New antisemitism program to have scholarly focus

Yale’s replacement for the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism, aims to have a more scholarly focus than its predecessor, which has been called too political for an academic environment.

Yale announced in early June that YIISA would not continue because it lacked sufficient academic interest from students and faculty, prompting public outcry from newspaper columnists and Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League. In its place, Yale will introduce YPSA, Provost Peter Salovey announced in a Sunday email.

YSPA will aim to bring a renewed scholarly focus to the study of antisemitism, Salovey told the News Tuesday. The new program will be headed by Professor Maurice Samuels, director of graduate studies for the French department and an expert on French Jews.

“I’m very impressed with what Professor Samuels has planned for YPSA and think it will attract many of our faculty members due to its scholarly focus on both historical and contemporary issues,” Salovey said.

Though administrators maintain that they decided to discontinue YIISA because it was not supporting enough faculty research or student courses, critics have accused Yale of canceling YIISA because it focused on combatting Muslim antisemitism.

Charles Small, executive director and founder of YIISA, released a statement that YIISA had been publishing articles at a “high caliber,” contesting Salovey’s claim that YIISA had not produced enough scholarly papers. In Small’s view, the real reason for the administration’s decision to close YIISA was the initiative’s focus on modern antisemitic countries, such as Iran, because the administration would prefer to study only historial examples of antisemitism so as to avoid controversy.

“It appears that Yale, unlike YIISA, is not willing to engage in a comprehensive examination of the current crisis facing living Jews, but instead is comfortable with reexamining the plight of Jews who perished at the hands of antisemites,” Small said. “The role of a true scholar and intellectual is to shed light where there is darkness, which is why we at YIISA are committed to critical engaged scholarship with a broader approach to the complex, and at times controversial context of contemporary global antisemitism.”

Sociology Professor Jeffrey Alexander, a member of the YIISA faculty governance committee, said that Small’s use of the phrase “engaged scholarship” revealed YIISA’s focus on politics over scholarship. YIISA was “definitely” too political, in his view, which reduced its appeal to the broader Yale population, causing it to fail the review of its academic standards.

“The reason [for YIISA’s lack of success] was that it was political, had a strong political orientation,” Alexander said. “[This orientation] was to defend the policies of the current conservative government [of Israel], and the whole post ‘67 tendency of Israel’s foreign policy, which is to occupy conquered territories, to continue the settlement movement.”

He said that Small saw antisemitism scholarship as a tool to discredit Arab critics of Israeli foreign policy. Small disagreed, telling the News Thursday that YIISA never had a political agenda. He cited the wide variety of ideologies and opinions among YIISA faculty as evidence that the initiative was not singlemindedly Zionist.

Alexander said he was hopeful that Samuels, with his “impeccable” academic credentials, would be able to make YPSA more scholarly and reputable.

While the curriculum for YPSA is still in the works, Samuels said it will focus on research and not policy work — giving grants to faculty and students, creating a faculty reading group, and recruiting a visiting scholar to teach a class each year.

Samuels said he would like YPSA to host an annual conference on antisemitism, with the inaugural one slated for spring 2012, probably on the topic of French antisemitism.

Last year’s YIISA conference, Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity, made Yale administration concerned about the YIISA’S work, Economics Professor Gustav Ranis said.

Ranis became the co-chair of the YIISA faculty governance committee set up in the wake of the conference. He said that the faculty governance committee tried to push YIISA in a more academic direction to attract more interest from non-Jewish students and faculty, but “ran out of time.” Samuels and Alexander were also members of the faculty governance committee.

Small blamed radical Islamic and extreme left wing bloggers for the bad publicity the conference got. He pointed out that it was the largest conference on antisemitism ever, and it would have been absurd for the conference to ignore Muslim antisemitism.

“Could you imagine if we’d had the same conference in 1938 at Yale University. Would we have been called anti-german, anti-Christian, and perhaps Communists?” Small said. “Today we’ve been called neoconservatives, racists, apartheid supporters, and advocates not scholars.”

He added that YIISA was against all forms of racism.

Natalia Emanuel ’12, a student intern at YIISA, said that ending YIISA is a step backward given the current state of anti-Semitism in the world. But she was relieved to hear about YPSA.

“As long as the reformulated YIISA is allowed to explore bias and its implications with honesty – even when some aspects are charged – I believe this center can do a tremendous amount of good work,” Emanuel said.

The original YIISA may may still exist in some context only not at Yale. Small said that he has been in contact with other academic institutions and aims to relocate YIISA to one of them.

YIISA was the first interdisciplinary program to study antisemitism at a North American university.

Correction: June 25, 2011

An earlier version of this article referred to the Anti-Defamation League as the Anti-Descrimination League.

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