The Yale Program for the Study of Anitisemitism brought in its most historically oriented speaker of the academic year on Wednesday, Slifka Center Rabbi James Ponet ’68 said.
In its first event of the semester, YPSA hosted David Feldman, a professor at Birkbeck, University of London and director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. Feldman delivered a lecture on “Equality, Difference and the Jews, 1750-1900” in Luce Hall on Wednesday to an audience of more than 30 Yale professors, students and New Haven residents. Since its creation last June, the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism has sought to distance itself from the disbanded Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism by attracting a more academic following and veering away from politically charged issues.
“[Anti-Semitism] is something that has confounded scholars for a long time, and people have noted it is on the rise again today,” said Maurice Samuels, the director of YPSA. “While anti-Semitism is, in part, a unique phenomenon, it is key to understanding all forms of hatred and prejudice.”
Ponet, who serves as an affiliate of YPSA, said Feldman’s talk focused on the history of anti-Semitism more than any of the six other events the organization has held so far. Co-sponsored by the Modern Eurporean Colloquium and the Modern British Group, the talk focused on British anti-Semitism in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Feldman suggested that anti-Semitism is “discontinuous,” a problem resulting from specific situations, but not continuously present on a global level. He cited the British government’s decision to repeal the “Jew Bill” of 1753, which allowed foreign Jews to become British citizens, as an example of anti-Semitic events.
“The history of anti-Semitism is closely linked to other forms of exclusion,” he said.
Administrators announced the creation of YPSA last summer to replace YIISA, which had drawn widespread criticism for its political focus. Ponet said the administration was concerned that YIISA overemphasized the political aspects of anti-Semitism and did not sufficiently address the historical ones.
YIISA’s first and only conference in August 2010 on global anti-Semitism generated a particular backlash, bringing the organization under fire for allegations of Islamophobia and prompting the U.S. representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization to write a letter of protest to University President Richard Levin.
Samuels and Ponet both said they do not believe that YPSA has received similar complaints. Samuels said YPSA has aimed to promote “first-class research” by organizing lectures with scholars from both within and outside the Yale community. So far, these lectures have included a roundtable on diversity in France and a discussion of Holocaust imagery in the modern Arab world.
Ponet said YPSA will host what could be a controversial event in February when Meir Litvak, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University, discusses anti-Semitism in the Muslim Middle East. But Samuels said he does not expect Litvak’s talk to be overtly political.
“Litvak is a very, very serious scholar,” Samuels said. “If you bring in very serious scholars who do very serious work, there shouldn’t be a political backlash.”
Samuels said he hopes to partner with other departments and organizations to continue expanding the young program and to encourage those who may not initially be interested in studying anti-Semitism to get involved with YPSA.
YPSA will hold its next panel discussion, a conversation on “Theorizing the Study of antiSemitism,” on Feb. 16.