Lipstadt on Yale anti-Semitism initiative: Advocacy sometimes trumped scholarship

In the controversy over the decision to shutter the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, the battle lines were drawn quickly and somewhat predictably.

Staunchly pro-Israel scholars and pundits have blasted Yale’s decision. Some, including George Washington University’s Walter Reich writing in The Washington Post, suggested that YIISA was shuttered for its willingness to point out the ugly realities of Muslim anti-Semitism. The Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick wrote that “politics were in all likelihood the decisive factor in the decision.”

Meanwhile, some Jewish critics of Israel and of Jewish communal politics say it’s YIISA — and not Yale’s decision-making — that was politicized. Antony Lerman — the former director of Britain’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research who has become a lightning rod among British Jews for his harsh criticisms of Israel and of the current communal discourse around anti-Semitism — wrote: “For all who genuinely support the principle of the objective, dispassionate study of contemporary antisemitism, the imminent demise of YIISA should come as welcome news.”

Respected Emory University Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt has come out with an Op-Ed in the Forward that scrambles the debate a bit.

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A strong supporter of Israel who initially called the decision to close the YIISA “weird,” Lipstadt now says that the initiative itself may be partly to blame for its own woes, citing sources who say that some of its efforts had veered over the line from scholarship to advocacy.

She writes:

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.

There was no discussion in Lipstadt’s Op-Ed as to whether the work of YIISA’s artist in residence counts as scholarship or advocacy.

UPDATE: I should note that in his Washington Post Op-Ed, Reich — who is a member of YIILSA’s international academic board of advisers — readily acknowledged that some of the presenters at YIISA’s conference on “Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity” veered into activism. But he argues that is simply par for the course:

To be sure, some presenters expressed alarm and took an activist stance — as do some presenters at academic conferences on genocide, human rights, women’s studies, African American studies, Hispanic studies, gay and lesbian studies, and nuclear proliferation.

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