At a time of increasing—and increasingly complex—anti-Semitism throughout the world, Yale University has decided to shut down the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, YIISA. Founded in 2006, YIISA is headed by a distinguished scholar, Charles Small, with an international reputation for serious interdisciplinary research. The precipitous decision to close YIISA, made without even a semblance of due process and transparency, could not have come at a worse time. Nor could it have sent a worse message.
I recently returned from a trip abroad—England, Norway, South Africa, among other countries—where I experienced the changing face and growing acceptability of anti-Semitism. Sometimes it hid behind the facade of anti-Zionism, but increasingly the hatred was directed against Jews, Judaism, Jewish culture, the Jewish people and the very concept of a Jewish State (by people who favor the existence of many Muslim States).
In England, a prominent and popular Jazz musician rails against the Jewish people, denies the Holocaust and apologizes to the Nazis for having once compared the Jewish State to Nazi Germany, since in his view Israel is far worse. In Norway, a prominent professor openly criticizes the Jewish people as a group and Jewish culture as a collective deviation. In Johannesburg, the university severs its ties with an Israeli university, while in Cape Town a newspaper headline welcomes me with the following words: “Dershowitz is not welcome here,” and an excuse is found to cancel a scheduled lecture by me at the university.
Throughout my visits to European capitals, I hear concern from Jewish students who are terrified about speaking out, wearing yarmulkes, Stars of David or anything else that identifies them as Jews.
In the United States, and particularly at American universities, matters are not nearly as bad. There are of course some exceptions, such as at several campuses at the University of California where Muslim students have tried to censor pro-Israel speakers and have been treated as heroes for doing so, while those who support pro-Israel speakers are treated as pariahs. The same is true at some Canadian universities as well.
One university that has been a model of tolerance, up until now, has been Yale, where Jewish and pro-Israel students feel empowered and comfortable, as do Muslim and anti-Israel students. Perhaps this is why the Yale administration had no hesitancy in dropping YIISA. It can easily defend itself against charges of bias by saying, “Some of my best organizations are Jewish!” But this is no excuse.
Since Yale has thus far refused to release the so-called study on which it claims to have based its decision—or even to show it to those most directly affected—it is impossible to know the real reasons behind this controversial action. The two offered by Yale do not satisfy academic criteria. The first, that there was insufficient faculty interest in the initiative, is simply not true. Many faculty members, both inside and outside of Yale, have supported the initiative and have participated in its programs. I myself have delivered a lecture and serve on an advisory board. Several distinguished academics from around the world have also participated. But even if it were true, a lack of interest by the Yale faculty in the growing problem of anti-Semitism would be a symptom of the problem and not an excuse for refusing to study it.
The second claimed reason was a lack of scholarly output from this relatively new institution. This too is doubtful since numerous articles, books, conferences and other scholarly output have been generated over the past several years—with the promise of more to come.
I have been in and around American academic institutions for more than half a century. Never before have I seen such a lack of process and fairness in the termination of a program. Generally, if there is any dissatisfaction with the program, university administrator sit down with those in charge and seek ways of improving it. Rarely if ever is the program simply shut down, as this one has been. Yale has some explaining to do. Even better, it should reconsider its decision, solicit input from outsiders who have participated in the program and figure out a constructive way of keeping the important work of the initiative going.
One of the most important human rights issues of the 21st Century is whether Israel’s actions in defense of its citizens, or indeed its very existence, will provide the newest excuse for the oldest of bigotries. There has rarely been a more important time for the interdisciplinary study of the spreading phenomenon of anti-Semitism in the world today. Yale has a chance to be at the forefront of this study. Instead it has taken a cowardly step away from the controversy. It’s not too late to undo its mistake.
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