Friday, June 17, 2011

Antisemitism and the Study of Antisemitism at Yale

Antisemitism may be (chimerical) nonsense but it has had serious consequences in human history so the study of antisemitism should involve serious--and dispassionate--scholarship.

So what to make of the fracas over Yale's decision to close the Yale Initiative for the Study of Antisemitism after its initial five-year term?

Some of the critics (of Yale's decision):
Abby Wisse Schachter in the New York Post.
Alex Joffe in (or do I say "on"?) Jewish Ideas Daily.
Caroline Glick in the Jerusalem Post.
Walter Reich in the Washington Post

And the critics of the program (who applaud Yale's decision or at least sympathize with it):
Antony Lerman.
Jerry Haber (aka "Magnes Zionist")
Zachary Braiterman in the Washington Post (responding to Reich).
And Deborah Lipstadt in the Forward.

(Read the articles and blogposts above; don't read the comments unless you like to see how nasty humanity can be.)

All the people I link to agree that antisemitism is a bad thing (to put it really simply) and that it should be studied in a serious way in academia. (I decided not to link to anybody who thinks antisemitism is a good thing.)

To put it in the explicit terms of their arguments: the critics of the decision think that Yale has cancelled an important program that did serious academic work because the political implications of that serious academic work troubled some Yale faculty, administrators, alumni, and perhaps some deep-pocketed potential donors who passed over Yale as a result. The critics of the program think that the program was not doing the serious academic work needed or not doing enough of the serious academic work that the topic deserved, mainly because the program sponsored or at least tolerated shoddy academic work that conformed to certain political views, and that this undermined or threatened to undermine whatever other good academic work was happening.

I don't know the work of the Yale Initiative well enough to form a definitive opinion but I offer a couple of observations and questions:

1. What was Yale thinking (to the extent an institution can "think") in setting this up in the first place in the way they did? External funding, a non-tenured (non-tenure track) faculty member in charge, connections to external organizations, a topic that is bound to generate controversy, and not-very-clear oversight by faculty committees? All of this could have worked but clearly it did not and given the realities of how research universities work, Yale administrators should have foreseen some of the problems.

2. What was Yale thinking in just cancelling the program without an opportunity to correct deficiencies? If they did indeed think it was a hopeless case, then a clearer and more substantive explanation was needed. And someone should have been anticipating the reaction of the Jewish community and prepared a better response than "We have a lot of other Jewish studies courses."

Yale is my alma mater, the place I first got interested in Jewish studies in a serious way, and the place that significantly broadened my horizons in all kinds of ways. I'm eternally grateful to the institution and I'll keep making my little annual donation and paying my Quarter Century Fund pledge.
And it's quite possible that there is more to both stories (of the origin and of the end of the program) than meets the eye, but I am sorry to say that from where I sit, Yale looks awfully stupid in all of this.

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