Studying Hate

Indiana U. launches contemporary anti-Semitism center, the second major academic institution of its kind. Will politics compromise its mission?

02/11/2010
Staff Writer
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In recent years, Jewish intellectuals have sometimes bemoaned the anti-Zionist views heard on college campuses, and among liberal intellectuals generally, but have failed to do much about it. But that may be changing.

Last month, the chair of the Jewish studies department at Indiana University in Bloomington, Alvin Rosenfeld, announced the foundation of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism. His goal is to study, in a dispassionate, scholarly way, what he thinks is just a new version of a very old kind of hate: anti-Semitism.

“I don’t see anything political about it,” Rosenfeld said about the institute in a phone interview. “But when I looked at what was going on at academic universities in America, I said, ‘This is not good,’ and decided it was time to create [an anti-Semitism center] here.”

Not surprisingly, there are critics. Some doubt whether independent centers are necessary given the existence of courses and scholars that already specialize in the topic. Others say that the debate over whether Israel’s harshest critics are actually anti-Semites is hardly settled. And many wonder whether anti-Semitism centers can truly be as independent and objective as they say.

“I think there is a risk of [these centers] becoming places for advocacy,” said David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Los Angeles. In addition, he said, “My sense is that the motivation for them comes from a misreading of anti-Semitism in America and on the college campus.” He emphasized, however, that anti-Semitism demands serious study, but stopped short of endorsing a need for stand-alone centers.

Rosenfeld, whose center is only the second of its kind in the U.S., after Yale established one five years ago, says that the problem is not that anti-Semitism is not studied. It’s that newer forms have been ignored. And he hopes the creation of more centers that are willing to fund research on contemporary forms of anti-Semitism will attract scholars’ attention. “Over the past 10 years there’s been a re-emergence of anti-Semitism,” he said. “But there are precious few scholars in America” who are actually studying it.

Despite his calls for civility, Rosenfeld is familiar with controversy. In 2007, he was at the center of a public uproar after he published an essay attacking liberal Jewish critics of Israel, including the playwright Tony Kushner and the New York University scholar Tony Judt. In an essay titled “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” published on the American Jewish Committee’s Web site, Rosenfeld argued that criticizing Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories might be valid, but questioning Israel’s right to exist was not.

But even that view could be more finely tuned. For example, liberals sometimes advocate for a binational state, which means creating one state for both Israelis and Palestinians. But Israel’s more ardent supporters say that such a proposal is tantamount to the dissolution of a Jewish state, and thus may constitute a sort of intellectual cover for anti-Semitic views. On that issue, Rosenfeld allowed some wiggle room. “There’s nothing illegitimate about binationalism,” he said. “It may be a misguided view, it may be an impractical view, but, no, there’s nothing inherently anti-Semitic about it.”  

Rosenfeld’s institute is still in its nascent phase, and is being funded with money from the newly created Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies, which Rosenfeld will now occupy. He said he plans to grow the institute considerably in the coming year, soliciting outside donations with the hope of being able to fund research and bring visiting faculty to teach new courses.

The track record of the anti-Semitism center at Yale could prove useful. The Canadian scholar Charles Small helped establish the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, or YIISA, in 2005. YIISA differs from Indiana’s institute in that it is mainly focused on research, not teaching undergraduates, and that it existed as an independent center before affiliating with Yale. Still, it is animated by the same concerns as Rosenfeld’s — a new and ignored brand of anti-Semitism.

“We in the academy are turning a blind eye to it,” Small said in an interview. “There is a discourse in this country that is anti-Semitic and yet we’re in denial, we don’t look at it straight in the face.”

Small originally founded the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy in 2003, but it had no affiliation with Yale. It was based near Yale’s campus in New Haven, Conn., however, and Small knew that the resources and prestige of Yale would put his center on more stable ground.

In order to join the university, Small’s center needed approval from an advisory board made up of Yale scholars. And though there were some concerns about its objectives, according to professors who asked to remain anonymous, it was eventually approved. “It’s a policy-relevant program that’s supposed to draw from across many disciplines,” said Donald Green, who directs the Institute for Social and Policy Studies at Yale, where YIISA’s office is now based.

Still, the center’s future is far from certain. Small said that he must do all the fundraising on his own, and this summer the center will be up for review. If it loses faculty approval, it can no longer be affiliated with Yale. But Small is confident, noting at least one important piece of research to come out of the center.

In 2006, he and another Yale professor, Edward H. Kaplan, who teaches in the public health, engineering and business schools, published a paper that tracked the convergence of extreme positions against Israel and traditional anti-Semitic views. Titled “Anti-Israel Sentiment Predicts Anti-Semitism in Europe” and published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, it surveyed approximately 5,000 Europeans and found that ones with hard-line views against Israel were 13 times more likely to have deep prejudices against Jews as well.

“Of course not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic,” Small said, but for those with extreme views of Israel, the overlapping with anti-Semitic ones “was off the charts.”

Small hopes that more scientific studies like these will quiet criticism that certain positions — like calling anti-Zionism a new form of anti-Semitism — are hopelessly subjective. But the center may still face skepticism for another reason: the way it’s funded. Because YIISA is not an endowed organization and instead relies on funding on a year-to-year basis, it could face pressure from donors to produce only the scholarship they want to see. Of course, the potential for a conflict of interest does not mean there is a conflict of interest, nor is it a problem unique to YIISA, as universities across the country face tough demands from donors every day.

But it is a potential challenge nonetheless, said Jonathan Sarna, a Jewish studies professor at Brandeis who has chaired several programs and departments. “I think you’ll find that donors are very interested in funding anti-Semitism centers, and there’s no question that it’s very much donor driven,” he said, referring to other anti-Semitism centers that have popped up abroad in recent years. In addition to the centers at Yale and now Indiana, there are three other anti-Semitism centers affiliated with academic institutions abroad: one at Tel Aviv University, another at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a third at the Technical University in Berlin.

(Brandeis has its own center, created and endowed with a single grant by Bernard and Rhoda Sarnat, in 1998, but it has a low profile, said Small, Rosenfeld and other scholars interviewed.)

Both Rosenfeld and Small said that they came up with the idea for their respective anti-Semitism centers on their own. Rosenfeld used the money donated for his own chair to found the new institute, while Small has been soliciting donors on his own.

Donors like Mark Rosenblatt, a money manager in New York and graduate of Yale, said Small approached him but that he entirely agreed with Small’s mission. “There’s sort of a crying out for the rational study of anti-Semitism,” Rosenblatt said. “There’s clearly a liberal, almost a radical stance [against Israel] at a lot of universities,” he said, though he did not think that was the case at Yale.

And even if he hoped the center’s findings would help combat new forms of anti-Semitism, he said he has never told YIISA what it should or should not do. “We’ve never actually had a conversation about what they study,” he said. “And nor would I tell them what to study.” n

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