June 22, 2011

Yale reneges on anti-Semitism?? Never mind...

"All this time I thought he didn't want to get married. But, the truth is, he didn't want to marry ME." - When Harry Met Sally

Last week, Jewish organizations were lining up to decry Yale's decision to end its Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. Yale was allegedly buckling under pressure from left-wing anti-Israel groups intent on quashing YIISA's focus on Muslim anti-Semitism and Iran's genocidal threats against Israel. Today, it turns out Yale is launching a more scholarly program to study anti-Semitism within a more academic framework. [Full disclosure: I heartily agreed to join the advisory board for YIISA's independent predecessor some years ago, though I was never actively involved.]

This all reminds me of the Starbucks decision several years ago to close its few shops in Tel-Aviv, except that back then major Jewish organizations jumped to Starbucks' defense when accusations went viral that Starbucks was boycotting the Jewish State. Turns out, Starbucks had tried to get off the ground in Israel, but its business model was poorly matched to Israel's cafe culture.

This time, several organizations expressed "concern" at the same time that others were all but calling Yale anti-Semitic. Now most of the groups are expressing measured support.

There is plenty of room for advocacy on important issues like Israel and anti-Semitism, but a prestigious research university that did adopt a start-up initiative as its own should have the latitude (and benefit of the doubt) to hold to its own standards of peer review and scholarly impact. Yale's mission is to advance knowledge, not to stop genocide or achieve nuclear disarmament or ensure Jewish continuity.

If the field of anti-Semitism studies is to have a future as a credible academic discipline on a par with Judaic studies, we can't impose community standards on it. And we can't afford to jump in with knee-jerk reactions that only undermine that credibility, and our own.

It's not all about us, and maybe that's a good thing.

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