisemitism that I have always argued for, would be attending. I could not imagine that you, David etc. would have remained unconcerned about some of the sessions, papers, speakers and so on.

    But as for the list of names I included as a * footnote, I never said that these were participants in the conference. I took these names from the section of YIISA’s website that lists all the people who presented papers in the YIISA seminar series or gave lectures in the course of YIISA’s yearly programme. As you say, they are very much representative of people who propagate the ‘new antisemitism’ notion and YIISA hosted them.

    As for your comment that you’re ‘not so sure that my views are above the fray’, that seems to me rather a polite way of putting it. I don’t think my views are above the fray. I think very few people’s views on this are above the fray, even if they would like to think they are. Don’t forget, I have engaged in work in this area largely from the perspective of running a policy think tank that has a mandate to carry out research in a political context that it wishes to influence, not from an academic position at a university. And from quite early on–the mid-1990s–I have been making the point about doing our best to leave ideology and political views to one side for the greater good of getting objective work done on current antisemitism. As I saw the situation getting even worse after 2001, I made even more of a point of speaking out, as much as I was able to, on this problem. But even as I have been speaking out, I have tried, in any work I have done on current antisemitism, to practice what I preached and research and write as objectively as possible. If I have been more strident in remarks I’ve made about the ‘minefield’ problem than has been deemed reasonable, all I can say is that I have had to endure bucketsfull of ordure from people demonising me and my views over the last 6 to 8 years–people who constantly misrepresent what I’ve said and written and have insulted me and even my family–and therefore in relation to all of that, I frankly think I’ve been incredibly restrained and will remain so.

    On the crucial question of the future, I’m afraid I tend to agree with your assessment. It’s good that you reminded me of the replacement of Dina Porat at the Stephen Roth Institute–when I heard about it at the time and was told good things about her replacement, I also wondered whether this was a turning of the tide. Unfortunately, there have been too many developments since, particularly emanating from Israel–from certain institutes and think tanks and from the policy orientation towards the exploitation and manipulation of antisemitism of the present government–that make it clear to me that the ‘advocacy’ tendency (to put it rather politely) in the study of current antisemitism has a lot of life left in it.

    I was greatly encouraged to see that Deborah Lipstadt accepted the reasons Yale gave for closing YIISA. That gave me hope. But reading the comments on her Forward article made my heart sink. If they say such things to her of all people, what hope is there for anyone who wants to talk sense in this debate. And yet, I’m also hugely impressed by the way things are shaping up at the Pears Institute under David Feldman. Perhaps this is the place where a very strong strain of the kind of research and discussion on contemporary antisemitism–embracing your ‘context and comparative and historically sensitive frameworks’ point–that is so sorely needed can be developed and can have an international influence. We shall see.

    Meanwhile, a final thank you for your last sentence.

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