Here, in essence, is what Yale University told me on June 7, after I contacted its communications office to ask why an institute dedicated to the study of antisemitism had been shut down: some of our best friends are Jews.
“As you may be aware,” Yale spokesman Thomas Conroy wrote in an email, “Yale has long been a leader in Judaic research, teaching and collections. Yale’s Judaic Studies program has outstanding faculty members who conduct path-breaking research and inspire graduate and undergraduate students who choose from scores of courses and may earn degrees. The University library’s Judaica Collection is one of the strongest in the Western Hemisphere. The Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies is a historic treasure and exceptional scholarly resource.”
All well and good. But why, I asked Conroy, was this information pertinent to the closure of the Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Antisemitism (YIISA), just five years after it opened its doors? “Yale has certainly made, and is making a contribution…through scholarly endeavors related to Jewish civilization, history and contemporary thought and issues,” he replied. “I point it out to add context.”
I have no doubt that Conroy made this statement with the best of intentions. However, his words reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the very phenomenon which YIISA will no longer be able to probe. For any institution that invokes its munificence towards Jewish civilization, in answer to a question about its commitment to scholarly research on antisemitism, clearly doesn’t grasp what antisemitism is and what it represents.
One of the pitfalls of the contemporary antisemitism debate is that there is too much focus on intent. In the furore surrounding their sordid book, The Israel Lobby, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt frequently complained that they were being accused of antisemitism, when neither entertained hateful feelings towards Jews on a personal level. Now, if we accept the Mearsheimer-Walt definition of the antisemite as someone who consciously and brazenly loathes Jews, then there is indeed little point in studying contemporary antisemitism, since, in western countries at any rate, few people of any consequence would openly admit to hating Jews qua Jews.
On the basis of this definition, it follows that someone accused of antisemitism must be the target of a rhetorical trick designed to derail honest debate about, invariably, Israel and its supporters. It’s all very post-modern: the victims of antisemitism today are not Jews, but those tarred as antisemites. When mounting their defense, all such people have to do is point to the bevy of Jewish friends and colleagues in their rolodexes.
This silly distortion of antisemitism’s meaning is precisely why Yale’s 2006 decision to house YIISA, which began life as an independent research institution, was such a welcome milestone. One of the world’s finest universities was effectively saying that antisemitism, the hallmark of the two great totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, cannot be reduced to a matter of personal opinion. In that regard, the fact that the Soviet Union coded its persecution of Jews with terms like “Zionists” and “rootless cosmopolitans” provides a historical foundation to examine the linguistic slipperiness of antisemitism in our own time.
If scholarly enquiry into antisemitism is, then, a legitimate pursuit, what was the problem with YIISA? According to Yale, YIISA was an academic dud. Professor Donald Green, the director of Yale’s Institute for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS), said that YIISA’s papers failed to excite the interest of “top-tier journals in behavioral science, comparative politics, or history.” Students were not attracted to its programs. Contrast that, Green went on, with another ISPS program “that straddles social science and humanities, Agrarian Studies, [and] has produced dozens of path-breaking scholarly books and essays.”