At a Catholic school, a professor fighting the academic boycott of Israel is investigated on secret charges
By Doron Ben-Atar October 13, 2014 12:00 AM
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By James Kirchick
Tweets Cost a Professor His Tenure, and That’s a Good Thing
Steven Salaita’s case isn’t about free speech. It’s about common sense, and the rightful consequences of bigotry and violence.
By Liel Leibovitz
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.”
I was stunned. My wife, kids and friends have been warning me for years that, in these prudish times, my outrageous sense of humor and intellectual irreverence (my last book is about bestiality) could get me in trouble. I imagined myself brought before an academic disciplinary tribunal from Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, where all my past transgressions would be marshaled to prove that I don’t belong in the classroom. My mind raced, recalling the many slips of the tongue I had in three decades of teaching. I perspired profusely and felt the onset of a stomach bug. What would I tell my mother?
“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 a relief. But it was also very odd. The decision of the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities in December 2013 had upset me. 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. As an American historian who delivered in 1987 his first paper at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association and served on the executive committee of Fordham’s American Studies program, I wanted Fordham’s program to sever official ties with the national organization until it rescinded the measure.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. The program’s director, Michelle McGee, in turn filed a complaint against me with the Title IX office, charging that I threatened to destroy the program. (As if I could? And what does this have to do with Title IX?) This spurious complaint (the meeting’s minutes demonstrated that I did not make such a threat) ushered me into a bruising summer that taught me much about my colleagues, the university, and the price I must be willing to pay for taking on the rising tide of anti-Zionism on American campuses.
The following Monday, Coleman appeared in my office to conduct her investigation. Alas, she refused to explain what I was accused of specifically or how what I supposedly did amounted to a Title IX violation. Remaining vague, she hinted that others, including perhaps Fordham College’s dean, who chaired the fateful meeting, supported the complaint. Who are the others, I asked? Is there anything beyond that supposed one sentence? She would not disclose. I told Coleman that I took the complaint very seriously, but at the advice of my attorney I needed to think things through. Coleman told me she’d be in touch with my attorney, and we parted ways.
Over the next few weeks, Fordham’s general counsel, Tom DeJulio, and my attorney engaged in a few friendly conversations, in which we were led to believe that Fordham agreed I was perfectly within my First Amendment rights to oppose the boycott. We informed DeJulio that I’d be happy to meet with Coleman, even though we were still not informed what the specific charge was. I resigned from Fordham’s American Studies program because it refused to distance itself from anti-Semitic bigotry. Five other Jewish members of the program did the same. Not a single non-Jewish member resigned in solidarity.
Coleman never asked to meet me, and I assumed that the attempt to muzzle my opposition to the boycott died down. In late July, however, I received Coleman’s report in which she cleared me of the charge of religious discrimination. It was the first time that I learned what I was actually accused of doing, so I’m still not sure how opposing anti-Semitism amounts to religious discrimination. But Coleman was not satisfied to leave things at that. She went on to write that I refused to cooperate in the investigation (even though my attorney informed DeJulio weeks earlier of my willingness to meet her), and concluded that my decision to use an attorney was an indication of guilt. Coleman determined that in declaring I would quit the American Studies program should it not distance itself from anti-Semitism, I violated the university’s code of civility.
It was a sobering summer. I have had to defend my reputation against baseless, ever-evolving charges, ranging from sex discrimination to religious discrimination. I went through a Kafkaesque process in which I was never told exactly what I supposedly did wrong, nor was I ever shown anything in writing. Eventually I learned that the charge was religious discrimination born of my opposition to anti-Semitism. The implication is that anti-Semitism needs to be tolerated at Fordham, and that those who dare to fight it run afoul of university rules.
Administrators and colleagues failed to protect my First Amendment rights, and fed the assault on my character. A person utterly unqualified to understand anti-Semitism sat in judgment of a scholar who publishes on and teaches the subject. A report has been issued without letting me even defend myself. My choice to have legal representation has been cited as proof of my guilt. Most painful was realizing that my commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, so central to who I am, has been used against me in a most unethical manner not only by the member of the faculty who filed the baseless charge, but also by the office of the University Counsel.
Fordham remains my intellectual home. Some colleagues, appalled by the charge and proceedings, turned out to be actual loyal friends who supported me through the ordeal. But I also learned about another part of the university where colleagues resort to legal bullying to settle political scores; where heartfelt utterings at faculty brainstorming become evidence for politically motivated character assassinations; where those charged with protecting women against real abuses engage in a politically motivated witch-hunt; where fighting against the oldest hatred—anti-Semitism—makes one a pariah. The Jesuit University of New York should do better.
Doron Ben-Atar is a professor of History at Fordham University and a playwright. Teatron, Toronto’s Jewish theater, is producing his play Peace Warriors in November.