Working Definition

Posted on 28. Oct, 2011 by in Criticals

Professor Maurice Samuels took the podium and sighed. “As many of you know,” he said, “this has not been an easy summer.” To me, it didn’t look like those in attendance—faculty members, elderly New Haven couples, and a few undergraduates informed of the lecture through the Directed Studies program or the Polish Club—had found their way to the Wall Street auditorium on the heels of controversy. That September afternoon in Yale University’s Whitney Humanities Center, Samuels was introducing Princeton history professor Jan Gross, who would give a lecture called “On the Periphery of the Holocaust: Killing and Plunder of Jews by their Neighbors.” Samuels’s words were a reminder of the fierce debate surrounding his program, which made the afternoon’s talk unusual among the enormous number of department-sponsored lectures on Yale’s campus.

“Professors of nineteenth-century literature like myself aren’t usually accustomed to the media spotlight,” Samuels said. “And I have to admit that I was somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of the critics I faced on both sides of the political spectrum, and before I had even done anything.”

What occurred over this past summer was, on its surface, little more than a bureaucratic shift in the Yale academic machine: the Yale Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA, pronounced “yee-suh”) was shut down and replaced almost immediately by the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism (YPSA, pronounced “yip-suh”). Acronyms change, faculty shift their affiliations with various boards and institutes: so the seasons pass in academia. “YPSA will discuss both contemporary anti-Semitism and historical anti-Semitism,” said Samuels, who had just been appointed director of the fledgling YPSA, in a June 21 statement. “Like many, I am concerned by the recent upsurge in violence against Jews around the world and YPSA will address these concerns. I also believe that we benefit a great deal by placing current events into historical context. YPSA will not refrain from exploring any controversial contemporary topic.”

This carefully worded statement wasn’t enough to stop the public from reacting with ire to the transition. Commentators accused Yale of hushing dialogue on what former YIISA director Charles Small called a “current crisis facing Jews” and focusing instead on the more politically neutral study of historical anti-Semitism. The verb “kill” occurred frequently in columns about YIISA’s closing. In Slate, in the Wall Street Journal, and in many Jewish publications, critics accused Yale of allowing leftist political sympathies to stifle scholarship exposing Muslim anti-Semitism. David Greenberg, writing for Slate in July, posed a charged question: “How did liberalism—historically the philosophy of toleration and equal rights—come to be so squeamish about confronting Jew-hatred in its contemporary forms?”

Jew-hatred. I have a very vivid memory of being six years old and worrying that a neo-Nazi was going to kill my mother. In Illinois, a lawyer named Matthew Hale was preaching white supremacy and one of his followers had shot several Jews walking to their synagogue in Chicago. So, running errands with my mom, I would cross my arms over my chest in a way that would cover up the word “Jewish” on my Jewish Community Center summer camp T-shirt—that way, the white supremacists we encountered wouldn’t know it was us they should be shooting. We never did run into one—or, if we did, my trick worked, and we survived. Around that time, the Ku Klux Klan staged a march in my home city, Pittsburgh. They were met by protests, which my mother and older siblings attended. I was not allowed to go. I was very disappointed at being denied the chance to gawk firsthand at the hooded anti-Semites: an exotic, dying species of bigot which I had so often heard about but never met.

In Hebrew school, and eventually, in public school, I learned about Hitler, Kristallnacht, the Nuremburg Laws, and Auschwitz. At 12, I watched Schindler’s List and visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. What made these history lessons different from others was their ominous refrain: It could happen again. Anti-Semitism was a disease that could appear dormant but break out when least expected, and it was our duty as Jews to be vigilant. Before the Democratic primaries for the 2004 presidential election, a Sunday school teacher told me that he would move to Israel were Joe Lieberman ’64 elected president. “If the terrorists attack again, people will blame the president, and then blame the Jews.”

He left the rest up to my imagination, but by that point I was already growing skeptical of what in my view was a kind of paranoia. For all the Holocaust films I watched, I couldn’t make the connection between Germany in 1938 and the United States in 2004. Lieberman didn’t win the primary, so my teacher’s theory was never tested, but I felt sure anyway that it was unfounded. The Klan never came back to town. I came to Yale, where, just like everywhere, some people have funny opinions about Jews, but where, just like anywhere, I have yet to meet a real anti-Semite. I thought I’d left the fear of my childhood behind for maturity and rationality. And before the events of this summer, I was used to shrugging off criticisms of the American university as a stronghold of leftist politics. So what if my history professor is a self-avowed Marxist? Where else was I going to meet one?

