Deborah Lipstadt on the YIISA Closure

This piece, by Deborah Lipstadt, is from The Jewish Daily Forward.

When the news of Yale University’s decision to close its Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism was first made public in early June, the sector of the blogosphere that addresses Jewish issues began to buzz. Discussion, charges and accusations flew. Yale’s critics praised YIISA as a beacon of academic scholarship that had made a significant contribution to this field of study. They charged Yale with caving in to pressure from Arabs and Muslims, both on and off campus, who could not abide the way in which YIISA boldly shone a spotlight on Muslim anti-Semitism. To these people, it appeared as if anti-Semitism itself had brought down an educational institution devoted to the study of this terrible malaise. I registered my initial response on Twitter, describing the shutting down of YIISA as a strange, if not weird, decision and wondering what had happened.

Yale’s response to the wave of criticism constituted a classic reminder that even a place populated by exceptionally smart people can shoot itself in the foot with deadly accuracy. The university defended itself against charges of having succumbed to Muslim pressure by listing the Jewish studies courses taught at the school and stressing its extensive library holdings in the field. (Yale, admittedly, does have an excellent Jewish studies program, and its libraries have one of the best collections in Jewish studies worldwide.) Yale’s clumsy response constituted, as one blogger put it, the academic equivalent of, “Some of our best friends are Jews.”

There is, however, another side to this story. Apparently, there were people on the Yale campus who were associated with YIISA and who were eager to have it succeed. These friends of YIISA counseled the institute’s leadership that some of its efforts had migrated to the world of advocacy from that of scholarship. They warned YIISA that it was providing fodder to the critics’ claim that it was not a truly academic endeavor.

I have twice participated in YIISA’s activities. I gave a paper at one of its weekly seminar sessions on Holocaust denial and attended its conference last August. While serious scholars who work in this field gave the vast majority of the papers — and not dilettantes who dabble in it — there were a few presentations that gave me pause. They were passionate and well argued. But they were not scholarly in nature.

According to sources at Yale, the university’s leadership unsuccessfully worked with YIISA in an attempt to rectify some of these issues. Part of Yale’s discomfort might have come from the fact that a Yale-based scholarly entity was administered by an individual who, while a successful institution builder, was not a Yale faculty member and who had no official position at the university. Yale has indicated that it is intent on axing YIISA and replacing it with an initiative that will address both anti-Semitism and its scholarly concerns. It is crucial that it do so particularly at a time when anti-Semitism worldwide is experiencing a growth spurt.

Two lessons can be drawn from this imbroglio. First, there is a real need for serious academic institutions to facilitate and encourage the highest-level research on anti-Semitism. (Currently, the only one that exists is at Indiana University, under the leadership of Alvin Rosenfeld.) These institutions could explore why hatred persists even after the Holocaust starkly demonstrated what it could “accomplish.” What about anti-Semitism makes it so malleable that it is able to re-create itself in such a wide array of settings, cultures and ages? They might also ask why the world’s oldest hatred has recently been so little studied and analyzed. Exploring that conundrum is something a first-rate academic institution is uniquely qualified to do. Moreover, this research must focus not just on Christian anti-Semitism, but on Muslim anti-Semitism, as well. Today there are few universities where a young scholar who worked in this field would be granted a position or tenure irrespective of how bright and talented she is. This, too, is something well worth exploring.

After cutting-edge academics have shed light on this issue, communal organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee among them, that are so adept at creating strategies to address the problem will have the diagnosis they need in order to help them move ahead with their work.

Second, this struggle also demonstrates the necessity of differentiating between those who do advocacy and those who do scholarship. Both are critical — but entirely different — endeavors. Let us not forget how rightfully disturbed the Jewish community has been in recent years about the way in which advocacy and polemics have permeated so many university courses on the Middle East. Too many students who take these classes find that they have entered a zone in which advocacy masquerades as scholarship. This is unacceptable, irrespective of the source from which it emanates.

Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, is the author of The Eichmann Trial (Nextbook/Schocken).You can follow her on Twitter @deborahlipstadt


This piece, by Deborah Lipstadt, is from The Jewish Daily Forward.

14 Responses to “Deborah Lipstadt on the YIISA Closure”

  1. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    “Yale has indicated that it is intent on axing YIISA and replacing it with an initiative that will address both anti-Semitism and its scholarly concerns. It is crucial that it do so particularly at a time when anti-Semitism worldwide is experiencing a growth spurt.”

    We can only wait and hope that this is indeed so, that Yale will replace YIISA.

