By B. Cohen
“I’ve decided that I should do what I believe in,” Professor Doron Ben Atar, the Fordham University academic who faced a discrimination charge after vocally speaking out against the academic boycott of Israel, told The Algemeiner during an interview on Thursday morning. “Many people have warned me that Fordham is going to retaliate. I can’t tell if they will or not, but we are living in a toxic age, and it’s time for people to make a stand.”
The avuncular Ben Atar – a tenured professor whose research and publications span such topics as the early American republic and the history of anti-Semitism, and who is a playwright to boot – has become a cause celebre over the last 24 hours, following the publication of his article in Tablet Magazine detailing his “Kafkaesque” ordeal at Fordham.
In that piece, Ben Atar described how, at an April meeting of Fordham’s American History Program, he urged the severing of ties with the American Studies Association (ASA) for its December 2013 decision to join the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Shortly after that exchange, Ben Atar received a letter from Anastasia Coleman, Fordham’s Director of Institutional Equity and Compliance, informing him that a complaint had been received from Michelle McGee, the American History Program’s director. McGee alleged that Ben Atar had, as he wrote in Tablet, “threatened to destroy the program” and invoked Title IX – which prohibits discrimination in education programs receiving federal funding – as the basis of her complaint.
Ben Atar remains mystified as to why a legal instrument dealing with discrimination would be turned against a professor seeking to “fight” – his word, and therefore possibly the basis for McGee’s complaint – anti-Semitism among faculty. “There is a problem with sexual assaults on campuses,” Ben Atar said, “and the instruments to fight it are now being used more widely by a leftist academic clique, whose influence in society is very marginal, but which exercises disproportionate influence over the academic study of the humanities.” Indeed, when Colman met with Ben Atar, she told him that members of both the faculty and the administration had joined McGee’s complaint, without specifying who.
Since the only member of the Fordham Administration present at the April meeting was John Harrington, who has since been appointed Dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill, Ben Atar suspects that Harrington’s name was on the complaint, but he has, as yet, no concrete proof of this (an email from The Algemeiner to Harrington was unanswered by press time.)
A large part of the problem at Fordham, Ben Atar asserts, is the degree of “group think” within his own department. “We don’t have a single Republican in a Department of History which has over 30 members,” Ben Atar said. “People take history at Fordham and they get only varieties of liberal and leftist and far-leftist opinions. Now we’re in a situation where these people have power, and some of them succumb to the temptation of using it to bully others.”
Ben Atar emphasized that he has had very little contact with Dr. McGee, who teaches at the university’s campus in The Bronx, while he is based at its location at Lincoln Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “Dr. McGee could not have felt threatened by me,” Ben Atar said. “I may have spoken to her three times in my life. I am in the history department, she is in sociology. We’ve never had a private conversation. I’m fighting anti-Semitism – what, I’m going to bomb somebody? Come on!”
“What lies behind this is not whether I said ‘fight,’ or used this word or that word,” Ben Atar continued. “Look at the setting of the April meeting. That was convened by Jewish members of the faculty to discuss the program’s response to the ASA boycott. The university President denounced the boycott, but said that under its regulations, it’s the responsibility of the particular program to make a stand. The Jewish members talked about how painful the boycott is, how they felt that it has no other function except assaulting Jewish colleagues, but there was little sympathy. It was an emotional meeting.”
Ben Atar did not, he repeated, threaten anyone at the meeting. The minutes, which he shared with The Algemeiner, referred to “one member” – Ben Atar – urging “that we suspend our ASA membership as other schools have done… the American Studies Program at Fordham should make a stand: oppose bigotry, distance itself from the ASA, and if it does not, this colleague said he would withdraw from the American Studies program, and fight the American Studies Program at Fordham in every forum and in every way.”
In his Tablet piece, Ben Atar wrote: “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.” Unbowed, he affirms that he will continue his campaign despite this bruising episode, which cleared him of the charge of “religious discrimination,” but accused him of violating the university’s code of civility.
“I don’t think the administrators took one side or the other, but they failed miserably in protecting my First Amendment rights,” Ben Atar said. “They treated me shabbily, they allowed a report to be published without letting me respond it, they charged me with violating civility, as if fighting anti-Semitism should not be encouraged but discouraged. Colleagues who I thought were my friends participated in that.”
Asked about his next steps, Ben Atar, who said that he’d been approached by a number of lawyers in the wake of his article’s publication, was disarmingly frank. “I have no ‘Plan B’,” he said. “But look, there are Jewish communities all around the country preparing their children to go to college. This is a new reality – there have been physical attacks on Jewish students. So I feel it’s time for us to stand up.”