An Academic War Zone

Rather than serving as fodder for another melee in the political war over the 'new anti-Semitism,' the controversy over the Yale Initiative should serve as a wake-up call.

In recent weeks, the front lines in the battle over the "new anti-Semitism" have moved to Yale University. A controversy has raged over the decision by Yale to shutter its Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. Caroline Glick has led the charge in The Jerusalem Post, suggesting that YIISA was shut down because of its refusal to shut up about contemporary Islamic anti-Semitism.

The uproar is an indicator that discussions about contemporary anti-Semitism have become a war zone. The one army claims that the new wave of anti-Semitic attacks is being mobilized by an alliance of leftists and jihadists united by their anti-Zionism, which masks their underlying anti-Semitism. The other force maintains that the charge of anti-Semitism is only made to fend off criticisms of Israel. Both sides are only partly right. And the complexities of the current debate are deadened by the nature of the bombardments each launches in response to its enemies.

Yale public health students graduation May 23 2011

YIISA clearly blurred the lines between activism and academic work. I was present at its contentious international conference last August on "Global Anti-Semitism: A Crisis of Modernity." It was an exciting moment in the study of anti-Semitism since it was the largest conference ever held on the topic and marked the launch of the International Association for the Study of Anti-Semitism, a professional association for the field needed now more than ever.

But the conference was a microcosm of the Yale Initiative's approach, which had taken a wrong turn. At the meeting, representatives from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Middle East Media Research Institute, and others trained as monitors and working as advocates, were on panels alongside academic scholars. A whole session on "self-hating Jews" amounted to little more than an extended diatribe against scholars who have taken strongly critical positions on the Israeli occupation.

At the same time, there were many insightful and nuanced presentations by academics. Among many of those with whom I conversed, the rise in anti-Semitism, which was the subject of numerous panels at the conference, is not a cause for surprise. Islamic Judeophobia is simply not news to scholars in the field, for whom the vehemently anti-Semitic views of Ahmadinejad or Hamas are patently obvious. There was, however, concern that the Yale Initiative's program might contribute more to stoking the fires than dampening them, since its scholarly impartiality appeared compromised.

This is indicative of a problem in the study of anti-Semitism that must be redressed. Rather than serving as fodder for another melee in the political war over the "new anti-Semitism," the controversy over YIISA should serve as a desperately needed wake-up call. For unlike every other area of scholarship in which I have been trained as a historian of modern Europe - nationalism, colonialism, feminism, class, racism - there is a paucity of literature on the methods that should underpin the study of anti-Semitism.

There is little theoretical literature on which approaches and training should be applied to this field, which mechanisms account for its morphing over time, and how its various permutations ought to be divided into periods. Moreover, there has been little consideration of what comparative frameworks are required to understand anti-Semitism. For example, in the contemporary moment, how are we to understand the relationship between Islamophobia and the new Judeophobia? This point also necessitates a historical consideration of who the allies in the struggle against anti-Semitism have been and ought to be. It is on the basis of this kind of scholarly reflection that the academy can contribute to the broader campaign against racism in all its forms.

As such, the controversy over YIISA should focus squarely on the reasons behind its closure by Yale, which determined that the institute was not sufficiently advancing the academic study of the field.

This is an important debate that has been eclipsed by all the din about YIISA. But it is not one that can be decided by the warrior pundits like Caroline Glick or her fellow soldiers in the blogosphere and on the ground. Abraham Foxman's views on this issue are simply beside the point, since the organization he heads does a different kind of work, as important as it is. The criteria have to be purely academic. Often it is external watchdogs that politicize the academy when they claim they are trying to prevent just that.

The watchdogs' activity is part of a broader assault on faculty governance that is eroding academia. This does not mean that universities are an ivory tower removed from the most important issues we face globally. On the contrary: Universities, in their training of researchers, can make a significant contribution to these debates. As such, the YIISA controversy should sound the alarm bells. It should serve as a call for the need to properly educate a new generation of scholars in the field, and for a dialogue within academic circles on how to achieve this goal.

In its mission statement, the Yale Initiative promised to be a part of that discussion. Its closure means that its ostensible mission remains to be fulfilled. One can only hope that the newly minted Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism will advance this imperative and that more strictly academically oriented approaches to the subject emerge in the years to come. In the end, the suppression of anti-Semitism may well depend upon it.

Jonathan Judaken is the author of "Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question" and editor of "Naming Race, Naming Racisms." He is currently lecturing in Israel as a Fulbright Senior Specialist based on a work in progress entitled "Critical Theories of Anti-Semitism."