U.S. Academic Controversy Could Shed Light on Future of anti-Semitism Studies

U.S. universities have traditionally shed more heat than light on the question of studying prejudice, as an ongoing controversy involving the field of black studies demonstrates.

How should the study of prejudice, including anti-Semitism, be approached in an academic setting? American universities have traditionally shed more heat than light on this knotty question, as an ongoing and bitter controversy involving the field of black studies demonstrates.

A couple of weeks ago, Naomi Schaefer Riley, a prominent writer on education, posted a spirited and provocatively-worded critique of black studies on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the leading U.S. publication covering the university sector. Highlighting the loaded claims of certain black studies scholars, Riley lambasted the discipline for its in-built political bias. "Let some legitimate scholars find solutions to the problems of blacks in America," she concluded. "Solutions that don’t begin and end with 'blame the white man.'"

As one might expect, Riley's article caused an uproar, not just in black studies departments, but among liberal academics and commentators more generally. Less anticipated was the subsequent decision of the Chronicle to expel Riley from its pool of writers.

Thus far, the clash over Riley's article has not spilled over into the similarly polarizing debate in academic circles over anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, there are striking parallels between the two.

Riley's fundamental objection to black studies is based, as she put it in a piece for the Wall Street Journal, on her assessment that it "is a cause, not a course of study." Very much the same charge was leveled, in 2011, at Yale University's institute devoted to the study of anti-Semitism, known as YIISA.

In YIISA's case, however, the complaint of political bias compromising academic integrity was principally articulated by liberals. Even more significantly, YIISA was shuttered after only five years of operation, whereas black studies departments remain open for business at several universities across the United States.

YIISA's emphasis on the influence of anti-Semitism on political attitudes in the Muslim world, as well as on the presence of traditional anti-Semitic themes in the discourse of Western opponents of Zionism, won the institute few friends in the left-leaning universe of American social science (by contrast, the seminars organized by its successor program, known as YPSA, are far less controversial.)

And it is certainly true that YIISA's overall tone was highly politicized -- its interventions on Iran and its collaboration with Jewish defense organizations breached, in the eyes of many critics, the line between academia and advocacy.

Yet the political convictions that informed YIISA's work were no more pronounced than those prevailing in black studies departments - and, indeed, related disciplines like women's studies, with its emphasis on the negative effects of "patriarchy," and Middle East studies, which has routinized the belief that Israel is a racist, colonial enterprise. Why the apparent double standard?

One answer is that YIISA challenged the dominant consensus on anti-Semitism, just as Riley did with black studies. Both did so in a bold, even aggressive, manner that the ivory tower found unsettling. Both shared the punishment of exclusion as a consequence.

Which brings us back to the opening question: what is the role of the university in the study of prejudice? Clearly, neutrality cannot be the point of departure. In recognizing the existence of prejudice, we recognize at the same time that it is a problem which needs to be addressed and managed.

A good example is the work of Professor Deborah Lipstadt on Holocaust denial. In her book on the subject, she argues that her research was essential to prevent deniers from gaining influence as the immediate memory of the Shoah began to fade. In academic parlance, this method would be described as “normative” — we should do x to prevent y — and is no less legitimate because of it.

But it is a method that becomes dangerous when the normative assumptions close off potential avenues of inquiry, or when dissenting views are shut down. Israel's opponents are fond of saying that charges of anti-Semitism are fabricated solely to smear them; in challenging that widely-held view, YIISA went against the grain.

Meanwhile, Riley's unorthodox doubts about black studies resulted in a slew of ad hominem attacks on her, some of which were - even in their own words - downright silly.

If American universities are to make a serious contribution to the study of prejudice, these censorious antics need to stop. At the moment, we are learning more about the prejudices of academics then we are about prejudice in the wider society. For every minority - African-Americans, Jews, Latinos and others - that's bad news.

Ben Cohen is a New York-based writer and communications consultant. His articles and essays have been published by Commentary, Fox News, The New York Post, The Forward amongst others.