Last week, Yale made national headlines when it decided to close its five-year-old anti-Semitism institute. The decision came after a growing number of scholars began to question whether it was promoting anti-Arab sentiment, rather than coolly objective academic scholarship. Not to toot my own horn, by I saw this one coming.
“I think there is a risk of [these centers] becoming places for advocacy,” David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Los Angeles told me last year, when a lengthy story about that exact problem.
The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA), as the center was offically known, was actually created by the Canadian scholar Charles Small in 2003. He ran the center without any formal univeristy support until Yale picked it up in 2006. But it was largely a coup for Small, not Yale. The center would gain the prestige and contacts provided by a first-rate university, but Yale, from the start, didn’t seem to gain much. And so its embrace always appeared tepid: it required the center do almost all of the fund-raising on its own, for instance.
Many non-academic Jewish institutions have come to YIISA’s defense, including the ADL and the AJC, calling Yale’s decision to close the center a major mistake. And this week, a member of the institute’s board published an Op-Ed in the Washington Post saying much the same. I have to say that I’m somewhat ambivalent myself. For a center that was devoted to the study of anti-Semitism, in all its manifestations, it seemed to have a largely political focus, especially on anti-Semitism in the Arab world today, which is certainly a real problem. Yet it appeared to give short shrift to historical research of anti-Semitism.
That disproportionate focus, to me, seemed a disservice to what the institute wanted to achieve in the first place: a better understanding of anti-Semitism in the world today. Without greater historical context, you risk distorting the threat today. My other reservation is on the general utility of any separate anti-Semitism institute, or even Holocaust "center." They seem to siphon off the topics from the larger field where they belong to be studied: history departments, politics departments, or even just plain old Jewish Studies.
I think the how the Holocaust is increasingly studied in universities is a good example. Many schools have been creating separate "Holocaust institutes" in recent decades, and with an even honorable motivation: to better understand one of the greatest tragedies of modern history. But the risk of these centers is that they discourage an a cross-pollination with other fields, no matter how much these centers claim to pull from them.
One of the most exciting things happening in Holocaust research these day, I think, is the work done by–strangely enough–the Yale historian Timothy Snyder. His recent work has tried to synthesize the Holocaust into the broader context of both German and Soviet war policy. He’s shown how the Final Solution developed in the context of much larger war, and one not only against Jews. And yet he is exceedingly sensitive to the fact that the Holocaust was fundamentally a Jewish event.
My main point is that by putting the Holocaust in its own separate sphere, we limit our understanding of it. Same goes for anti-Semitism, and centers that try to better our understanding of it.