Dr. Charles Small is in the market for a new home. In the months since Yale University pulled the plug on the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, which he had been presiding over since 2006, Small has been scouring the East Coast of the United States for a campus to host his institute.
Yale’s decision to shutter YIISA in June 2011 was met with a spate of responses, as well as a spirited and sometimes-vociferous debate between advocates of the move and detractors. At the time, Small told the Yale Daily News that “radical Islamic and extreme left-wing bloggers” were to blame for the “bad publicity” that ultimately led to Yale’s decision. The sentiment echoed those of American Jewish Committee director David Harris and Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defmation League, who derided Yale for creating the impression that “the anti-Jewish forces in the world achieved a significant victory.”
But while supporters of the institute maintained that Yale had capitulated to pressure from elements threatened by YIISA’s continuing focus on Islamic manifestations of anti-Semitism, Yale insisted that the move was the inevitable result of YIISA’s “failure to meet the university’s high standards for research and instruction.” Others claimed that the initiative had sealed its own fate by losing sight of its raison d’être and engaging in advocacy rather than pure scholarship.
In a recent meeting in Jerusalem, Small rejected any attempt to challenge YIISA’s academic credentials, decrying the current atmosphere in the United States and some of the trends — and individuals — he felt had been involved in Yale’s decision.
“I think we were engaging in issues that some people, for their own agendas, didn’t want us to engage in,” Small said. “People accused us of being advocates, but those who were accusing us are themselves advocates. I think our record stands for itself… and we’re proud of what we’ve achieved so far.”
Asked to elaborate on the motives and identities of the people in question, Small recalled a large conference held by YIISA in August 2010 under the heading “Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity,” that some have cited as the “last straw” that led to YIISA’s closure.
‘The US administration seems to be siding with the Muslim Brotherhood, riding the wave of radical Islam, instead of confronting its human rights abuses’
“The plenary sessions in the first days were dedicated to looking at anti-Semitism in the Middle East, and there were people at Yale who thought that if you critically examine these issues, you’re somehow making excuses for Israel, or you’re a Likud member or a Bush supporter. It’s ridiculous,” Small said.
“It’s part of a general atmosphere in the United States,” he continued. “The US Administration seems to be siding with the Muslim Brotherhood, riding the wave of radical Islam, instead of confronting its human rights abuses and its skewed worldview when it comes to the rights of citizens; and it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re going to reap the ‘rewards’ of this error for generations if this continues.”
Advocacy or scholarship
In the wake of YIISA’s closure, one of the most prominent figures to cast doubt on the academic value of its activities was Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, who had participated in some of YIISA’s earlier events. In an opinion piece in The Jewish Daily Forward, Lipstadt equated YIISA’s programs with a recent inflation of “advocacy and polemics” at some Middle East Studies departments in US universities, concluding that Small and YIISA had “entered a zone in which advocacy masquerades as scholarship.”
Small, for his part, doesn’t mince words when it comes to Lipstadt and others in “liberal elitist institutions, in academia, or in the media,” who, he says, are burying their heads in the sand and refusing to acknowledge the gravity of the threat emanating from the Muslim Brotherhood and Tehran.
More specifically, he said, “You have people like [New York Times columnist] Thomas Friedman… defending this worldview in the [Obama] administration; you have Deborah Lipstadt in Haaretz, using the words ‘hysterical’ and ‘neurotic’ … when referring to people who are very concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism, i.e., Iran and radical Islam. She accused Jews in Israel and in the United States, who are concerned and even alarmed, of being hysterical and neurotic.”
Noting her recent appointment to the Holocaust Memorial Council by US President Barack Obama, Small cited Lipstadt as an example of intellectuals, journalists, and scholars who are “close to Obama’s administration and are doing his dirty work.”
And this at a time, he said, “when there are radical Islamists, the Iranian revolutionary regime and the Brotherhood in Egypt, that are not only Holocaust deniers; they’re holocaust advocates.”
Did Small believe that something had been changing in the approaches of scholars such as Lipstadt, who has been engaging anti-Semitism for decades and was even taken to court by Holocaust denier David Irving following the publication of her book, “Denying the Holocaust,” in 1996?
“I can’t get inside these people’s heads, but I think it’s a so-called ‘liberal’ worldview,” he said. “I consider myself a liberal, politically and intellectually, and to me a liberal is someone who believes in strong notions of citizenship; in the equality of all citizens under one legal system; in the rights of minorities, women, and gay people; in pluralism and workers’ rights.”
At the same time, he noted, “These people are connected to Obama and share his vision that through engagement and by being, in a way, reconciliatory, things will change… In a sense Israel is getting in the way of the realization of this worldview, and I think that rather than attack the problem and care about human rights and the rights of women, gay people, and religious minorities… perhaps it’s easier for them to blame Israel.”
Responding by email to Small’s statements, Deborah Lipstadt praised some of the work done by Charles Small and YIISA’s, allowing that the initiative had done “many very good things,” although “at times it crossed the line from academia to advocacy.”
Lipstadt maintained that she had “never said that contemporary anti-Semitism is not a real threat in certain places,” and noted that during the Haaretz interview cited by Small, she had stressed that it was, in fact, a “real danger.”
However, Lipstadt added, “I also said that there is a heightened fear in the Jewish community that often becomes hysteria, and that there are people who play upon these fears… I don’t believe we accomplish anything by branding people and calling them names.”
Thomas Friedman could not be reached for comment.
The canary in the coal mine
Small seemed taken aback when asked whether Israel could be undermining its own cause or cheapening the memory of the fallen by evoking the Holocaust as a point of reference in warning of the magnitude of the threat emanating from Tehran.
“The discourse on anti-Semitism, politically and academically, is astounding,” he replied. “The very fact that you’re even asking me this question is interesting in and of itself. Would educated people, when they meet a South African, say, ‘It’s been 20 years since apartheid — shut up about apartheid’? I don’t think anyone would have the audacity and insensitivity to tell a South African who had lived through a crime against humanity that it’s time to be quiet.”
‘Why are Israelis silent? I would say that we, in Israel, are too silent; never mind the West’
Jews are like “the canary in the coal mine,” Small added. “Anti-Semitism is a deep, deep hatred, and once we permit this hatred to exist or target one group, it’ll only be a matter of time before other groups are targeted. And mark my words: If the Muslim Brotherhood rises to power and governs — and it looks like they will to some extent, depending on their relations with the Egyptian military — watch the rights of women, watch the rights of gay people, watch the Coptic community.
“And yet, the issue of their hatred of the Other is not being dealt with because it’s anti-Semitism, because people don’t want to hear about it. And to be honest, I’m surprised that the Israeli government does not speak out loud and clear about this social movement that is rising to power, which is antidemocratic and anti-Semitic, and which will violate human rights.
“Why are Israelis silent? I would say that we, in Israel, are too silent; never mind the West. And it’s interesting, why people like Thomas Friedman and Deborah Lipstadt actually blame the Jews for the issues in various areas; it’s fascinating, worthy of study.”