Scholars must ‘shine a light where there is darkness’

Scholars must ‘shine a light where there is darkness’

Questions for Dr. Charles Small — Anti-Semitism expert sees role for academia in combating hate

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Dr. Charles Small addresses an audience of college educators in West Orange in November 2009. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
Dr. Charles Small addresses an audience of college educators in West Orange in November 2009. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

Dr. Charles Small, director and founder of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, worries about the growing rhetoric in global politics that springs directly from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the 1903 Russian text that described a purported Jewish plan to achieve global domination. He warns that the rise of radical Islam combined with the silence of public intellectuals, journalists, and even human rights activists pose a major existential threat to Israel and to Jews.

On Monday, Oct. 25, he will address “Israel Under Siege: Anti-Semitism in a Time of Apathy” at the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, which is cosponsoring the talk with the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Central NJ, and Stand With Us.

About a year ago, Small addressed a group of Jewish faculty from nearby universities in a meeting sponsored by the MetroWest CRC . Since then, he established the International Association for the Study of Antisemitism, which drew over 100 scholars from around the world to its first conference. NJJN spoke with him Oct.17.

NJJN: Has anything changed on the world stage since you sounded alarm bells last year over growing anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism and the rise of radical Islam?

Small: On the positive side, with the Obama administration and the G5+1 [United Nations Security Council permanent members plus Germany], there have been more sanctions on Iran. That’s good. The problem is, they are not being policed well. But it’s good because at least there’s progress.

On the other hand, [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad keeps coming back to the UN General Assembly in New York, and he not only attended the General Assembly when he should have been arrested for incitement to genocide, according to Article IIIC of the Genocide Convention — not only was he not arrested but he became the darling of American media. It was obscene.

NJJN: What is the goal of the IASA?

Small: The goal is to hold annual conferences and to provide a network and to help scholars develop projects and interface with each other. It is also to empower scholars doing research on contemporary anti-Semitism who are in particular need of support. This is not a popular topic.

NJJN: The inaugural conference this summer received plenty of acclaim but also some criticism. Among the critics was Shaul Magid, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, who suggested that it is “unhealthy” that the Jewish “obsession with the Holocaust is being transferred to our obsession with Arab/Muslim anti-Semitism.”

Small: His criticism was actually quite irrational. He looked at the conference and counted titles — what dealt with Islamic anti-Semitism. As scholars, we need to be academically sound. After reading the papers, if he had a careful critique, I would have been happy to sit down with him, but this is not a critique of substance. It’s counter to what scholarship is about.

NJJN: If you really want to combat contemporary anti-Semitism around the world, which you have said over and over again is a growing and urgent threat, don’t you need more than conferences and papers?

Small: I completely agree; there has to be more. But the role of scholars and scholarship is to shine a light where there is darkness. Then public intellectuals, journalists, and the broader community will start to take the issue seriously and engage it seriously.

NJJN: Will your department at Yale or the IASA be involved in any kind of advocacy?

Small: The initiative at Yale is a scholarly endeavor, and that is its focus and mission. However, there is a tradition among scholars that goes back at this university for centuries and also in Jewish tradition that you can’t divorce yourself from the community and [that] the truth, once understood, obligates you to do something to deal with it.

So I think there is a role for scholars to raise awareness: writing and disseminating materials, teaching, and, sure, a scholar of contemporary anti-Semitism in its various forms might do things that will be reflected in public policy and should be actively engaged.

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