I was nonplussed by accusations this summer that a historically anti-Semitic university was hushing a group of academics simply because their ideas were unpalatable to the University’s liberal supporters. When editorials called for “not another Jewish dime to Yale,” I couldn’t comprehend the uproar. Why was the media so up in arms, especially when another program to study anti-Semitism was going to take YIISA’s place? As I talked to different scholars in the field, I began to think that these visceral reactions to YIISA’s closing reflected the same problematic assumptions that lay underneath the old institute’s research.

The foundation of YIISA’s scholarship was the concept of “New Antisemitism,” which scholars define as the latest incarnation of an ancient prejudice which focuses primarily on demonization of the State of Israel. Alvin Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for the Contemporary Study of Anti-Semitism at Indiana University, Bloomington, traced for me the historical evolution of anti-Semitism, from the religious anti-Semitism that accused Jews of Christ’s death, to the racial anti-Semitism that laid the groundwork for the Holocaust, to the modern political anti-Semitism targeting Israel.

“The fact is that we are living in a time when there is much too much hostility to Jews and the Jewish state,” Rosenfeld told me. “And by the latter I don’t mean criticism of Israeli policies that someone might object to on legitimate grounds, but the need to call into question the legitimacy of the state and its future. When [Israel’s critics] use Nazi language to compare the state of Israel to the Third Reich, or South African language to compare the State of Israel to apartheid South Africa, that is something else, and I have no problem calling that something else anti-Semitic.”

Rosenfeld referred me to a working definition of anti-Semitism accepted by the European Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia. The definition, which is used by the Indiana institute and appeared in a 2008 Congressional report on global anti-Semitism, provides examples of anti-Zionist rhetoric which is also anti-Semitic: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination… by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

I can see where Rosenfeld is coming from. What is going on in the Palestinian Territories, for all of its ugliness, is not equivalent to the Nazi Holocaust. Making that comparison is alienating and unproductive. I feel queasy when a friend dismissively asks, “You’re not doing that Birthright thing, are you?” I imagine that many Jews, both my age and older, and of all political persuasions, also suspect that anti-Zionism stems from a particularly sticky form of anti-Semitism. But intellectually, I know the issue is sometimes more complicated. Those entrusted with studying anti-Semitism should think deeply about these complexities. My major issue with scholarship on New Antisemitism, of which YIISA was a prime example, is its insistence that large swathes of potentially useful or revealing ideas are anti-Semitic and therefore deserve no serious discussion in academia.

Take, for example, the South Africa-inspired strategy of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel as a means of ending the occupation of the Palestinian Territories. Critically analyzing the BDS movement instead of dismissing it immediately as anti-Semitic would be alarming to many scholars who subscribe to the doctrine of New Antisemitism, because it compares Israel to a historically racist state. In a 2006 paper for the American Jewish Committee, Alvin Rosenfeld wrote that “progressive” Jews who promote discussion of the BDS movement are “profoundly wrong. Such thinking is also harmful in its likely effects, for in calling into question Israel’s legitimacy and moral standing, it abets the views of those who demand an end to Jewish national existence altogether and lends a coveted aura of Jewish support to the advancement of this eliminationist goal.”

Rosenfeld avoids exploring the premises of the movement he criticizes. Similarly, I wouldn’t have dared to discuss the reasoning behind Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions in my Hebrew school classroom. But Yale is not a Hebrew school classroom. Dogmatic restrictions on studying anti-Semitism put seriously considering the reasons for anti-Zionism on the same moral level as crediting the claims of Holocaust deniers. The truth is that the failure to distinguish between the two also makes me queasy.

Yaman Salahi, a soft-spoken third-year law student, contributed an op-ed to the News last fall criticizing the old YIISA before its closure. Instead of attempting to place anti-Semitism in the context of other forms of hatred, Salahi wrote, speakers at a YIISA conference focused conspicuously on Muslim and Arab anti-Semitism. Scholarship at YIISA, Salahi told me, reflected “a body of knowledge out there which is saying: ‘O.K., who is criticizing Israel right now? Let’s find out how to make them anti-Semitic.” This dogma was what led to the closing of YIISA: its research was sometimes unscholarly, its speakers oftentimes uncritically pro-Israel in their rhetoric, and the institution itself ultimately undesirable at Yale.

Wondering about the possibility of alternatives to New Antisemitism, I got in touch with Jonathan Judaken, an anti-Semitism scholar at Rhodes College in Memphis. In an email, Judaken stressed that the academy should not shy away from politically charged scholarship, as long as the research being produced is innovative. If controversial and opinionated scholars “have insights that challenge conventions not already an important part of the public debate,” he wrote, “then either perspective should be voiced in the academy. There is no better site in our culture for voicing the most difficult or dangerous ideas because the academy actually has tools and criteria for judging such issues.” Difficult and dangerous ideas might include not only questioning specific Israeli policies, but also the fundamental doctrines that underlie them—even if this means doing away with the restrictions of the New Antisemitism school.

