Yale’s Anti-Semitism U-Turn

Frum Forum                     June 20, 2011
By Fred Messner

Just weeks after deciding to close the Yale Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, Yale University announced today that it will create a new program for the study of the world’s oldest hatred.

The creation of the new initiative, titled The Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism, comes after a barrage of criticism from across the country as activists and academics protested what they saw as a politically-motivated decision to terminate a sorely needed curriculum.

According to The Forward, YPSA will provide research funding and host events and speakers, much like the now defunct YIISA.  An internal email published by The Yale Daily News, Rabbi E. James Ponet, a Jewish chaplain at Yale referred to the YPSA as “the reconceived YIISA.”

Though Yale “concluded that [YIISA] had not attracted a critical mass of relevant faculty or stimulated sufficient new research” and insisted it would release an empirical report supporting the verdict, a number of observers had raised questions about the motives behind the University’s assessment, as well as about the process itself.

The Zionist Organization of America recently argued that YIISA’s refusal to ignore pervasive anti-Semitism in the Muslim world had alienated potential Arab and Muslim donors, cutting off a considerable line of funding.  And Caroline Glick, deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Postcontended that Yale simply caved under intense Islamic criticism, much as it did in 2009, when Yale University Press ironically yielded to demands to censor cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed from a book whose subject was the 2005 controversy around the very same cartoons.

Before the announcement, FrumForum spoke to Uriel Epshtein, a rising sophomore at Yale and co-president of the Yale Friends of Israel (YFI).  Though he emphasized he was speaking personally and not as a spokesman for YFI, Epshtein, a former YIISA intern, said he had been dismayed by the way Yale presented the decision to the student body.  “Two things here are very big causes for concern,” he said.  “First, they haven’t released the report, so we don’t really know why they closed the center.  And second, they did it in the summer.  How are we supposed to coordinate a response in the summer?”

And indeed, Yale students had only a limited voice in the two-week-long debate.  With few Yale students on campus after May and many overseas, Epshtein explained, the Yale student body had been slow to learn of the issue, let alone react to it.  Even the school’s own publication, The Yale Daily News, neglected to contact YFI, or any students at all, in their coverage of the University’s conclusion.

Nevertheless, Epshtein had insisted a strong student response was on the way and students had hoped to use grassroots organizing as a lifeline for the center.  “The student push will pressure the administration, as we do with any political decision. We can write letters and get our voice out through the media,” he said.  Epshtein, himself, had planned to challenge the program’s closure in a forthcoming article for Commentary Magazine and he said a petition had been circulating.  The petition, Epshtein says, arose independently of any Jewish or pro-Israel groups, and he emphasized that although YIISA has been criticized for a pro-Israel political views, YFI has made a conscious effort to remain unaffiliated with religious groups.

The new initiative marks a victory for opponents of anti-Semitism, but the experience of the past few weeks has given Jews reason to doubt the steadfastness of Yale’s commitment to the program.  In the same email, Rabbi Ponet urged his supporters to send “encouraging words” to the Yale administration.  And though Jews and their defenders managed to put sufficient pressure on the University this time, the episode has revealed that Yale, like much of American higher education, is very much in play in the struggle between tolerant pluralism and resurgent anti-Semitism.


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