Q&A: Studying antisemitism through history to understand its manifestations today

This term will see the first conference hosted by the recently established Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism (YPSA), an interdisciplinary enterprise that embraces the humanities and social sciences to understand the history and contributing causes of prejudice against Jews and Jewish culture.

In advance of the Oct. 5 conference, which is focused on antisemitism in France [see related story], YaleNews met with YPSA’s director Maurice Samuels to discuss the new program based in Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center. An edited transcript of that discussion follows.

What makes YPSA different from other programs devoted to the study of antisemitism?

The only other major program devoted to the study of antisemitism in North America is at the University of Indiana. And there are only a few others in the rest of the world: two in Israel, one in London, and one in Berlin. What sets us apart from the others, especially the one in Indiana, is that they tend to focus on current antisemitism, while we look at the current manifestations of antisemitism in the context of its long history.

Related story: Antisemitism in France is focus of Yale conference.

Video: Samuels talks about the Oct. 5 conference.

We believe that the best way to understand the present is to put it in historical perspective. This is not to say we’re neglecting the current crisis in any way, but to understand what is new about the new antisemitism, you also have to understand the old antisemitism. In fact, the “new” antisemitism isn’t always that new. To cite one example, the 19th-century hoax “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which was exposed as a bogus account of Jewish plans for global domination, has become a bestseller in the Arab world today. There’s still the same stereotyping, the same myths getting recirculated and repackaged for a new audience.

How is the program organized and what initiatives does it sponsor?

YPSA has five major components.

The first one is a lecture series, with distinguished guest-lecturers as well as Yale faculty members giving about 9 or 10 public talks a year.

Second, we organize one conference a year, each time focusing on a new theme. This year, as you know, we’re having one on antisemitism in France. [Samuels talks about the forthcoming conference in this video.]

The third component is to encourage the study of antisemitism at Yale by hosting an outstanding visiting professor for one semester each academic year. Our first visiting professor is Henry Rousso, the great French specialist of the Holocaust and of Vichy. He’s going to be teaching two courses: a course for undergraduates on the Holocaust in France and a graduate seminar on “Judging the Holocaust. ” He’ll also be speaking at our conference on Oct. 5.

Thanks to a very generous grant from the Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation, we are able to fund the fourth component of YPSA, which is offering research grants for Yale faculty and students. This has already allowed us to fund some interesting and diverse projects, and we are hosting an event on Oct. 31, at which last year’s recipients of the Baron grants will present their research. Among the wide array of projects they will be presenting are studies of the antisemitic writing of a recently deceased Egyptian cleric, antisemitism in Canadian literature, the Holocaust diary of a Jewish French girl named Hélène Berr, and interfaith relations in Renaissance Florence. 

The final component of the program is a faculty reading group that studies recent work on antisemitism. Last year, we read some of the work of our visiting speakers before they came to Yale to be better able to engage with them.  That worked very well, so we might adopt that as our model.

While the conference on antisemitism in France marks an important milestone for YPSA, you’ve actually been in operation for a year now. Tell us about some of the other scholars you hosted and works you read in 2011–2012?

Last year we hosted a visit by Deborah Lipstadt, who is a distinguished historian of the Holocaust and Holocaust memory, and she gave a very interesting presentation on the American response to the Holocaust. We also hosted David Feldman the director of the London-based Pears Institute for the study of antisemitism and a leading scholar of antisemitism in 19th-century England. We also read some texts by our own Geoffrey Hartman, who is on our advisory board. He has written very movingly about his own experiences in the Kindertransport [a rescue effort that brought orphaned child Holocaust survivors to Great Britain] but also some very profound reflections on current antisemitism.  Some of our guest speakers didn’t talk about the Holocaust at all, but discussed issues of pressing concern today. Meir Litvak [from Tel Aviv University], for example, talked about antisemitism in the Muslim world, and Alvin Rosenfeld [author of  “ ‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism”] addressed the threat Iran poses to Israel.

In addition to Geoffrey Hartman, who is a well-known literary critic as well as a leading scholar of the Holocaust, what other Yale faculty study antisemitism or the negative perception of Jews in different cultures?

