The Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism hosted its first major conference on Friday, combining a historical approach to the French-Jewish community with contemporary political analysis.
The conference, entitled “Antisemtism in France: Past, Present and Future,” featured 11 leading scholars of anti-Semitism from France, Israel and the United States and attracted an audience of roughly 70 academics, New Haven community members, undergraduates and graduate students. Program director and French professor Maurice Samuels said the conference focused on France in particular because the country, which has the largest populations of Jews and Muslims in Europe, is on the “front lines” of a new strain of anti-Semitism. Samuels said Friday’s conference demonstrates that YPSA, which replaced an earlier program on anti-Semitism that came under fire in 2011 after holding an allegedly Islamophobic conference, does not shy away from political or controversial subjects.
“I think the conference showed that YPSA is not afraid to confront current events or to touch the issue of Muslim antiSemitism,” Samuels said. “Over three-quarters of the papers at the conference dealt directly with these issues and all of them touched on them in some way… The important thing for me is to confront these issues in a serious and responsible way, and I think the conference did just that.”
In four different panels, speakers debated the intersection of Jewish identity and national identity, approaches to discussing the Holocaust, case studies of anti-Semitism in the French academic setting and the relationship between Jews and Muslims in modern France, among other issues.
Samuels said the new anti-Semitism in France is both “mainly ideological and anti-Zionist” and reached a fever pitch with the shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse by a Muslim extremist last March, in which four people were killed.
“France has also had a long history of anti-Semitism stretching back to Vichy, the Dreyfus Affair and beyond, as well as a long history of positive treatment of its Jewish minority — it was the first European country to grant Jews full civil rights and Jews reached a high level of social integration there much earlier than in other countries,” Samuels said in a Saturday email to the News. “I thought it would be useful to try to place the current crisis in the context of this complex history.”
When YPSA was introduced in June 2011, Provost Peter Salovey said the new program would emphasize a scholarly approach to anti-Semitism studies. University administrators said earlier that month that they had canceled the program’s predecessor — the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism — because it was not supporting enough student courses or faculty research. But some Jewish groups accused the University of yielding to political pressure by closing YIISA after it was widely criticized for holding a conference in August 2010 — with a focus on modern global anti-Semitism — that some called Islamophobic.
Samuels added that Friday’s conference “became quite heated at certain points.” One such moment occurred when panelist Patrick Weil, a researcher from Université de Paris I, criticized members of a different panel for ignoring the previous murders of black and Muslim soldiers committed by Mohammed Merah, the shooter at the Toulouse school.
Stephanie Hertz, who works at the Anti-Defamation League offices in Hamden, attended the conference and praised its “interdisciplinary nature,” but said she was disappointed by its largely “theoretical” discussion.
“I would have liked them to answer the question a little bit more: ‘OK, what can we do?’” she said. “But that might not have been as much the focus of the conference.”
But Zola Chihombori Quao ’13, a French major in Samuels’ seminar on French-Jewish identity, said she was “astounded by the breadth and depth of analysis” at the conference, adding that it gave her “a much better grasp of anti-Semitism and how it’s changed over the years.”
The next YPSA event will be an Oct. 18 lecture by Jeffrey Herf of the University of Maryland, titled “At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967–1989.”
Correction: Oct. 8
A previous version of this article misidentified Patrick Weil as Nicholas Weil.