Looming Closure of Anti-Semitism Center Sparks Discord at Yale U.

The Chronicle of Higher Education    June 13, 2011
By David Glenn

Yale University has come under intense scrutiny this month for its decision to shut down the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, a small, five-year-old center. Scholars both inside and outside Yale have said that the demise of the project—which is one of just two such centers at American universities—will mean a loss for intellectual life.

“This is not a good situation, particularly at a time when we’re seeing a return of anti-Semitism worldwide,” Alvin H. Rosenfeld, a professor of English and Jewish studies at Indiana University at Bloomington, said in an interview last week. Mr. Rosenfeld is the director of Indiana’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, which will be the only remaining American academic center on anti-Semitism.

“There are very few people trained to study anti-Semitism across time and space, and who could train a new generation of graduate students in the history, psychology, politics, and religious dimensions of the subject,” he said.

The university formally notified the center on June 1 that it will be closed on July 31, allowing time for the center’s research fellows to wind down their work. The decision came after a review committee appointed by the provost concluded that the center’s scholarly work had been too thin and too disconnected from the work of Yale faculty members, including those with longstanding research interests in anti-Semitism. The American Jewish Committee and other organizations have released statements condemning the university’s move, and some of the center’s admirers still hope to have the decision reversed.

But other observers, including faculty members who have worked closely with the Yale center, say that the project never lived up to expectations. The center failed to attract a critical mass of faculty members and students, they say, and it did not produce many peer-reviewed publications. In its five years, the center generated just eight working papers. (A few of the center’s recent postdoctoral fellows have works in progress.)

“We demand of every other center that they produce top-level research publications, and we can’t really have a double standard,” said Donald P. Green, a professor of political science and the director of Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies, which has housed the anti-Semitism center since its creation.

Insufficient Research

The center was reviewed this year by a special committee appointed by Yale’s provost, Peter Salovey. The university has declined to make the committee’s report public, but in an interview on Monday, Mr. Salovey said the committee found that the center’s research output was inadequate and that it had failed to engage with Yale faculty members with longstanding scholarly interests in anti-Semitism.

The center’s executive director, Charles Asher Small, declined to comment for this article. But a former research fellow at the center said in an interview last week that it is foolish to judge the center simply on the basis of those eight working papers.

Neil J. Kressel, a professor of psychology at William Paterson University of New Jersey who was a visiting scholar at Yale in 2008-9, noted that the center has hosted more than 100 research seminars, and he said that many of the scholars who presented their work at those events will eventually publish monographs. Because of the long gestation period of those projects, he said, it would be a mistake to evaluate the Yale center when it is just five years old. (Mr. Salovey said he was not persuaded by that line of argument. If many books were in the works, he said, it would already be apparent.)

Some defenders of the center have noted that the university does not always insist on peer-reviewed publications from its interdisciplinary projects. In a column on Monday, Alex Joffe, a scholar affiliated with the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, pointed to Yale’s Center for the Study of Globalization, which is directed by Ernesto Zedillo, the former president of Mexico. Most of that center’s output has taken the form of white papers, not traditional journal articles.

Thomas Conroy, a spokesperson for Yale, replied by suggesting that Mr. Zedillo’s center has made a contribution to classroom instruction at Yale that has not been matched by the anti-Semitism center. Mr. Zedillo taught two undergraduate courses last fall, he said. Mr. Conroy also noted that the globalization-study center’s white papers are the products of elite committees. “Much of the published material is a result of the fact that Ernesto Zedillo is called upon to participate in high-level global discussions and working groups,” Mr. Conroy said in an e-mail message.

The anti-Semitism initiative was born when Mr. Small, who was then an associate professor of urban studies at Southern Connecticut State University, approached Mr. Green about making a home for an interdisciplinary project on anti-Semitism. The project began with a lecture series and then evolved into a formal center in the fall of 2006.

The project has always been externally financed by donors including Yale alumni and faculty members. Although Yale has never directly supported the center’s budget, the center has received significant in-kind support, including office space in the policy-studies institution’s building.

Some critics have suggested this month that the decision to close the center was driven by cowardice or by a wish to curry favor with Arab donors. Mr. Green and Mr. Salovey call such suggestions absurd. “There has been absolutely no political pressure,” Mr. Salovey said.

But even if external pressure played no role, politics are never far from any discussion of anti-Semitism. Two members of the center’s faculty-governance committee—a body that was created last fall in an effort to integrate the center’s work with that of Yale scholars—told The Chronicle last week that they were sometimes uncomfortable with the center’s political tenor. The center’s conferences and lecture series, they say, sometimes crossed the line between serious scholarship and narrow advocacy.

Concerns About Tone

Jeffrey C. Alexander, a professor of sociology at Yale, attended a portion of a conference held by the center, known as YIISA, in August 2010, and he walked away disheartened by its political tone. Too many of the speakers, he believed, were using the reality of anti-Semitism as an excuse to dismiss public concerns with the Israeli government’s behavior.

“The topic of anti-Semitism is an extremely important one,” said Mr. Alexander, who is a member of the center’s faculty-governance committee. “But in my view, most—not all—of the people at YIISA’s conferences have conflated any criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism.”

“There’s no doubt that there is a pronounced strain of anti-Semitic belief in the Arab world today, and that’s very worrisome and something that scholars should expose,” Mr. Alexander continued. But he said that the existence of such beliefs does not necessarily justify Israel’s military and settlement policies, and that too many of the center’s efforts have erased that distinction.

Gustav Ranis, an emeritus professor of economics who is a co-chair of the center’s faculty-governance committee, was less critical than Mr. Alexander but said he shared some of the same concerns. He said his impression was that Mr. Small had never made up his mind whether he wanted the center to be a scholarly project or a political one. He had often urged Mr. Small to strengthen the center’s academic efforts by adding more research fellows, he said, but he was not always sure that his message got through.

“I didn’t attend the conference,” Mr. Ranis added, referring to the August 2010 meeting. “My impression is that it had some good, intellectually respectable people, and it also had some polemicists.”

Mr. Kressel, the former research fellow, rejects the concerns about political bias. “This was by no means a group of people that never criticized Israel,” he said. “I would say that more than half the people at the conference had serious criticisms of Israel. It’s just that they also spoke frankly about Muslim anti-Semitism, and that’s a subject that can get you into hot water.”

Mr. Ranis believes that the university should have given the institute another year to get its house in order, and he has drafted a letter to Yale’s senior leaders making that argument. Mr. Alexander said he would not sign such a letter; he said that he saw little reason to hope that the institute would change its ways.

“I don’t see any bad guys here,” Mr. Alexander said. “I think everyone has been well-meaning. The question is whether this center is really right for Yale. The way that it has developed, I don’t believe it is.”

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