A Great Loss to our Understanding of Anti-Semitism

The Cutting Edge  June 13th 2011
by Andre Oboler                               

Last month, while visiting New York, Washington and San Francisco, I took a small detour to New Haven and Yale University. As an expert in anti-Semitism, the visit to Yale University, and specifically to the offices of YIISA, the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, was an essential stop. I met with YIISA’s director, Prof Charles Small, and Prof Avi Silberschatz, the head of Yale’s Computer Science department.

We spoke of the challenges that result from online hate, and I outlined some new solutions my own team in Australia and Israel are currently designing. We discussed the need for new research to support this work, and how YIISA, with the support of the computer science department, was uniquely placed to carry out this work.

YIISA was reaching the end of its initial trial period, and a decision on its future of the next five years was imminent. The possibility of adding cutting edge research into online hate to YIISA’s portfolio for the next half decade was exciting both academically, and because of the practical benefits that would result when it was connected to my new solutions. That was last month.

At my friend’s house on the way to Jerusalem, just after Shavuot, I began skimming through my e-mail. In my inbox I found a press release from the ADL expressing dismay at the scheduled closing of YIISA. A month can be a long time, especially in politics, but politics and academia are always a bad mix. Centers of learning are at their best when they are given the freedom to think about the long term future and direction of their field of research.

YIISA has been a beacon of academic rigor in the study of anti-Semitism, it has opened up new lines of enquiry, published leading scholars, and posed questions that went beyond the usual discussions that occur when community representatives meet and discuss the challenges they face. Charles Small himself has been a constant presence at meetings, conferences and gatherings on anti-Semitism, always with something new and valuable to add, and always offering his and YIISA’s support to quality innovative scholarship.

The close of YIISA is not only a setback to the study of anti-Semitism, it is the loss of a gem from one of the world’s leading universities. It comes at a time when anti-Semitism itself is morphing and finding new types of expression. Online anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism 2.0 are areas desperately in need of more scholarship. The re-emergence of institutional anti-Semitism in Europe needs to be examined sooner rather than later. The recent resolution of the University and Colleges Union in the UK, to reject and ignore an internationally accepted definition of anti-Semitism, also suggests changes to the threats we face and to the nature of the anti-Semitic assault.

Right now the world’s only remaining superpower plays a vital role in preventing racism, genocide and discrimination. In a world where United Nations sponsored World Conferences against Racism (like Durban in 2001, Durban II in 2009, and the forth coming Durban III in 2011) can become tools promoting racism and hate, the leadership role of the US is essential for the protection of human rights. Within the US, civil society organizations like the ADL, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and the AJC, as well as academic institutions like YIISA, play a vital role along side official government organs like the State Department. In this system YIISA is unique and without it a void will be created both within the US and within the global community.

I do hope Yale reconsiders, and if they don’t, that the institute can be renamed and move to another leading US university, perhaps with a more secure tenure built into the deal. Such a move would be a loss to Yale, a great institution, but would be the only way to prevent a greater loss, if the institute is shut down. This greater loss is to our collective pursuit of knowledge and to our capacity to recognize and understand the hate around us. The lesser loss may be disappointing, especially to supporters of Yale, but the greater loss of permanent closure would be a blow to all those working tirelessly against anti-Semitism and other forms of hate and prejudice, more importantly, it would be a blow to the victims.

Anti-Semitism is changing; the internet is only one facet of the problem, and one I had hoped to engage in with Yale. Others will be tackling other equally important challenges related to anti-Semitism. We don’t know what solutions future research may ultimately bring, but we do know that whatever the question, research is essential to the solution. To prevent the research is to exacerbate an already significant problem facing society.

Dr. Andre Oboler is the Director of the Community Internet Engagement Project at the Zionist Federation of Australia and writes for the Jerusalem Post, from where this article is taken.

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