  2. Paul M Says:

    A thoughtful and well-reasoned piece by Professor Lipstadt, unsurprisingly. The only nit to pick that I see is here: “this research must focus not just on Christian anti-Semitism, but on Muslim anti-Semitism, as well.” Prof. Lipstadt would have done well to include a reference to secular antisemitism too, because outside the Muslim world that’s the most rapidly growing market for the new Jew-hate — hence the popularity in European and American universities.

  3. Blacklisted Dictator Says:

    Many academics, on both sides of the divide, are involved in some sort of “advocacy” when discussing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Sometimes it is inevitable, as they are often forced, when reviewing the material, to take a position; it seems practically impossible to remain, detached and aloof, on the side-lines. And of course, if academics choose to write articles in the press, appear on TV or attend certain symposia, they will be further drawn into the maelstrom.

    So, I wonder, when discussing a subject as highly charged as modern antisemitism, whether it is really possible to practically make the distinction between “those who do advocacy and those who do scholarship.”

  4. Professor P. C. Salzman Says:

    Much of the Humanities and Social Sciences is advocacy. This is obvious in such fields as “Women’s Studies,” “Black Studies,” and other fields of identity politics. But it is equally true in fields such as sociology, anthropology, “cultural studies,” communications, and other fields, in which advocating for the “sub-altern,” the “postcolonial,” and other favourites of the left is common. One only has to note that the dominant influence in many of the fields during the last decades is Edward Said, a professor of English literature who ventured into Middle East politics and the history and sociology of knowledge, with no expertise in either. No university administration ever complained about advocacy for Palestinians. But it is quite a different matter to advocate on behalf of politically incorrect Jews, ever worse to advocate for “Nazi” and “apartheid” Israel, and “racist” to suggest that there is such a things as Islamic antisemitism, which would be a blantant case of Islamophobia. The problem is not advocacy, as Lipstadt cluelessly suggests, but politically incorrect advocacy, or even politically incorrect scholarship. Let’s get real, folks.

    • Urban Vagabond Says:

      Being a professor does not exempt you from the rules of civility, and hiding behind epithets like “clueless” is often a sign that your own arguments are weak.

      I totally agree with you that there’s a great deal of hypocrisy and political correctness in academia, which sees advocacy that is in agreement with the political biases of academics as fine, but advocacy in the other direction as “unscholarly”. But the solution is not simply to say “let’s get real” (i.e. we can’t do anything about it) or even worse, to assert, as Blacklisted Dictator does, that scholars are “forced” to take a position, as if they somehow just can’t control their biases so shouldn’t be expected to.

      The solution is to shine a bright light on the hypocrisy involved and make it clear that advocacy for any position has no place in academia.

  5. Blacklisted Dictator Says:

    Prof Salzmann,
    You have hit the PC nail on the head. Many thanks for succinctly elucidating the issues.

  6. Blacklisted Dictator Says:

    I refer to the attached which includes a list of those who attended YIISA’s conference in August 2010.

    Lipstadt argues that some of the papers “were not scholarly in nature”. In her view, they were a legitimate contributing factor to YIISA’s closure. However, when one looks at the quality and variety of the participants at the conference, one can’t help naively wondering whether the scale and breadth of the scholarship was actually just too much for Israel’s enemies to bear.

  7. Blacklisted Dictator Says:

    Check out the Syrian and Iranian shenanigans at St Andrews. Advocacy or scholarship at a UK university?

  8. Amos Says:

    the new “new antisemitism” which you willingly ignore when you discuss Israeli affairs here so many times:

    diaspora Jews marching at 4am

    • conchovor Says:

      Surely this is Islamophobia, Amos?

      I don’t which initiatives there are to study such phenomena in academe, but they should exist if they don’t.

  9. Amos Says:

    don;t know why this did not work. i hope you will not censor as this does relate to anti-semitism

    • David Hirsh Says:

      I don’t understand why you have posted these two racist videos on our website? I don’t understand the relevance they have to the struggle against antisemitism.

  10. Prof. W Penn Handwerker Says:

    In Anthropology we consider activities carried out by YIISA as a conventional 5th field of anthropology called applied anthropology. Just up the road from Yale, for example, UConn hosts the oldest program in applied anthropology in the country, founded 40 years ago by Pertti Pelto. Anthropology faculty at Emory carry out important applied research, and advocacy. To avoid future embarrassing myopic and ignorant statements, Prof. Lipstadt would do well to consult her colleagues at Emory.

    • Professor P. C. Salzman Says:

      As postmodern anthropology regards the quest for knowledge and truth as illusory, and takes the object of anthropology as advocacy on behalf of the sub-altern, oppressed, disadvantaged, and victimized, it appears to me that advocacy is not a separate subfield, but central to contemporary social and cultural anthropology.

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