The Creeping Advance of Anti-Semitism

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Prejudice grows so slowly that the first to raise the flags of alarm look foolish.

Two recent developments ought to give us pause. One involves an academic initiative at Yale dedicated to the study of anti-Semitism. In the other, Delta Airlines is enforcing (or preparing to enforce) an exclusionary policy on travel by Jews from U.S. airports to Saudi Arabia.

Each case has stirred up controversy, and properly so. It should worry us if no one objected. It has been through cases like these that anti-Semitic patterns have become established. There is always a reasonable-sounding explanation, and the individual cases that come up in the beginning hardly seem worth the worry. But once precedents are accepted, once everyone had agreed to allow them, then it begins to seem like a prohibitive effort to undo the series of tacit agreements by which they were accepted.

That's why it's so important to raise the red flag early. We will not be asked to go to the polls and cast a vote for anti-Semitism. It doesn't work that way. Instead, the societal bulwarks against anti-Semitism are slowly and subtly undermined. Compliance with it comes to be the price of normality. If we want to prevent it, we are likely to have to "vote" against it while some of our fellows in the community are still reluctant to acknowledge that it is the underlying issue, and that we are already on a slippery slope.

In the first case, Yale announced earlier this month that it was closing the five-year-old Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA). Although a small program, the initiative—the first of its kind in the United States—has been productive and active. But on the occasion of its five-year review this spring, a Yale committee decided to shut it down, stating that "no core of faculty research or student interest has developed around the center or has emerged to direct its interests."

Walter Reich, a professor at George Washington University, is one of many academics who vigorously disputed that characterization. Like numerous other commentators, he suggested that Yale had decided to close down YIISA because the initiative had, in fact, gathered considerable attention and interest. In August 2010, YIISA hosted a widely attended conference on modern anti-Semitism, where some of the sessions included presentations on anti-Semitism in the Muslim world—a topic hard to avoid when discussing modern anti-Semitism. Yale came under attack from some Muslim groups (and most famously from the Palestine Liberation Organization) for sponsoring the conference.

After a chorus of criticism was raised over the YIISA shut-down, Yale announced this week that it would be launching a new initiative for studying anti-Semitism. This is good news, but skeptics are justified in their concern that the new program may operate under academic fetters that would not constrain other areas of research.

It is hard to imagine an initiative that studied any other kind of ethnic or religious prejudice being shut down because it was considered controversial by one category of critics. Pundits have been quick to label this an instance of "creeping sharia," but in my view, that characterization shortchanges our own society's responsibility, as well as the intrinsic value of studying anti-Semitism. As a pervasive phenomenon in history and one of the chief conditions that made the Jewish Holocaust possible, anti-Semitism merits study by any intellectually honest reckoning. Frankly, it is the decision to decline to study it that should require justification. If such a decision were made because of pressure from politically oriented Muslim groups, that would not implicate "Islam" as much as it would our society's commitment to intellectual freedom and the search for truth.

The second case seems to come straight out of the Europe of the 1930s. Delta Airlines, seeking to incorporate Saudi Arabian Airlines in its "SkyTeam Alliance" with foreign carriers, was reported on June 22 to be adopting a policy of denying transport to Jews, and those with Israeli immigration stamps in their passports, who want to fly from U.S. airports to Saudi Arabia.