How do you try to prove a charge of religious discrimination against a Jesuit university's professor of history and anti-Semitism studies?
You'd think you could ask Professor Doron Ben-Atar, who was just cleared of this accusation, leveled by another professor. But he can't tell you either, because he was investigated by the university's Title IX commission, he says, without ever being informed of the charges against him. "They never told me what I did wrong, because I didn't do anything wrong," Ben-Atar says. "All I did was stand up against anti-Semitism."
In December 2013, the American Studies Association, a national academic organization, passed a boycott against official collaboration with Israeli universities and affiliated persons as a symbolic protest against the treatment of Palestinians in the "apartheid state." The ASA was the first significant national academic association to pass such a boycott in solidarity with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. BDS can seem like just another pro-Palestinian movement — it aims to put pressure on Israel until it "fully recognizes Palestinians' fundamental rights" and "ends its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantle[s] the Wall" that Israel built to regulate movement in and out of the Palestinian Territories in 2005. But it also essentially opposes the continuing existence of Israel in its current form, leading some critics to label some parts of the movement anti-Semitic.
Applying BDS's tactics to the academic realm has been especially controversial. More than 200 American university presidents, including Fordham's Father Joseph McShane S.J., and national organizations such as the American Association of University Professors, have issued statements denouncing the boycott as a violation of academic freedom. Some universities' American Studies programs have gone further, severing ties with the ASA entirely.
Professor Ben-Atar, a longtime member of Fordham's American Studies program, hoped that his school would do the same. Although he was grateful for Fr. McShane's statement, he argued that his program should break with the ASA over the boycott. That's when the trouble started.
Professor Micki McGee, a sociology professor and the director of Fordham's American Studies program, filed the charge of religious discrimination against Dr. Ben-Atar. In a meeting the program's affiliated faculty convened to discuss the boycott, minutes say Professor Ben-Atar did the following:
The American Studies Program at Fordham should make a stand: oppose to bigotry, distance itself from the ASA, and if it does not, this colleague [Ben-Atar] said he would withdraw from the American Studies program, and fight the American Studies Program at Fordham in every forum and in every way.
McGee took issue with Ben-Atar's argument and filed a Title IX complaint — primarily used for sexual-harassment cases — against him. Ben-Atar was not informed of this charge, nor was he told that it was later changed to a charge of religious discrimination and harassment. When Ben-Atar was finally informed there was a complaint, he met with Fordham's Title IX director, Anastasia Coleman, who conducted the investigation. (Ben-Atar has a more detailed explanation of these series of events in a recent article in Tablet.)
Coleman provided very little information in their meeting regarding the parties involved and the nature of the complaint itself, Ben-Atar says. With little information to go on, Ben-Atar referred the charge to his lawyer, simultaneously emphasizing that he was willing to meet again with the university. He was never contacted directly by the Title IX office again. His attorney and Fordham's general counsel, Tom DeJulio, discussed the matter cordially over the following weeks and agreed that the professor was well within his rights to express his vehement disapproval of the boycott.
And then the results of this investigation came in. It was only at this point, in a letter from Coleman detailing her findings, that Ben-Atar was informed of the details of the complaint against him.
McGee and the Title IX office had latched onto Ben-Atar's use of the word "fight" at the original meeting of the American Studies Program faculty. This word, they felt, conveyed a threat to the program and her person and implied that she was anti-Semitic. Ben-Atar maintains that the threat was not directed at anyone specifically, nor did he intend to make such an insinuation about McGee.
How any of this had to do with Title IX, Ben-Atar still doesn't know.
"I said I would fight the position — that is what you do in academia," he says. Or rather, that's what you can do in academia if you are on the politically correct side of the argument. If you're on the other side, Ben-Atar says, good luck.
"The discourse of academia is between the cultural Left and the liberal Left," he says. "That's where the discourse happens. People who are not a part of these two clubs are marginalized. They are called right-wingers, and the word 'right-winger' is about the worst thing you can call someone." Ben-Atar isn't happy to have kicked up the controversy: It "has given Fordham a terrible black eye," he says. But it can't just be swept away, either. "Fordham decided to mistreat me and become a bully," he says. "And I will not be silent in the fight against anti-Semitism."
Yet there's a broader issue than the complaint itself. "The administration failed to say to Dr. McGee, 'Listen, you have a political disagreement with Dr. Ben-Atar. This is not something that requires bigger action,'" Ben-Atar says.
The problem, he says, "is the turning of a political disagreement into legal action, the process of which violated my First Amendment rights." The BDS movement itself is a threat to classical liberalism on college campuses, since one of its main tactics involves the limitation of academic debate. But the dangers, Professor Ben-Atar discovered, run much deeper in academia than any single passing liberal cause.