Doran Ben-Atar, a professor of history at Fordham University, is an outspoken opponent of calls by the American Studies Association (ASA) for a boycott of Israel’s academic institutions. And wisely so.
The boycott is an affront to the free exchange of ideas that should be at the heart of the academic mission. The affront is so obvious that the boycott has failed to gain much traction, for now at least, even among left-leaning academic institutions. More than 90 of them, including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, NYU, Yale, and Dartmouth, have issued statements rejecting the call for an academic boycott of Israel.
The president of Fordham also expressed his opposition to the boycott. Yet, Professor Ben-Atar’s opposition led to him being investigated by the university for “religious discrimination.” According to Ben-Atar’s account:
The email arrived on the last Friday afternoon of the spring term shortly before 5:00 p.m. Anastasia Coleman, Fordham’s Director of Institutional Equity and Compliance, and its Title IX Coordinator, wanted to meet with me. “It has been alleged,” she wrote, “that you may have acted in an inappropriate way and possibly discriminated against another person at the University.” …
“Did it have anything to do with a student?” I shot back anxiously, hoping to get a sense of my predicament before the director left for the weekend. I was lucky. Coleman responded immediately. “This does not involve students and is about your behavior regarding American Studies.”
What had Ben-Atar done “regarding American Studies” (an academic program at Fordham) that might possibly have constituted religious discrimination? He says:
I wrote emails, circulated articles, and was pleased that my university president quickly declared his opposition to the measure. I joined a national steering committee that set out to fight the boycott and participated in the drafting of a few statements. . . .I wanted Fordham’s program to sever official ties with the national organization until it rescinded the measure.
Other programs have taken this courageous symbolic step, and I thought it proper for the Jesuit university of New York to take the moral stand against what most scholars of anti-Semitism consider anti-Semitic bigotry.
It was this stand that led Fordham’s Title IX officer to launch the proceedings. During an emotional meeting convened to discuss the appropriate response to the measure, I stated that should Fordham’s program fail to distance itself from the boycott, I will resign from the program and fight against it until it took a firm stand against bigotry.
But how did the professor’s stand amount to religious discrimination? According to Ben-Atar, Fordham’s Title IX Inquisitor, Ms. Coleman, never told him.
Ben-Atar wisely consulted his attorney before proceeding further. There was back and forth between the attorney and Fordham’s general counsel. Ben-Atar expressed his willingness to meet with Coleman about the matter. Meanwhile, he resigned from Fordham’s American Studies program because it refused to distance itself from anti-Semitic bigotry.
The report cleared Ben-Atar of religious discrimination. However, it found that by saying he would fight the American Studies Program in every forum if it did not distance itself from the academic boycott, Ben-Atar had “created an atmosphere of incivility that could lead one to make a claim of intimidation or harassment.”
How so? Did “one” think that by “fight” Ben-Atar meant a knife-fight?
Coleman also found that by “initially refusing to participate in the investigation without [an] attorney present,” and by not explaining what he meant by “fighting” against the American Studies Program, Ben-Atar had committed a “possible violation” of the portion of Fordham’s code that prohibits engaging in or inciting others to engage in conduct that interferes with or disrupts any University function.”
Coleman informed Ben-Atar that she was going to report these “serious concerns” to the Office of the Provost.
In what universe does invoking the right to legal counsel and not explaining the meaning of “fight” constitute engaging in or inciting others to interfere with or disrupt a university function? In what universe does announcing one’s intention to fight what the university president recognizes as an affront to academic freedom, and what a professor believes is anti-Semitism, amount to intimidation or harassment?
Finally, in what universe could a university take seriously a claim that objecting to an anti-Israel boycott as anti-Semitic amounts to religious discrimination?
It’s true that discrimination can take the form of harassment. But expressing the opinion that a particular position is anti-Semitic isn’t harassment. Not unless it’s harassment — and therefore racial discrimination — for liberals to allege racism when someone expresses opinions they disagree with.
Coleman certainly doesn’t want to go down that road, which is probably why she cleared Ben-Atar while still doing her best to stick it to him.
As for the questions I asked above, the answer is that all three phenomena I describe are possible in the poisoned, left-wing universe of modern academia. That’s how all three phenomena occurred at Fordham.
It’s nice that, for now, the heads of major universities like Fordham don’t support an academic boycott of Israel. But high-minded pronouncements from the top aren’t enough. Not when bureaucrats like Coleman (who, I fear, can be found on many a campus) make life hell for those who stand strongly against the boycott.