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Yale Institute Founder Thinks Big in the Fight Against Anti-semitism

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Charles Small dreams big. The founder of the new Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, Small is going after nothing less than the modern plague of prejudice.

It’s something he learned growing up in Montreal in a strongly Jewish family that stayed put despite occasional waves of anti-Semitism. You don’t give up, and sometimes you even see results, whether in helping improve the lives of Native Americans in the North country; bringing Ethiopian Jewish refugees to Canada; fighting apartheid in South Africa; reaching out to Soviet Jewish dissidents; or forging connections between Israelis and Palestinians.

All these causes have galvanized Small. The burden of disappointment accompanies him always — but so does hope.

He hopes, for example, that Palestinians will elect a more humane government next time, one that will recognize democratic values, respect minorities and accept Israel’s right to exist.

And he hopes the international community will stand up to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has threatened to destroy Israel and, most observers agree, is intent on developing nuclear weapons.

Speaking recently at a Berlin seminar on anti-Semitism, Small suggested that Ahmadinejad be arrested and tried for incitement to genocide, a crime under U.N. conventions. Conference attendees, though polite, were more focused on preventing anti-Semitism in Europe.

“If Europeans want to deal with the memory of the Holocaust in a constructive manner, they should be at the forefront of stopping Iran from its genocidal rhetoric,” Small said.

Small, 44, wants the Yale institute, which grew out of a series of seminars last year, to give activists knowledge they can use as ammunition in their advocacy work.

It has hosted lectures on an array of topics under the category of “Anti-Semitism in Current Perspective.” Ultimately the nonprofit center in New Haven, Conn., will offer courses, seminars and conferences.

The Yale center joins similar institutes at the Technical University in Berlin, the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University and the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Small developed the idea in the summer of 2004 after attending an international meeting on anti-Semitism at the United Nations. There he met scholars who had no institutional home.

“We approached Yale, and they allowed us to do a seminar series. It went well,” he said.

Small then proposed to house an institute there, “like an intellectual home base.” Yale agreed, and the program opened officially in September 2006 under the umbrella of the university’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies.

“I hope it will become a vibrant center of high-caliber, interdisciplinary research,” said Small, who has a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University and has taught at the University of London and three universities in Israel.

The institute’s board is chaired by businessman and philanthropist Marvin Lender, chair of the Israel Policy Forum and a longtime supporter of education aimed at prejudice reduction. It has received major philanthropic support from William Prusoff, who teaches pharmacology at Yale and became a philanthropist after developing lucrative anti-HIV drugs.

Lectures this year focus on anti-Semitism in human rights organizations, Arab countries, Iran, Russia and Europe. Others examine links between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

That Yale embraced the concept is encouraging, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said last week in a telephone interview from Davos, Switzerland, where he was attending the World Economic Forum. “It recognizes the issue is significant enough for a university to devote its energy to monitor, evaluate, assess and define.

“Many of us deal with anti-Semitism from a very pragmatic, action-oriented perspective, but not from an academic perspective,” said Foxman, author of the book “Never Again?: The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism.” “But to establish a faculty which will enable scholars to study it is very significant. It will inspire others to do likewise.”

Such an institution can “help make our efforts to combat anti-Semitism more effective,” Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, wrote in an e-mail to JTA. “The main challenge is to identify the most threatening trends and phenomena and find the most effective ways of fighting them.”

Many sources, from the United States to Europe to the Middle East, have reported increases in anti-Semitic incidents since the violent Palestinian intifada began in late 2000.

“Many Jewish communities feel under increasing threat,” Small said. “I think as scholars we need to understand why this occurs.”

Small grew up in a traditional Jewish family. His grandparents had a general store in northern Quebec, and as a child he accompanied his grandfather on visits to the Native American community. He recognized that the Native Americans, like Jews, felt ostracized by the dominant society.

“My father’s generation had open quotas at the university,” Small said. “Jews weren’t allowed to go to certain clubs, resorts.”

The Jews of Montreal had their own hospitals “because Jewish doctors were not allowed to treat Catholic patients.”

As a teenager, Small observed Quebec’s growing separatist movement, which he said “had an element that was quite anti-Semitic and xenophobic.” Much of the Jewish community left after a separatist party dominated Quebec’s 1976 elections.

But Small’s family stayed, perhaps because they had taken risks to bring Jews to Canada in the first place. Before World War II, when Canada was not admitting refugees, Small’s grandfather, a peddler in Quebec City, “would smuggle Jews off the ships in the harbor” and push and pull them up a hill near the port.

His children would “toboggan the Jews down the other side of this hill,” where members of the Jewish community would meet them and put them onto waiting trains.

“Winnipeg was largely established by this process,” Small said. “And this was always talked about in our family. That example resonated for me. We have an obligation to others.”

After spending a year as a teenager working on kibbutz, Small attended McGill University in Montreal, where he became head of Hillel. His interest in Soviet Jewry brought him to the Soviet Union in 1984, where he met leaders of the Soviet Jewish dissident movement.

A year later, Ethiopian Jewish refugees came to Canada, and Small and his family became actively involved in helping bring more Ethiopians to Quebec. Around that time Small also became involved in anti-racism and anti-apartheid movements, eventually becoming chairman of an African National Congress Solidarity Committee and visiting the first ANC conference in South Africa.

In 1996 he made aliyah, and still holds Israeli citizenship.

It was in Israel that Small’s optimism was dealt the heaviest blow. After years of involvement in reconciliation projects with Palestinians, he was shocked when after the intifada began, “my anti-racist friends were silent about suicide bombings.”

“From 1996 to 2000, it was a time when there seemed to be a lot of hope and possibilities,” he recalled. “I would actually go to Ramallah regularly to hear jazz musician Arnie Lawrence, who taught young Israeli and Palestinian kids respect and reconciliation through music.

But even several months before the peace process broke down, “we were told not to go,” Small said. “The Islamists were not happy that Israelis and foreigners were sitting together. So on the ground, things were shifting before it was broken.”

Small says the breakdown of peace talks “affected me profoundly.” Nevertheless, it was “not a mistake” to reach out, Small says.

In the end, hope has to be paired with action.

“I wonder,” he says, “what the next generation is going to say about our generation, about what we did.”

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