Shuttering of Yale program on anti-Semitism raises hackles

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

WASHINGTON – Did Yale’s program on anti-Semitism die a natural death from lack of academic vigor, as the university says? Should it have been saved, as two major Jewish groups are arguing?

Or was it killed for being politically incorrect about Muslim anti-Semitism, as alleged by others?

The decision to terminate the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism came after its routine five-year review, according to a statement from Donald Green, who heads Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies, the body that oversees the anti-Semitism initiative and other interdisciplinary programs.

The anti-Semitism initiative, Green said in a statement sent to JTA, failed to meet the institution’s criteria of delivering an “outstanding” performance in the promotion of “interdisciplinary research and instruction at Yale.”

The American Jewish Committee said the anti-Semitism initiative’s termination would “create a very regrettable void.”

AJC’s director David Harris said it “has been impressed by the level of scholarly discourse, the involvement of key faculty, and the initiative’s ability, through conferences and other programs, to bring a wide range of voices to the Yale campus.”

In a statement, the Anti-Defamation League said termination should not have been the only option, whatever the initiative’s problems.

“What was required was a concerted effort to work out the problems rather than ending the program,” the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said in a statement. “Especially at a time when anti-Semitism continues to be virulent and anti-Israel parties treat any effort to address issues relating to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism as illegitimate, Yale’s decision is particularly unfortunate and dismaying.”

Green said that other programs that the Institution for Social and Policy Studies oversees, like the Study of American Politics and the Field Experiments Initiative and Agrarian Studies, have survived because “they have generated an extraordinary number of research articles in top-tier academic journals.”

Still others, like the Ethics, Politics and Economics major and the Interdisciplinary Bioethics Center, survive because they draw hundreds of students to their seminars, he said. Others – such as the Center for the Study of Race, Inequality and Politics and the Program on Nonprofit Organizations – were terminated because, like the anti-Semitism initiative, “they failed to meet high standards for research and instruction,” Green said.

In the case of the anti-Semitism initiative, Green said: “Little scholarly work appeared in top-tier journals in behavioral science, comparative politics, or history. Courses created in this area did not attract large numbers of students.”

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a group that fights anti-Israel bias on college campuses, suggested that Yale was buckling to pressure from Iran, whose Intelligence Ministry in January 2010 placed Yale on a list of 60 institutions it considered part of a U.S.-Israeli-British plot to “subvert” the Islamic Republic.

“By focusing attention on Islamic anti-Jewish hatred and on the genocidal agenda of Iran, YIISA clearly angered some faculty and administrators on campus who orchestrated this attack,” Scholars for Peace in the Middle East said of the anti-Semitism initiative. “Iran’s placing of Yale on their list of institutions to hate last year was looked at not as a badge of honor but as a problem. Some members of the Yale Corporation Board, the administration and the faculty seem to have forgotten that Iran is being embargoed by the United States.”

However, Yale officials said at the time of Iran’s announcement that the listing would have little effect on the university, and professed to be baffled as to why Iran targeted Yale. The Yale Daily News speculated that any statement by a Yale professor or student could have earned the university its place on the list, and that Iranian authorities might even have mistakenly assumed that an Iranian human rights group based in New Haven was affiliated with Yale.

Edward Beck, the president emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, called the shuttering of Yale’s anti-Semitism initiative “an egregious act, an affront to academic freedom.”

Kenneth Marcus, who directs the Initiative on Anti-Semitism at the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, called the Yale program “a first-rate, world-renowned research institution.”

Yale’s anti-Semitism initiative “has quickly emerged as the leading university-based anti-Semitism research institute in North America,” said Marcus, a former staff director of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. “The idea that its closure could be based in any part on academic merit is simply preposterous.”

Yale’s anti-Semitism initiative stirred controversy last August when its signature conference featured as a keynote speaker Itamar Marcus, who heads Palestinian Media Watch, a group seen by Palestinians and some liberal pro-Israel groups as right wing.

When Marcus delivered a keynote lecture titled “The Central Role of Palestinian Anti-Semitism in Creating the Palestinian Identity,” Ma’en Areikat, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s envoy in Washington, wrote to Yale to say that lectures by Itamar Marcus and others were “racist propaganda masquerading as scholarship.”

Much of the conference’s program, however, was made up of sessions examining a broad range of topics related to anti-Semitism featuring noted scholars, such as Deborah Lipstadt, the Holocaust historian.

After learning that Yale’s anti-Semitism initiative was to close, Lipstadt posted a message on Twitter calling the decision “weird” and “strange” and saying that the program “ran first-rate events.”

The New York Post ran an opinion article by Abby Wisse Schachter accusing Yale of shutting down the program “almost certainly” because the initiative “refused to ignore the most virulent, genocidal and common form of Jew-hatred today: Muslim anti-Semitism.”

Thomas Conroy, a Yale spokesman, said in an email to JTA that Yale is “ready to provide support for working groups studying anti-Semitism” and noted that the university “has long been a leader in Judaic research, teaching and collection.” He mentioned its Judaica collection and its archive of video Holocaust testimony.