Jeffrey Herf: Why Did Yale Close, Then Open, a Center for Studying Anti-Semitism?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jeffrey Herf teaches modern European history at the University of Maryland, College Park. His most recent book is Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.

Developments at Yale University in recent weeks concerning the scholarly study of anti-Semitism have aroused broad attention. In early June, Yale’s Provost Peter Salovey accepted the recommendations of a faculty committee to close the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA). On June 19, however, following an outcry over the news, Salovey announced that a new center, the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism (YPSA) would be established. The university’s Whitney Humanities has agreed to sponsor it, and Professor Maurice Samuels, whose scholarship focuses on the presentation of Jews in French literature, will convene this reconstituted center.

For those of us who are familiar with YIISA and valued its engagement with scholarship about anti-Semitism not only in Europe but around the world, the decision to close YIISA was disturbing. We hope that the reconstituted program at Yale will incorporate the research concerns and ferment that YIISA fostered and place these at times unpopular efforts on a sound scholarly foundation befitting a great university. The stakes, for the study of anti-Semitism and the credibility of the academy more broadly, could not be higher.

IT WAS A gamble when Charles Small, YIISA’s director, established the center in 2007. He did so armed with a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford, engagement in social theory, experience in policy discussions in Canada, Europe, Israel, and the US, outside funding, and support from some Yale faculty and administrators. YIISA was to be a research center devoted to examining the history and nature of contemporary anti-Semitism—that is, not only the much examined anti-Semitism of the Nazi era but also Jew-hatred in the Middle East, including Iran, and in Islamist ideology and politics as well. Small was aware that there was a hard road to travel because the area specialists who read Arabic or, in the case of Iran, Farsi were almost universally opposed to even posing the question of anti-Semitism in the Middle East. Or, if they posed it, they had a ready answer to its causes—namely, Zionism and then the existence and policies of the state of Israel.

But, before getting into that issue, let’s assess the stated reasons Yale decided to close YIISA down. Officials cited a lack of scholarly accomplishment. I am not in a position to fully assess the week-to-week functioning of YIISA or its ability to combine the policy focus that accompanies the examination of global anti-Semitism with the conventional scholarly mission of a university, but I found Yale’s justification for the closure odd. After all, Charles Small invited an impressive group of scholars from outside Yale to speak at YIISA. They included the political theorist Michael Walzer; historians Deborah Lipstadt, Benny Morris, Robert Wistrich, Moishe Postone, Paul Lawrence Rose, and myself; political scientists Bassam Tibi, Jytte Klausen, and Dina Porat; and the philosopher, Elkanan Yakira. One can take issue with what these scholars have written, but this group represents considerable scholarly accomplishment, and YIISA’s invitation to them certainly contributed to scholarly discussion at Yale. What’s more, YIISA was a home for doctoral students writing dissertations. Presumably, the year they spent at the center was important for the completion of scholarship on the subject....

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