A conference last week, sponsored by Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, raises questions about the Initiative’s commitment to fighting all forms of bigotry. While speakers at “Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity,” touched on anti-Jewish sentiment across different historical periods and geographic areas, they focused predominantly on the Arab and Muslim world. Instead of connecting the threads between different kinds of hatred, the conference provided a platform for anti-Arab and anti-Muslim speakers. For a center created to promote the critical study of one form of racism, it is unconscionable that it would indulge speakers who spread another.
Among the many anti-Arab and anti-Muslim speakers was Itamar Marcus, a member of the Israeli settler movement who offered a keynote speech on “The Central Role of Palestinian Antisemitism in Creating the Palestinian Identity.” The title alone reduces an entire people and its history to irrationality and hatred; worse, it was but one of dozens of talks with a similarly problematic theme. Another speaker, Barak Seener, has, in the past, encouraged scrutiny of Israel’s Arab population — the Palestinians indigenous to the land who remained after 1948 who now comprise 20 percent of Israel’s body politic — as a “fifth column” and a “potential terrorist threat.” Such a characterization within the context of anti-Arab incitement in Israel today fits into a discourse that seeks to strip Arab-Israeli citizens of the limited political rights they now hold. Harvard professor and outspoken pro-Israel activist Ruth Wisse, who also spoke, has described Palestinian Arabs as “people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery,” a form of dehumanization that implies Palestinians are incapable of basic human emotions like sorrow and pain.
The center’s failure to adhere to consistent anti-racist principles makes it vulnerable to the charge that it is motivated by a political agenda. Indeed, many of its speakers hailed from partisan, right-wing, pro-Israel organizations including NGO Monitor, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and Palestinian Media Watch — not to mention the Israeli government. In addition, many talks functioned as apologia for recent controversial Israeli actions, including an attack that killed nine civilians on a humanitarian aid flotilla to Gaza this summer that one speaker called “the Jihad flotilla.” The conference was also co-sponsored by two Israeli universities with their own troubled and persistent legacy of anti-Arab racism, Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University. Most recently, Tel Aviv University, for example, has faced charges that a new housing policy discriminates against Arab students who do not serve in the Israeli military and who often face housing discrimination in Tel Aviv.
In addition, speakers at times seemed to conflate anti-Israel sentiment with anti-Semitism. For example, in a plenary about anti-racist Jewish critics of Israel titled “Self Hatred and Contemporary Antisemitism,” Richard Landes’ speech asked, “What Drives Jews to Loathe Israel Publicly?” as if those dissidents’ claims were based not on merit but on some pathological psychosis. Landes and others were not speaking about radical organizations but rather reputable human rights organizations, prominent Jewish dissidents and international student activists — exactly the kind of people a center purporting to fight bigotry should celebrate. By sponsoring such a forum, Yale lends its name to the notion that Jews who publically criticize Israel and Zionism are “self-haters.” Predicated on a rigid definition of a “real” Jew as someone who tows a particular political line, the underlying ideological definition of Jewish identity limits the freedom of Jews to develop their own identity based on their individual experiences in their particular social and historical context. Ironically, the same logic, inverted, often provides a pretext for racist ideas about Jews around the world, for those who imagine that Jews, no matter where they are or what they say, form a monolithic body that can be blamed for Israel’s actions.
Worse still, considering the dangerous landscape on which American Muslims now dwell, is the harm that anti-Muslim bigotry disseminated under Yale’s banner of credibility may cause. At a time when Muslim communities as close as Bridgeport, Conn. have been harassed at places of worship, Yale should be especially sensitive to the impact that the knowledge produced in its name can cause in the world. The University cannot preach tolerance and inclusion while simultaneously also providing a haven for bigoted ideas about Muslims and Arabs that often form the basis for Islamophobic sentiment in this country.
While the center’s failure to abstain from inflammatory anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric is offensive and dangerous, the real tragedy is its failure to recognize that a successful and principled stand against anti-Semitism requires a principled stand against all kinds of racism, including anti-Muslim/anti-Arab bigotry in America and anti-Palestinian racism in Israel. Yale has an obligation to distance itself from the conference’s more questionable affiliations and pronouncements, while at the same time making sure that Yale’s name is not hijacked in order to demonize Muslims and Arabs.
Indeed, as Yale now views its own history of institutional anti-Semitism with shame, one wonders how, in the future, it will look back at how its actions fueled anti-Arab bigotry and Islamophobia.