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Eric Alterman: Yale Acted Correctly in Axing Anti-Semitism Initiative

Yale University’s decision to shutter its Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism and replace it with the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism has inspired considerable controversy, much of it highly acrimonious. On the one hand, this is surprising. YIISA was a tiny institute without much of a profile at Yale, much less in the world at large. On the other hand, it had the term “anti-Semitism” in its name, and so any actions involving it are bound to arouse the passions of the professional Jewish community and a certain segment of the punditocracy that keeps watch on the issue. Add to this the groups and individuals who have appointed themselves to the job of policing academia for signs of social and political deviancy, and you have all the ingredients necessary for a (kosher) food fight.

On the face of it, Yale’s decision was rather straightforward and unspectacular. A university-appointed committee of review examined YIISA’s scholarly output and found it lacking. What’s more, the program’s founder and former executive director, Charles Small, had no formal academic connection to Yale and had founded the institute elsewhere, using the Yale name to increase its visibility and prestige. Given that, after all, Yale is a university and scholarship is its business, it could hardly be asked to sit still and see its good name exploited by a center that it thought failed to live up to its academic standards.

From Yale’s point of view, the problem with YIISA was that it was operating a kind of bait-and-switch operation. While posing as a scholarly center for the study of anti-Semitism, it was actually pushing a political agenda designed to redefine the term to mean “threatening to Israel.” This became evident in August 2010, when YIISA organized a high-profile, three-day conference. An article in the online magazine Zeek noted at the time, “Of approximately 91 papers (I exclude keynote addresses), at least 23 are explicitly about Arab or Muslim anti-Semitism, three are explicitly about Christian anti-Semitism, six are about the Holocaust, and three are about self-hating Jews (all included in a panel called ‘Self-Hatred and Contemporary Antisemitism’ — the title of the panel is itself worthy of a panel). The others are about anti-Semitism in other parts of the world; are more theoretically oriented, or have titles that are too non-descript to define.” Even conference participants, like Robert Wistrich, believed that YIISA “mix[ed] too much advocacy with scholarship, and the scholarship was at times somewhat thin.” So, too, Deborah Lipstadt, who derided some of the presentations as “not scholarly in nature.”

Once the university announced its plans to replace YIISA with a more scholarly center led by the historian of French Jewry, Maurice Samuels, critics were forced to rely on ludicrous conspiracy theories, such as accusing Yale of succumbing to pressure from the Iranian government. Amitai Etzioni went so far as to argue that Yale should keep the center open “if only not to seem even to yield to such pressures” as if paranoia were its own argument.

Why the hysteria? Because YIISA’s agenda, while inconsistent with the academic study of the historic phenomenon of anti-Semitism, was perfectly in accord with the political initiative of many wealthy and influential Conservative Jews: to redefine the term “anti-Semitic” to mean “critical of Israel.”

This agenda is transparent in the operations of organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, which raises as much as $70 million a year (and paid its national director, Abraham Foxman, $532,378 in 2007, the most recent figure available), allegedly to combat discrimination but actually to attack critics of Israel. Don’t take my word for it; Foxman says so himself. “What some like to call anti-Zionism is, in reality, anti-Semitism — always, everywhere, and for all time,” he wrote in his 2003 book “Never Again?” One can see the same political agenda repeated in the pages of Martin Peretz’s The New Republic, where, for instance, Jeffrey Goldberg feels free to smear Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer — respected scholars whose views on Israel he (and I) disagree — as no different from Louis Farrakhan or David Duke. Such accusations are also explicitly part of the political agenda of the current government of Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed before Holocaust Memorial Day this year that “hatred of the Jews and the denial of their existence have turned into hatred of the Jewish state.”

This redefinition of the term serves multiple purposes simultaneously. After all, how would the ADL raise all that gelt and pay Foxman so handsomely if its agenda were truly focused on fighting discrimination? And what would become of its budget if — God forbid — it fought against the fully legal discrimination of Arab citizens of Israel? And speaking of which, isn’t it easier to accuse one’s critics of being motivated by anti-Semitism than to admit that a great deal of criticism of Israel — which, after all, is occupying the land of another people, expropriating it illegally (according to its own laws) for the use of its settlers, treating non-Jews as second-class citizens and curtailing the right of free speech of all its citizens — might have some tiny bit of justification?

While the neocons and Likudniks like to brand all critics of Israel as anti-Semites, sadly, the reverse is closer to the truth. Those branded as anti-Semites in contemporary America are far more likely to be critics of the State of Israel than haters of Jews. This is not to say we have no anti-Semites at all in America. We do, of course, but they are wholly marginal both to our political discourse and to our culture in general. I have no sympathy whatsoever for the political views of either Patrick Buchanan on the right or Alexander Cockburn on the left, but seriously, who cares what either one thinks or says about Israel, given what we know about their views? And given the abuse that patriotic Muslims have been forced to undergo of late, the intense focus on such trivial concerns seems almost Pythonesque in its absurdity.

As a proud, pro-Zionist Jew and an academic (and an alumnus of Yale), I’m actually grateful to the university for striking a blow on behalf of disinterested scholarship in the face of a purposeful campaign to pervert our political discourse with propaganda masquerading as academic research.

Eric Alterman is a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and at the City of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He also writes a column for The Nation.

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