June 11, 2011

Antony Lerman on the improvement in antisemitism research

Here is Antony Lerman's take on the axing of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA). I must say I am jealous of his headline: Antisemitism Research Just Improved: Yale’s ‘Initiative’ for Studying Antisemitism is Axed.
For some years now I have argued that the academic study of contemporary antisemitism has been badly compromised by the growing politicisation of the subject. Back in September 2008, in an op-ed piece for Ha’aretz, I wrote:
Practically the entire business of studying and analyzing current anti-Semitism has been hijacked and debased by people lacking any serious expertise in the subject, whose principal aim is to excoriate Jewish critics of Israel and to promote the ‘anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism’ equation.
A number of institutions, supposedly tasked with undertaking serious research on antisemitism, have contributed to this situation. One of the foremost of these is the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA), established in 2006, and I had it in my sights when I wrote my op-ed.

Lerman goes on to list some of the organisations and individuals that have "badly compromised" the study of contemporary antisemitism.
Unsurprisingly, organizations that have contributed to the debasement of serious antisemitism research are not happy. The Anti-Defamation League’s National Director, Abe Foxman, said:
Especially at a time when anti-Semitism continues to be virulent and anti-Israel parties treat any effort to address issues relating to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism as illegitimate, Yale’s decision is particularly unfortunate and dismaying . . . it leaves the impression that the anti-Jewish forces in the world achieved a significant victory.
The American Jewish Committee said it was surprised and saddened by the decision. AJC’s Executive Director, David Harris, warned: ‘If Yale now leaves the field, it will create a very regrettable void’.
Yup, the ADL and AJC are big hitters in the field of "debasement of serious antisemitism research".

After a little detour to consider, by way of a hysterical howl of protest at YIISA's demise from the New York Post's, why YIISA has been ditched:

Foxman and Harris were relatively measured in comparison with the report in the New York Post headed ‘Yale’s gift to antisemitism’. The writer claimed that Yale ‘almost certainly [decided on closure] because YIISA refused to ignore the most virulent, genocidal and common form of Jew-hatred today: Muslim anti-Semitism.’ She also added: ‘Some suggest that Yale feels it can act with impunity because, earlier this spring, one of YIISA’s most powerful backers died; without his money and influence, the school can rid itself of a politically inconvenient nuisance.’
YIISA’s funders are not revealed by the institution so it’s possible that closure may have something to do with the withdrawal of funds, though the story may just be a rumour set running by those who suspect an anti-Israel agenda at work. But whatever the specific reason, it was obvious from YIISA’s inception that it would promote the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, focus heavily on criticism of Israel and prioritise the issue of Muslim antisemitism.
And then back down to the debasement:
Among the first papers presented at YIISA seminars were those by Dr David Hirsh (2005), a sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London and founder of Engage, a website dedicated to opposing the boycott of Israel, Professor Shalom Lappin (2007), professor of computational linguistics at Kings College, University of London, and Professor Irwin Cotler (2006), professor of law at McGill University and a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. All three are well-known for their highly politicised approaches to current antisemitism.
Hirsh’s paper was essentially a continuation of his political battles with the anti-Zionist left over the issue of boycotting Israel, which he claimed was an expression of antisemitism. Lappin’s academic work is not in the field of antisemitism yet he was regarded by YIISA as a proper person to present a paper that linked modern anti-Israel sentiment in the UK with centuries-old English antisemitism and claimed that the political class in contemporary Britain had abandoned the Jews – and this was written at a time when, in Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government, Jews in Britain had never had a more pro-Jewish and pro-Israel national political leadership. Cotler has probably done more than anyone to popularize the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’ having been responsible for coining the phrase ‘Israel is the Jew among the nations’. His paper, effectively an exercise in sophisticated hasbara (propaganda for Israel), likened the current situation to the 1930s and developed a framework for identifying forms of criticism of Israel as antisemitic.

The director of YIISA, Dr Charles Small, an academic with little experience of antisemitism research, had clearly put down a marker that Israel was going to be the central concern of YIISA.....Not all who have given seminar papers or lectures at YIISA have been quite as blatantly partisan as my three first examples, though one or two have been worse. (A list of some of those exemplifying YIISA’s approach can be found at the foot of this post.*)
Here's the list:
Some of the individuals who spoke at YIISA and are representative of its politicised orientation: Anne Bayefsky, Barry Kosmin, Edward Kaplan, Michael Oren, Emanuele Ottolenghi, Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Dina Porat, Matthias Kuntzel, Gabriel Schoenfeld, Ruh Wisse, Gerald Steinberg, Alan Dershowitz, Hillel Neuer, Kenneth Levin, Richard Landes, Melanie Phillips, Shimon Samuels, Robert Wistrich.
So how good is the news of the demise of YIISA?
The wider issue raised by YIISA’s imminent closure is whether it’s a watershed moment representing a rolling back of the politicisation of academic antisemitism research. I doubt very much whether the UK Universities and College Union’s decision to distance itself from the EUMC ‘working definition’ of antisemitism can be linked to it, although the vote brought to public attention that the EUMC’s successor body, the Fundamental Rights Agency, has in effect dropped the definition – a potentially damaging blow to the lifespan of the ‘working definition’.
Hmm, end of YIISA and ditching of the EUMC working definition - good linkage!
More significant, although it’s not in the US, is the example set by the establishment of thePears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London.  Its Director, Professor David Feldman, an eminent expert on Jewish history, is taking a rigorously objective academic approach to his task, while not in any way ignoring the complex interconnections between contemporary antisemitism, Israel, Islam, Islamophobia, racism in general and policy questions. Feldman has won plaudits across the academic world for his stance, which gives the lie to the arguments of Cohen and Glick that antisemitism cannot be studied dispassionately and value-free. And while the Pears Institute is not in the US, the international nature of the field of contemporary antisemitism research means that what Feldman does could have a very significant impact beyond the shores of the UK.  With YIISA out of the picture and Pears at Birkbeck looking very secure, some sanity may now return to the discipline.
I say ‘may’ because the combined forces of those institutions and groups which have a vested interest in maintaining the ‘new antisemitism’-based politicised approach to the subject are very strong. YIISA was important, but the ship sails on with the Israeli government and the entire political right-wing in Israel blowing a powerful wind into its sails. And it’s not impossible that American Jewish funders will try to persuade Yale to change its mind, or get the money together to transfer YIISA to another institution, or set it up as in independent body.
Finally Lerman gives the last word to Jerry Haber, the Magnes Zionist, who he finds in similar celebratory mood over the axing of YIISA:
I am by no means alone in having smelled a rat when YIISA came on the scene....The Magnes Zionist blog also knew the score. In a post on 9 JuneJerry Haber cuts to the quick:
The moral of this story? Take an important phenomenon which is worthy of study and have it hijacked by people with an ideological agenda, who organize conferences that revel in Islamaphobia and rightwing Zionism, mixing mediocre academics and non-academics with serious scholars, all of whom have axes to grind – in short, trivialize anti-Semitism in order to silence critics of Israel – and sooner or later, God willing, real academics will write it off as an embarrassment.
So, good news for now. Within a couple of weeks of each other, Yale and the UK's Universities and Colleges Union have dealt major blows to zionism's antisemitism industry.

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