Outcry as Soas drops Yiddish

October 11, 2002

London University's School of Oriental and African Studies has sparked an outcry by not renewing the contracts of two leading authorities on Yiddish, casting doubt on its commitment to Jewish studies. International scholars warned that the decision was a blow to the field in the UK.

Genady Eistrakh and Misha Krutikov shared a post at Soas's department of Near and Middle-Eastern studies on a three-year contract, funded partly by a private donation. They ran a Yiddish-language postgraduate programme, taught Yiddish literature and contributed to the department's 5* rating in last year's research assessment exercise.

But earlier this year they were told that the money was not available to renew their contracts, and that Yiddish was no longer part of Soas's mission. This was despite a school-wide consultation before their appointment that agreed that Yiddish was important for Soas.

Dr Krutikov claimed that Soas was not sufficiently committed to Jewish studies. He said: "I would not say I was a victim of prejudice, that is too strong, but certainly they are just not interested in the subject. Soas is neglecting Jewish studies, and Israel is certainly underrepresented."

Dr Krutikov, who began studying Hebrew and Yiddish in secret in Soviet Russia, said that the quality of debate over Israel at Soas reminded him of his time in the USSR. "There is a sense that you don't need an intellectual argument if you label someone a Zionist and say that the whole idea of Zionism is intellectually dishonest."

Andrew George, chair of the department, said: "It is a matter of regret that the school has now decided that Yiddish is not part of its mission."

One Soas insider, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: "How can this be explained as anything other than prejudice?"

Peter Oppenheimer, president of Oxford University's Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, said he was trying to find funding for the two scholars. He said: "This is just hearsay, but I'm sure there has been a bit of nasty politics involved here. Is there an Islamic and Arabist influence of an inappropriate kind at Soas?"

A Soas spokeswoman said: "Soas rejects utterly any suggestion that there is a general bias against Jewish studies at the institution. Jewish studies is offered at undergraduate level and at postgraduate level. The school intends to continue teaching Hebrew and also to consolidate its existing programme of courses on Jewish studies, bringing these fully in-house and not relying on external funding." She said Dr Eistrakh and Dr Krutikov's course failed to attract enough students.

Joseph Sherman, a fellow of Yiddish studies at Oxford, said: "The decision taken by Soas does seem to me shortsighted, and is a great loss to the discipline and its growth in Britain."

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