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Charles Small, ed., Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 26, Numbers 1–2

Charles Small, ed., Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity, Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013, 315 pp. Charles Small, ed., Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity, New York: Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), 2013, five volumes, 719 pp.

Antisemitism is back. So is Charles Small. That is what this hard-cover volume and its five slim companion volumes in paperback aim to demonstrate.

Within the United States, Dr. Small pioneered the academic study of contemporary antisemitism as a collective pursuit through the establishment of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA). Inaugurated in 2006, it was the first research center of its kind at an American university. Active on several fronts, YIISA annually sponsored numerous public lectures, seminars, and symposia on antisemitism and related subjects and also oversaw the production of several research papers. Its most ambitious project was the organization of a large conference, “Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity,” which was held at the Yale University campus in August 2010 and featured papers by over one-hundred speakers from some twenty different countries. The gathering drew a lot of public attention, much of it favorable. Some sessions, however, focused upon antisemitism in the Muslim world, thereby making the conference “controversial” and open to severe criticism. Less than a year later, and for reasons that are not clear, Yale severed its ties with Dr. Small, who did not have a regular, tenure-track faculty appointment, and shut down YIISA.

The publications under review here, both entitled Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity bring to the reading public many of the talks presented at the YIISA conference. The Nijhoff edition contains 31 of these papers. The ISGAP multi-volume edition reproduces the latter along with an additional 26 articles, for a total of 57. They typically range in length from five to eight-ten pages (only a few are longer) and cover a broad array of subjects— from regional studies that examine the presence of antisemitism in Iran, Germany, Poland, Spain, South Africa, and Turkey, to topical studies of the connections between antisemitism and anti-capitalism, anti-Zionism, nationalism, cosmopolitanism, Christianity, Islam and more. The authors include both junior and senior academic scholars, representatives of Jewish communal agencies, legal experts, fiction writers and more general commentators. They write in a diverse mix of styles and take a variety of approaches to their subjects. Some papers employ the more technical modes of critical analysis associated with philosophy and the social science disciplines. Others favor the more subjective modes of journalistic reportage and personal reflection.

In an effort to bring coherence to this large and varied collection of writings, the Nijhoff publication organizes its contents into three sections, under the following headings: “Conceptual Approaches,” “The Intellectual Environment” and “Global Antisemitism: Past and Present.” The ISGAP volumes also use these three headings and add two others: “Reflections” and “Islamism and the Arab World.” While these headings are somewhat helpful, it is difficult to forge so many disparate essays into a unified whole. Therefore, Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity is more of a miscellany than a work that presents a sustained and coherent argument about the different causes and multifaceted character of contemporary antisemitism.

One of the problems seems to be that Dr. Small wished to have his contributing authors explore antisemitism within a context of crisis. He writes: “In the context of the YIISA conference, the ‘crisis of modernity’ refers to the breakdown of the political and economic system. This crisis also operates at a philosophical level, raising issues that are just as important as political and economic uncertainty” (12). As the political and economic systems in which today’s anti-Jewish hostility takes place differ markedly from each other, it is not clear just what this “crisis of modernity” is all about. Nevertheless, Dr. Small wished to pursue it and asked his colleagues to examine the possibility that “the emergence of the current wave of global antisemitism both reflects and forms part of a wider attack on the core elements of modernity, notions of Enlightenment, and Western civilization more generally by reactionary social forces empowered by the crisis of capitalism” (3). This is a difficult and conceptually ambiguous task. Most of the contributing authors do not adhere to this goal and write about antisemitism as they see fit.

Readers will find abundant evidence that antisemitism is on the upsurge today and on a global scale. While the authors all take antisemitism seriously, they do not see its development to date as having reached crisis proportions. Always a negative social phenomenon, antisemitism, especially the type which is prevalent in radical Islamist circles in Iran and other parts of the Muslim world, has the potential to become lethal on a massive scale. Several chapters in Volume IV of the ISGAP edition trace the history and analyze the ideology of Islamist Jew-hatred; some also focus on the rhetoric of genocidal antisemitism that often accompanies it. The contributions of Bassam Tibi, Rifat Bali, and Wahied Wahdat-Hagh deserve careful reading. In their different ways they acknowledge the possibility of an escalation into major anti-Jewish violence in the future. Surprisingly, however, these pieces do not appear in the Nijhoff edition. Not one of that book’s thirty-one chapters is devoted to Islamist antisemitism—a serious and inexplicable omission.

Both editions of Global Antisemitism contain worthwhile material. Catherine Chatterley contributes a brief but admirably incisive essay on the antisemitic imagination, in which she offers a lucidly drawn exposition of Christian and post-Christian antisemitism and the omnipresent figural “Jew” within Western culture. Arye Hillman offers an excellent chapter on some of the social and psychological dimensions of antisemitism and is especially insightful in commenting on links to economic factors. C.R. Power and Sharon Power usefully describe Jewish contributions to anti-Zionist thinking and clearly delineate the “good Jew/bad Jew” dichotomy. Shalem Coulibaly contributes a highly original and deeply thoughtful examination of African anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Alexander Tsesis makes some necessary, pragmatic proposals about what might be done legally to contend with intimidating and defamatory manifestations of antisemitism on American college campuses. (The situation on university campuses has become worse since he wrote his article.) Anne Herzberg is illuminating in her coverage of the role of NGOs in supporting initiatives dedicated to the denigration and isolation of Israel. Likewise, Elisabeth Kuebler and Matthias Falter provide a first-rate analysis of Durban II’s programmatic efforts to exclude Israel from an idealized, homogenous world community. Sebastian Voigt offers profound insights into anti-Zionist and antisemitic tendencies in the German Left, and Lars Rensmann does the same for political movements within the European Right.

Other readers certainly will find additional articles in these volumes that provide an understanding of contemporary manifestations of antisemitism. Individually, these papers are well-informed and insightful. Collectively, however, they do not comprise anything like a unified or coherent explanation of the origins and nature of “global antisemitism” nor do they demonstrate how antisemitism constitutes “a crisis of modernity.” In this respect, Charles Small’s goals have not been entirely met. Otherwise, however, his edited volumes are a welcome contribution to scholarship. Unfortunately, they are full of typographical and grammatical errors and evidently were not carefully proofread before going to press.

In the aftermath of his departure from Yale, Dr. Small has established his own, independent research center on global antisemitism (ISGAP) in New York City.

One looks forward to further work from him and his colleagues in addressing the problems before us. They are unlikely to go away anytime soon.