Jerusalem anti-Semitism Scholar Backs Yale's Move to Ax Program

Raphael Ahren
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Raphael Ahren

A Jerusalem scholar who pioneered the study of anti-Semitism says the recent closure of a ground-breaking institute at Yale University was not done for political reasons, as has been charged, but because it did not meet academic standards.

Robert Wistrich, the director of the International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, the world's first such institution, says the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, or YIISA, did not survive at the Ivy League school because it ventured too far away from purely academic research into the field of advocacy and policy recommendations.

Robert Wistrich of Hebrew University.Credit: Donald Guthrei

Yale announced it would shutter the program, which had focused on Muslim anti-Semitism among other fields of study, last month, leading to calls that the school had caved to political pressure from powerful groups in the Arab world.

Yale has since announced the opening of a new center, but critics claim it will only focus on historical, and not contemporary, anti-Semitism.

"There's no way that Yale could have come to a different decision," said Wistrich, originally from Britian. "Why? Because their criteria do not depend on how much of a splash a particular institute makes in media terms or through the number of its press releases. They have to think about the short and long-term benefits for the scholarly community at Yale. That includes questions regarding how many students are enrolled and how many people from the university are involved in real terms, and not just on paper. Unfortunately, there was not much student enrollment. That's a fact." Wistrich admitted though that the center highlighted controversial topics that inevitably drew the ire of university administrators.

While Wistrich, 66, said it is legitimate to provide academic expertise to governments and organizations, this cannot be a scholarly body's central role.

"YIISA initially was going on the right track, in the sense that it was inviting some serious scholars to present lectures at the institute," Wistrich, who sat on the center's academic advisory board, said. "But over the years it began to mix too much advocacy with scholarship, and the scholarship was at times somewhat thin."

the program's former director, Charles Small, rejected Wistrich's criticism, saying his center published significant scholarly material and denied it was engaged in advocacy.

Small, a sociology and geography scholar who also taught at three Israeli universities but was not a Yale professor, founded the center in 2006. Yale agreed to provide the center with a building - but not funding - under the condition that it would be subject to a review after five years, which the center failed this summer. The review committee's decision was never publicized, but according to a university announcement it found little scholarly output and low enrollment.

Small called the university's decision to keep the review results confidential "highly unusual" and attacked Wistrich for giving credence to Yale's "PR canards."

"YIISA research scholars published more than 10 books, eight working papers, more than 49 articles of which a significant portion was peered reviewed, scholars produced more than eight articles for edited books," Small told Anglo File. "We were among the most active centers at Yale."

However, a spokesman for Yale said the decision was based on the lacking level of the institute's work.

"The simple fact is that Charles Small failed to live up to the basic standards Yale expects for scholastic study. He was counseled over the past five years about the steps he should take to improve faculty and student participation and scholarly output," he wrote Haaretz in an email. He added that keeping the decision confidential was standard procedure and that many of Small's lecturers came from outside Yale.

Many have come to Small's defense since the decision to ax the institute, including legal scholar Alan Dershowitz, who had lectured at the institute. He wrote on the website Hudson New York that "Never before have I seen such a lack of process and fairness in the termination of a program. Rarely if ever is the program simply shut down, as this one has been. Yale has some explaining to do."

Other observers felt the review committee's decision was politically motivated, after the institute took heat for hosting events that some claimed spurred Islamophobia, including a large conference in August.

The PLO's envoy to the U.S. told Yale's president he was shocked that a respected institution "would give a platform to these right-wing extremists and their odious views."

"Yale should not have closed the institute if only not to seem even to yield to such pressures," sociologist Amitai Etzioni wrote.

Wistrich, who moved to Israel in 1980, finds these accusations unconvincing.

"I'm not saying that such pressures never exist in academia," he said. "I can well believe that senior administrators at Yale did indeed feel very uncomfortable and unhappy about this predominant focus on contemporary Muslim anti-Semitism. But I don't believe, from my knowledge of how administrators and professors interact, that the people who did this review would be influenced by that."

Middle Eastern studies programs on American campuses have "undoubtedly been distorted by the massive endowments given by Gulf and Arab states," Wistrich added. "But it doesn't mean that we should assume this was a factor in the decision to ax YIISA."

Wistrich, who discusses the Iranian threat extensively in his latest book on anti-Semitism, says Small was "disproportionately obsessed with Iran. I'm the last person to say a discussion of genocidal anti-Semitism in Iran is not important. But you can't go around the world representing Yale and talking primarily about how the world needs to stop Iran."

Small responded by saying the institute engaged in the "scholarly disciplines of socio-cultural policy analysis, so [as] to develop mechanisms to combat the spread of this culture of death. This is the role of a true scholar."

Alvin H. Rosenfeld, who heads the recently created Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism at Indiana University, said the Yale institute undoubtedly had some problems.

"But you don't typically solve problems by suddenly shutting down an institute that has done some good work. You work with the institute's director and you try to correct the problem, or you replace the director," he said. "But that Yale didn't do ... that's unusual."

Rosenfeld said he believes the program was scrapped for a mix of academic, personal and political reasons.

Mere weeks after the institute was shut down, the Connecticut-based university announced the creation of the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism. The fact that the new program is headed by Maurice Samuels - a specialist in 19th century French literature and not a scholar of anti-Semitism - led many to fear he will focus on past expressions of the phenomenon and neglect today's threats.

But Wistrich said it was unfair to declare Samuels unqualified. Samuels' insights into the literary stereotypes of Jews are actually "a highly relevant feature of anti-Semitism through the ages, including the present," he said. "A great deal can be learned from cultural analysis and literary criticism in seeking to understand the deeper roots of anti-Semitism."