By Tovia Smith
June 17, 2011
Yale University is coming under fire for a decision to close a program that studies anti-Semitism. The university says the program was not up to academic standards, and faculty say it was more political than scholarly. But supporters of the program accuse Yale of caving to political pressure from the left.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Yale University is at the center of a controversy this week over a decision to close a program that focused on anti-Semitism. Yale says the program was not up to academic standards. Critics charged it had become politicized. The program's supporters accuse Yale of giving in to political pressure.
NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH: You'd think something called the Yale Inter-Disciplinary Initiative for the Study of Anti-Semitism would have a hard time making itself into a household name. But in the five years since it was born, YIISA as it's called became widely recognized in its field, last year, for example, hosting what is billed as the largest conference on anti-Semitism since World War II.
Unidentified Man: So this afternoon, we are in for a treat. It's the Islamists and islamitization(ph) of anti-Semitism.
SMITH: But the event provoked a barrage of criticism for its focus on anti-Semitism in the Muslim world. The PLO representative in the U.S., Maen Rashid Areikat, slammed the conference for what he called hate-mongering, and this week, shed no tears for YIISA's demise.
Mr. MAEN RASHID AREIKAT (PLO Representative in the U.S.): Our position remains the same: You cannot give universities as platforms for people who are defaming the Palestinians, defaming the Arabs, defaming Muslims in order to criticize racism.
Mr. KEN MARCUS (Director of anti-Semitism group): I think that conference was probably the beginning of the end for YIISA.
SMITH: Ken Marcus heads a California group aimed at combating anti-Semitism in academia.
Mr. MARCUS: This represents a failure of nerve and of academic integrity on the part of Yale University, because it is a signal that if researchers work appears politically incorrect, they might suddenly find that the ground has opened up under their feet.
SMITH: Yale declined to be interviewed for this report, but in a written statement, the university says the center failed to produce, quote, "sufficient faculty research and scholarship to warrant its continuance." Ken Marcus says that doesn't pass the smell test.
Mr. MARCUS: Anyone who says political concerns had nothing to do with the decision that Yale made is simply out to lunch.
SMITH: Indeed, some of the program's more candid critics don't deny it.
Mr. JEFFREY ALEXANDER (Yale University Sociology Professor): I don't see a problem in it being known that this center was just too politicized.
SMITH: Yale sociology Professor Jeffrey Alexander says YIISA had a bad habit of using anti-Semitism to explain away any criticism of Israel, and that alienated many faculty.
Mr. ALEXANDER: Many of us stayed away from YIISA because of its clear political character. We didn't feel comfortable. You know, it would be as if you had a center for the study of, let's say, racism, organized by, let's say the Black Panther movement.
SMITH: University officials cite that lack of faculty interest as part of reason they're shutting the program down. Neil Kressel was a visiting scholar at YIISA. It may well have a political slant in favor of Israel, he says, but that's neither unusual nor problematic.
Mr. NEIL KRESSEL (Visiting Scholar): I think that a political orientation is hardly a horrible offense, and I think that it's everywhere. I think that you will find that many political science institutes tend to have more Democrats than Republicans. There's an anti-religion bias among many academics, and that shows up in a lot of the research. It's in the nature of social science.
SMITH: University officials insist research on anti-Semitism will continue at Yale in other ways. Daniel Green director of Yale's ISPS, the department that oversees YIISA says the closure should not be misinterpreted.
Mr. DANIEL GREEN (Director, Yale's ISPS Department): It's kind of funny that the director ISPS is Jewish. The provost of Yale University is Jewish. The president of Yale University is Jewish. None of these people are hostile to Israel or to the study of anti-Semitism. I mean, this is just totally ridiculous.
SMITH: But no surprise, Green says, that some are crying foul. As another professor put it, shutting down scholars who study anti-Semitism is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. .TEXT: Tovia Smith, NPR News.