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that all scholars of anti-Semitism think it is a problem that a small American child fears for his Jewish life at the end of the twentieth century, whether they call the problem New Antisemitism or something else. But the greatest challenge of researching anti-Semitism is not labeling and cataloguing offensive acts but asking the essential question: “Why does man hate?” It is a frustrating question, partly because it has no definitive or universal answer, and partly because it’s hard to see how any answer could stop Iranian newspapers from publishing hateful cartoons or untangle the knot in my stomach I feel when my friends criticize Israel. Academic research, no matter how contrarian, can feel inadequate when there are so many problems in the world that require tangible solutions. It can be frustrating to hear a professor such as Samuels suggest that scholarship must take care not to cross the line into activism. “Scholars can help define anti-Semitism; they can map its contours; they can explain its manifestations,” Samuels, YPSA’s embattled figurehead, told me. “This is not to say that scholars cannot have opinions, or take sides on issues.  But the work of the scholar is different from the work of the advocate.”

Both Rosenfeld and Judaken will be coming to Yale this year to speak at YPSA events. Rosenfeld’s lecture is titled “Sources of the ‘New Antisemitism’” and Judaken will talk about “Theorizing the Study of Antisemitism.” No theory about anti-Semitism or the state of Israel will ever be politically neutral, but from the list of speakers and their lecture topics, I can surmise that the range of views expressed at YPSA will be wider than that of its predecessor, and I feel that YPSA is in good hands. My hope that its scholars do take an activist stance, though not in support of or opposition to any nation-state. Instead, I’d like to see YPSA advocate and be a model for a more open and heterogenous academy, where scholars argue new ideas in front of a critical audience instead of preaching established theories to a complacent choir. As easy at it is to ignore Yale’s seemingly esoteric academic turmoil, as students we are right in the middle of it. It’s hard to say which ideas will make their way out of the ivory tower, where we are safe to appreciate their complexity, but we can’t wait until they enter the world of politics and sound bites to start paying attention.

Tags: , , , , ,

One Response to “Working Definition”

  1. David Greenberg says:

    As a former editor and continuing supporter of The New Journal, and also as someone quoted in Ben Kline’s article on the shuttering of the Yale Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, I’m pleased to see Kline and the magazine addressing this matter. Too often universities wish controversies like this one would just go away. It’s up to journalists to make sure they don’t.

    Kline is right that groups like the Klan pose little threat to American Jews anymore, and it’s important not to fall into a reflexive fear of persecution, like that of Kline’s pathetic Sunday school teacher. But nowhere does Kline reckon with the fact that American Jews are still murdered in cold blood because they’re Jewish–Daniel Pearl, for example. The killers, typically, aren’t members of home-grown American hate groups like the KKK but more often belong to Islamist terrorist cadres like al-Qaeda and Hamas. There’s nothing at all wrong with expressing concern about, focusing attention upon, or seeking to study such groups–even with doing so “conspicuously,” as the sympathetically quoted Yaman Salahi alleges. New or old, anti-Semitism lies behind such evil deeds.

    Kline may also wish to rethink his statement that while anti-Zionism sometimes constitutes anti-Semitism, “intellectually, I know the issue is sometimes more complicated. Those entrusted with studying anti-Semitism should think deeply about these complexities.” More complicated than what? Than the uninformed blather of certain Sunday school teachers or ranting editorialists–of course. But that’s a straw man. With his supercilious call for “complexity,” Kline unwittingly insults lifelong scholars of anti-Semitism, including Alvin Rosenfeld, virtually none of whom would suggest that the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is in any way simple. Contrary to Kline’s assumptions, scholars don’t “label” movements like BDS anti-Semitic in order to dismiss them; rather, they describe BDS as anti-Semitic precisely because they *do* study the premises of such movements, and their understanding of the issue allows them to see it with a precision that someone unschooled in the subject may lack.

    “The greatest challenge of researching anti-Semitism,” writes Kline, “is … asking the essential question: ‘Why does man hate?’” I would submit that this is profoundly mistaken. For the study of anti-Semitism, the essential question is, “Why do people hate the Jews?” I propose to Ben Kline, who clearly cares about Jews, Israel, and toleration–and to all students who are seduced by logic like his–that they think deeply about the difference between these two questions, in all their complexity.

    David Greenberg
    BK ’90


All content © 2010 by The New Journal. All rights reserved.