Critics of Yale’s decision to close the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) were dealt a severe blow on 16 June when the highly respected Holocaust scholar and expert on antisemitism, Professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University, effectively accepted the reasons the Yale authorities gave for their decision to close the institution (as I did in my earlier post). At first calling the decision ‘strange, if not weird’, after consulting people at Yale she altered her view and concluded that YIISA’s efforts had ‘migrated from the world of scholarship to that of advocacy’.
Wild and unsubstantiated claims have been made about the so-called ‘real’ reasons for the closure. Yale gave in to pressure from Arab funders. YIISA exposed Muslim antisemitism and the authorities were nervous and uncomfortable with this. Yale, along with other American university political science departments, simply didn’t think contemporary antisemitism was a genuine subject for scholarly study. The picture revealed by Professor Lipstadt looks very different.
It seems that friends of YIISA within Yale ‘warned YIISA that it was providing fodder to the critics’ claim that it was not a truly academic endeavor’. Having attended YIISA seminars and the August 2010 conference, she herself concluded that ‘While serious scholars who work in this field gave the vast majority of the papers — and not dilettantes who dabble in it — there were a few presentations that gave me pause. They were passionate and well argued. But they were not scholarly in nature.’ She writes: ‘According to sources at Yale, the university’s leadership unsuccessfully worked with YIISA in an attempt to rectify some of these issues.’
The decision to axe YIISA is not a sign that Yale believes the subject is unworthy of study. On the contrary. ‘Yale has indicated that it is intent on . . . replacing [YIISA] with an initiative that will address both anti-Semitism and its scholarly concerns.’
She draws two lessons from this ‘imboglio’. First, ‘there is a real need for serious academic institutions to facilitate and encourage the highest-level research on anti-Semitism. . . . Moreover, this research must focus not just on Christian anti-Semitism, but on Muslim anti-Semitism, as well’.
Second, this struggle also demonstrates the necessity of differentiating between those who do advocacy and those who do scholarship. Both are critical — but entirely different — endeavors. Let us not forget how rightfully disturbed the Jewish community has been in recent years about the way in which advocacy and polemics have permeated so many university courses on the Middle East. Too many students who take these classes find that they have entered a zone in which advocacy masquerades as scholarship. This is unacceptable, irrespective of the source from which it emanates.
Professor Lipstadt is right on both counts.
Sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if those shrill voices still hammering Yale for its decision, who would normally be listing Deborah Lipstadt as being on their side, will now turn on her. Anyone who can conclude the following after this affair – ‘Some American Jews, who had felt safe from antisemitism, will now be hurting’ – has lost all sense of proportion and could well end up blaming Professor Lipstadt for being responsible for legitimising the exposure of such American Jews to antisemitism.