One of the things I was really fascinated to discover was how many people across the University are working on these questions in different departments and in different ways. For instance, we have Bruce Wexler from the medical school who is heading the first real systematic study of the representation of “the other” in Israeli and Palestinian school textbooks. Jack Dovidio, in the psychology department and also on our advisory board, is working on the psychology of prejudice and antisemitism. Of course, we have the celebrated historian Timothy Snyder, whose bestseller, “Bloodlands,” was really a new take on the conflict of World War II and the Holocaust. YPSA affiliate Maria Menocal, who was until last year the head of the Whitney Humanity Center, is the world’s expert on Christians, Muslims, and Jews in medieval Spain, and another YPSA affiliate Chris Hayes is an authority on the Old Testament and early Jewish history. So we really have people who are interested in these questions going back historically, and that’s one of the reasons I thought our program should focus on all sorts of antisemitism and not just current events.

Is there some significance to YPSA being based at the Whitney Humanities Center?

I was thrilled with the idea that we would be housed at the Whitney Humanities Center, because not only does it represent a home for me, but also it articulates the way we’re approaching the study of antisemitism, with an interdisciplinary grounding within the study of the humanities. We’re not neglecting political science or psychology. But I think the fact that the administration is housing us in the Whitney Humanities Center, which is so central to the life of the college, is a good sign that YPSA deserves to be at the beating heart of Yale.

How has your academic background prepared you to direct YPSA?

I am a scholar of French literature, but I really consider myself a cultural historian. My main area of specialty is the 19th century, but I work on the 20th century too. My last book, “Inventing the Israelite: Jewish fiction in 19th-century France,” was on the first Jewish fiction writers in French, who were mostly unknown people I brought to light. The book had a lot to do with antisemitism, as it looked at what it meant to be a Jew in modern France, how Jews integrated into French society, and how they confronted the problem of anti-Jewish prejudice.

My new project is on the intersection of antisemitism and philosemitism in France. That project is a little bit broader in scope — going from the French Revolution up to very current events. In a way, it’s the other side of the coin from the last book, which was about Jewish writers. The book I’m working on now is about non-Jewish writers writing about Jews. And one of the questions I am trying to answer is: “What were French intellectuals really talking about when they were talking about the Jews?” — which, incidentally, they did a lot. You think of the famous ones, like Emile Zola and Jean-Paul Sartre, but, in fact, in every generation, the Jews are really at the center of debates about national identity, and that’s what this book is really about. 

One of the conclusions I’m coming to is that philosemitism [the idealization of Jews and Judaism] isn’t necessarily the opposite of antisemitism, that it often continues to treat the Jew as “other,” that it recycles many of the same stereotypes about Jews — just giving them positive connotations. I’m discovering that what seems to be philosemitic in one generation can often come to seem antisemitic in the next generation, so it’s a very complicated phenomenon. I am not so interested in asking, “Is such and such a writer ‘good or bad for the Jews?’” I am more interested in looking at what their position on the Jewish question meant at the time; what were the political and historical stakes at the moment.

In addition to the Oct. 5 conference on French antisemitism and the presentation of Baron-funded research on Oct. 31, what other events will YPSA be hosting?

The Fortunoff archive, another important resource at Yale, is having its 30th anniversary celebration on Oct. 21, which we are co-sponsoring. Incidentally, I’m teaching a course on Jews in French culture for undergraduates, and we’re using the Fortunoff as part of it: Each of the students in the class is working with one Holocaust testimony, which they will present to the entire class — in French, of course.

In the spring we’re having a panel devoted to early Christianity and anti-Judaism. It turns out we have several colleagues here in the religious studies department who are fascinated by that question, and we’re hoping that Jews at the dawn of Christianity might become the subject of a later conference. But we’re starting with a panel with our colleagues Dale Martin, Hindy Najman, and the very eminent professor Wayne Meeks; and we’re bringing Jörg Frey from Zurich.

For more information about the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism and a schedule of forthcoming events including a full lineup of speakers, visit the YSPA website.