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Uriel Epshtein, FrumForum.com
June 22, 2011
Much has been written about the recent closure of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism.
Many argue that the institute was closed for political reasons; the university maintains that it was closed for various academic inadequacies. The entire argument has, to some extent, become circular.
It’s difficult to move forward in this debate because Yale has decided not to disclose the report of the faculty committee that voted to close YIISA. The debate is also missing the views of people who are central to the controversy — undergraduate students.
As a rising sophomore at Yale, a former intern with YIISA and the co-president of the Yale Friends of Israel student group, I hope to provide a much-needed perspective on YIISA’s closing. Professor Donald Green, director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS), argued that YIISA was shut down because it wasn’t successful enough in publishing articles in top-tier academic journals or in attracting students to its events.
YIISA’s success in these areas is debatable, but if these are truly the sole causes for its closing, then Yale must apply these same criteria even-handedly to other programs. Yet this has not been the case. Professor Green cited the Center for the Study of Race, Inequality and Politics as another example of an underachieving program that was shut down because it “failed to meet high standards for research and instruction.”
This, however, isn’t a valid comparison. This center was defunct for years before it was shut down in 2004 and the last published article from the center that I was able to find was from 2000.
Even more tellingly, Cathy Cohen, the professor who started the Center for the Study of Race, Inequality and Politics in 1995 left Yale for the University of Chicago in 2000. At this point, “Despite student efforts to encourage President Levin to protect CSRIP, the Center received no further funding”.
It took Yale four years, in other words, to shut down the center after its director had already left and it ceased receiving funding — and yet YIISA, which receives little University money, was shut down just as it was poised to grow. This is a glaring disparity.
Professor Green’s second point is that there was not sufficient student interest in the center when compared to programs such as Ethics, Politics, and Economics. This is, yet again, a problematic comparison. Unlike EP&E, the study of anti-Semitism is not a major at Yale, automatically limiting possibilities for student involvement. Secondly, Ethics, Politics, and Economics is – by definition – a much broader subject area: three entire disciplines.
Even if we disregarded all of that and assumed that there were no legitimate reasons for low student interest, it is clear that YIISA was attempting to fix its faults. The director, Charles Small, had begun efforts to reach out to the undergraduate community.
Last year, he hired me and two other students to involve the undergraduate community and spark more student interest. I was hired as a freshman and was only beginning to fulfill the purpose of my job. We were making progress, but we will now never be able to carry on our work.
Why did the University shut YIISA down rather than providing constructive feedback and allowing us to have a true impact? We appear to be left with the unnerving, but all too believable conclusion that this decision was politically motivated.
Because Yale will not disclose why it canceled the program, we have no choice but to presume that YIISA’s decision to address modern forms of anti-Semitism, particularly in the Muslim and Arab worlds, didn’t meet with approbation from an administration that would have preferred a less controversial – and less useful – but more politically correct study of Medieval, Christian, and European Anti-Semitism.
It seems, then, that Yale decided to shut YIISA down for daring to engage with a topic that is relevant and in need of scholarly exploration, and therefore controversial. Whatever faults YIISA had should have been highlighted and the institute should have been allowed to correct them.
Now, precisely because the university refuses to publish the results of the faculty committee’s deliberations, doubts will always remain about its motives. As a student, I would ask that Yale release the faculty review and encourage the reviewers to speak openly about their decision so as to better understand what transpired.
Amidst all this uncertainty, I do applaud Yale for their recent decision to reinstate some form of an initiative studying anti-Semitism and I hope that this new institute will not shy away from the very relevant, albeit controversial, anti-Semitism that plagues the world today.
In memory of Dr. Gary A. Tobin.
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