Amid all of the hullabaloo over the closing of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, and its resurrection as the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism, what’s been missing from most of the coverage are student voices. In its statement on YIISA’s closing, Yale said that it had ceased funding the center because of its failures in the realm of academic research. Some in the Jewish world have suggested that the center closed because of a controversial 2010 conference on anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, and its relationship to anti-Israel activity. Others wrote that this indicates a misguided sense of calm regarding worldwide anti-Semitism.
In all of those columns and articles, students were near absent. Here’s what three students–one Jewish intern with YIISA, one actively Jewish student and one non-Jewish student–think about YIISA’s closing and the value of a center for the study of anti-Semitism.
According to Uriel Epshtein, who interned at YIISA, the initiative hosted speakers on campus every one or two weeks, and would seek to cosponsor events with other organizations on campus that catered to students, such as the Yale International Relations Association. Although the speakers weren’t crowded with undergraduates, Epshtein said, “I felt like I was making inroads. YIISA’s name was known at the Yale Hillel.”
Epshtein said that though YIISA meant to explore anti-Semitism of all kinds, it focused on anti-Semitism in the Islamic world and among anti-Israel activists, which he says caused some controversy.
“The institution decided to focus on modern forms of anti-Semitism,” Epshtein said. “What was most controversial about that was Anti-Semitism in radical Islam, because its’ not politically correct, because of its relevance to modern times and because of everything that’s going on in the Middle East.”
Jharrett Bryantt, who was YIRA’s executive director last year and who cosponsored two “well attended” events with YIISA, said that this focus on radical Islam and Israel led him to perceive YIISA as “related to Israeli affairs.” He said that its work on anti-Semitism in particular was “not really something that was on my radar.”
Epshtein thought that the initiative’s focus on Israel did not relate as much to anti-Israel protesters on campus, who he said were not anti-Semitic. he added, though, that their rhetoric echoed anti-Semitic tropes.
“Most of the students who I’ve spoken with. even those who I would describe as virulently anti-Israel, didn’t seem to base that on an anti-Jewish mentality,” he said. “What those students don’t realize [is] that some of the ideas they put forward, that Jews stole [Israel's] land, that Jews target children, have their origins in anti-Jewish thought. A lot of the arguments have direct parallels to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Sam Greenberg, who is president of Yale Hillel but who emphasized that his comments on YIISA reflected his opinion only, and not that of any organization, said that he couldn’t quantify YIISA’s effect on the Jewish community, but that “It was definitely an important presence. You felt its impact on campus, and the Jewish community across America noticed YIISA.”
Greenberg hopes that the new Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism, which the school just announced, will “engage graduate and undergraduate students to study anti-Semitism. I am hopeful that it will have an imact on the academe in general.”