Yale's Antisemitism Problem

On June 19, Yale University announced the “Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism“ (YPSA), with Maurice Samuels from the Department of French as its head. From Yale's announcement:

I am hopeful that this program will produce major scholarship on the vitally important subject of antisemitism. Professor Samuels and his colleagues have Yale’s remarkable library resources at their disposal, including the Fortunoff Video Archives of Holocaust Testimonies and the 95,000-volume Judaica collection of the Yale Library.

I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your keen interest in the study of antisemitism at Yale. This is an exciting new beginning, and we all look forward to seeing the results.

Sincerely yours,

Peter Salovey


Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology

A Judaica collection has little to do with research on antisemitism, especially when it comes to the threats of 2011: genocidal threats from Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah.

Neither does 19th century literature. In 2004, Maurice Samuels published The Spectacular Past: Popular History and the Novel in Nineteenth-Century France. In it, he deals with a film from 1927 about Napoléon, and points to a snowball scene, which reminds him of the following:

One example is the famous snowball fight scene that opens the film, a version of which had been featured in Bonaparte à l’école de Brienne, ou le petit caporal, souvenirs de 1783, the Napoleon play starring Virginie Déjazet in 1830. Images of the snowball fight also appear in A.V. Arnault’s Vie politique et militaire de Napoléon (1822) and Laurent de l’Ardèche’s Histoire de l’empereur Napoléon (1839), two of the illustrated histories I discuss in chapter 2.

That’s fascinating and fine scholarship, just not the sort of work needed to address antisemitism in the contemporary world.

An antisemitism program needs scholars who deal with Qassam rockets, Grad rockets, and other rocket systems, not snowballs. Scholars who deal with satellite systems, and firebombs targeting Israeli civilians and tanks. Who study soldiers of Hamas, Hezbollah, and other antisemitic terror groups. It needs scholars who deal with Islamist thinkers, from Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb to Mohammad Chatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Yusuf al-Qaradawi's anti-Israel and pro-suicide-bombing fatwas.

It needs scholars who deal with the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism -- not only in Egypt, but in the entire Middle East, Europe, North America, and elsewhere. It needs scholars on Iran and the analysis of incitement to genocide.

It needs scholars on Turkey, lawful Islamism, and its relationship to anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

It needs scholars on Islamic jihad, terror, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and homegrown terrorism in the West.

It needs scholars on left-wing, progressive, Muslim, and Neo-Nazi anti-Zionist antisemitism, and the ideologies and concepts of postorientalism, postcolonialism, and their possible relationship to antisemitism (e.g., in the work of Edward Said). And it needs scholars on antisemitism and anti-Israel propaganda in Western mass media in the 21st century.

There is nothing wrong with scholarship on France and Jewish history; it is important. But it shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for serious scholarship on contemporary antisemitism. The study of dead antisemites and past campaigns of vilification is already part of every single Jewish Studies department in the world. And dealing with Jewish literature (the topic of Samuels’ new book in 2010) has nothing to do with research on (contemporary) antisemitism.

Early in June, Yale University decided to shut down the five-year-old Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA), and replace it with the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism described above, which has nothing in common with YIISA. Media has significantly reported about this decision, the public debate starting on June 6 with an article by Abby Wisse Schachter. Many journalists, organizations, and scholars joined the cause to keep YIISA, including the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Committee, and the Anti Defamation League.

Professor Alvin Rosenfeld wrote an open letter to Yale, urging the university to keep YIISA. Professor, feminist, and bestselling author Phyllis Chesler wrote, shocked about the “Palestinianization and Stalinization of the American professoriate.” Caroline Glick advised donors to think twice about giving money to Yale in the future. Alex Joffe expressed his displeasure, as did Ben Cohen and Benjamin Weinthal.

Harvard professor and YIISA board member Alan Dershowitz said the following in an interview with David F. Nesenoff, a keynote speaker at YIISA's August 2010 conference “Global Anti Semitism: A Crisis of Modernity":

I think some of the blame lies not only with the Jewish faculty members but with pro-Israel faculty members who are too frightened to speak up because it makes them unpopular. You pay a price on campus today for being pro Israel. Even I pay a price for that.

Yale, in fact, has a long history of antisemitism. Dershowitz continued:

The slogan of Yale was urim v’tumim‘ [light and truth] in Hebrew. The joke was if you could read it, you can’t go there. The college had an overt quota system. I was not in the college. I couldn’t get into the college obviously. When I went to the law school there was overt antisemitism in the hiring process by law firms. And there were secret clubs that didn’t allow in Jews. That was 50 years ago. Yale has a terrible legacy of antisemitism, which should make it sensitive to the issue.

Historian Stephen H. Norwood's The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower demonstrates that Yale and many other Ivy League universities were very much pro-German, and not at all anti-Nazi. Norwood writes:

Yale University and Vassar College German clubs invited Dr. Richard Sallet, attaché at the German embassy in Washington, to speak on campus about Hitler’s Germany. The Nazi-diplomat spoke informally on December 11 to Yale’s Germanic Club, which was composed of faculty members and graduate students, on "The New Foundation of the German Commonwealth."

The PLO is -- and Yasir Arafat was -- influenced by Grand Mufti Mohammed Amin al-Husaini. Al-Husaini was a close ally of National Socialism, Hitler, and the Germans. He was actively involved in the Holocaust. Scholarship on antisemitism has dealt with al-Husaini in the last couple of years -- one of the first brochures on the Grand Mufti, Italian fascists, and the Nazis was published as early as 1947 by Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal.

The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) provided space for scholarship on such topics. Now, Yale University follows the advice of the PLO and stops scholarship on the Grand Mufti, the PLO, and Nazism. Yale fails to fight antisemitism in 2011 as it failed to do so in 1933. Norwood, one of the speakers at the YIISA seminar series in 2011, reports in his above-quoted book:

President James Rowland Angell of Yale University refused the request of Rabbi Edgar E. Siskin on March 27, 1933, at a community-wide mass meeting in New Haven called to voice "dismay and indignation at the anti-Semitic excesses now being carried out in Germany." President Angell told Rabbi Siskin: "I greatly fear the unfavorable effect of public demonstrations." Rabbi Siskin was deeply disappointed that President Angell declined his invitation and told him, "Your presence with us would have added greatly to the effect of our protest locally."

In 1936 the Yale Athletic Board and the Yale Daily News supported Nazi Germany’s Olympic games, and rejected a boycott of this propaganda event in Berlin.

Today Alan Dershowitz blames Yale for the killing of YIISA, for good reason:

The university should have sought public input from faculty and other people. For example, I’m an alum; I’m a member of the Board of Advisors. I never got a phone call. I was never asked my views on this matter. I’ve spoken for them. You would think that the University might call me and others like me, or at least get our input. They didn’t.