Yale gives anti-Semitic studies a second try
Will the esteemed university's new program for the study of anti-Semitism get critics as angry as its short-lived predecessor?
WASHINGTON - About two weeks ago, an announcement by Yale University provost Peter Salovey that a new program for the study of anti-Semitism will be created - less than a month after the previous program was closed - raised some eyebrows. Did the university succumb to the critics, including the Palestine Liberation Organization representative to Washington, Maen Rashid Arekat, who claimed the previous program stirred anti-Islamic sentiment because of its focus on contemporary anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world? Are they trying to create a neutered version of the program to appease critics from both sides? Is it even possible to seriously study anti-Semitism without stepping on somebody's sensitive toes?
"I don't want to go over the whole controversy of closing the program," says the director of the new program, Maurice Samuels, a professor of French, in a conversation with Haaretz, but he finally provides some details: "There was a regular review that was scheduled from the very beginning, it's a totally normal review that all programs go through."
He adds: "It included faculty review, very distinguished faculty members made a report - these reports are always confidential, despite the questions some people have been asking: 'Why this secret report?'
"What I can say from my observation - the program didn't have much of a connection with Yale. The director of it wasn't a Yale professor, and for whatever reasons, Yale faculty members and the students almost completely stayed away from all of the activities of it. To me, it wasn't that surprising that they decided to close it down."
Do you intend to make the new program less controversial by dodging some contemporary topics?
"We are not going to shy away from any topic because it's too dangerous or political. We'll be addressing anti-Semitism in the modern world, including the Muslim world. The new program will focus on both historic and contemporary forms of anti-Semitism. We have a very exciting lineup of speakers, already we have commitment from Jan Gross from Princeton, Alvin Rosenfeld, and Meir Litvak - about the reception of the Holocaust in Arab countries and Iran. I think it's going to be great. What makes it so exciting is that people from different departments who use different methodologies, to bring them together, to tackle the problem of anti-Semitism - it's really exciting and important. That's going to be my goal, to bring faculty and students from all kinds of different departments - the history department, sociology, the law school, psychology, Middle Eastern studies - and that the students will be engaged because the speakers I am going to bring will really be the top thinkers in the field in their subjects. We are going to have an annual conference every year, and the first one will be 'anti-Semitism in France, past and present' in April."
Would you invite Muslim scholars to share their views on the topic?
"I've been reaching out to colleagues in the Middle Eastern studies area at Yale, and I am very interested in bringing them. My criteria: We are interested in a serious scholarly study of the phenomenon of anti-Semitism and I believe they should be interested in it - and if they are, we are very much interested in what they have to say."
Why do you think there is a need for a special program to deal with anti-Semitism as opposed to other forms of xenophobia?
"I've heard that as I was reaching out to different colleagues in other departments, and I heard this objection raised. I think my answer is that anti-Semitism has a unique history, it's related to other forms of racism, but it's also different from them. It has longer history than any other form of racism. It's been called by the scholar Robert Wistrich 'the longest hatred.' And I think that it's a unique phenomenon because of its history and because it's found in every country in the world."
We've heard claims that there is political abuse of the term to a certain extent, that Israeli politicians and the country's supporters are quick to connect criticism of Israel's policies to anti-Semitism. Are such claims justified in your opinion?
"I think it's undeniable that some expressions of anti-Zionism are also expressions of anti-Semitism. At the same time, I don't think that everyone who expresses criticism of Israel is therefore anti-Semitic. One of the goals of such a program is precisely to investigate the areas where anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism, and to call it out."
But you do not seek to provide tools for policy makers, is that correct?
"Right. Our goal is not to affect policy, but if scholarship can produce an understanding that advocates and politicians can use to oppose anti-Semitism, I think that's totally valid."
Is there time limit to this program?
"I assume there will be a regular review at some point, but right now there is no set term for it."
While the Yale anti-Semitism program is preparing for its first year in tackling hated of Jews academically, for the Muslim community in the U.S. the topic of religion-based hatred is a very practical matter. Last week, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Peter King, hosted the committee's third hearing on the radicalization of the American-Muslim community.
"I note that certain elements of the politically correct media are shamelessly attempting to exploit the horrific tragedy in Norway to cause me to refocus these hearings away from Muslim-American radicalization", King said in his opening remarks at the hearing.
"If they had even a semblance of intellectual honesty, they would know and admit that there is no equivalency in the threat to our homeland from a deranged gunman and the international terror apparatus of al-Qaida and its affiliates who are recruiting people in this country and have murdered thousands of Americans in their jihad attacks."
He added: "Apart from all the strategic and moral reasons why these hearings are vital to our security, they are liberating and empowering to the many Muslim Americans who have been intimidated by leaders in their own communities and are now able to come forward. I also owe it to all the friends, neighbors, and constituents I lost on September 11. I will not back down."
The National Jewish Democratic Council condemned the hearing, warning that "know-nothing attacks on Muslims and Islamic law can ultimately sweep up Judaism and other faiths in their path."
But King is hardly a lonely voice in the U.S. today, especially when there is a small but steady stream of reports on arrests of terror suspects in the States, mostly Muslims, and their thwarted attacks. In the past few months, the liberal press has found another favorite - Jewish lawyer David Yerushalmi, who used to live in the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, whose initiative to fight sharia law by preventive legislative measures got him an utterly unflattering profile in Mother Jones magazine and, more recently, in The New York Times. His critics stretch from the American Civil Liberties Union (which defined his efforts as "a solution in search of a problem" ) to the Anti-Defamation League (which warned in its statement that he "actively promoted his conspiratorial vision of Shari'a law and sought to portray all Muslims as a threat," but also holds racist views toward other minority communities, including illegal immigrants ).
His supporters think he is doing great service to the country, and those who are trying to silence him are either dangerously naive, not aware of the actual preachings in many American mosques, or are just aligned with the other side. His ideas, said one of his more conservative Washington sympathizers, who didn't want to be "quoted by name in a liberal newspaper," became popular because they are dealing with a real threat, and concerned Americans don't want to repeat the Europeans' troubles with some of their Muslim immigrants communities. That's why, Yerushalmi's sympathizer said, his ideas resonated with some lawmakers in over 20 states, who proposed bills with various ideas about restricting sharia law's influence in the U.S.