Civility Wars – What We Learn From Fordham

Throughout the intense debates on Steven Salaita, I clung to one message:

If you do not stand on principle for people with whom you disagree, you have no principles.

It was no problem generating support for Salaita’s case (note, not Salaita, the case) for people who agreed with his critique of Israel, the challenge was insisting that people critical of his language must also stand with him, for the sake of academic freedom, due process, and the American university.

So I wrote, “Don’t Speak Out,” on public engagement in the aftermath of Salaita.

I wrote, “Fix the Hiring Calendar,” on reshaping the timing of Board intervention in hiring.

I wrote blog posts about principle and the dual nature of Israel as both a haven for an oppressed minority and a regional superpower and how that complicates the discourse of public criticism of the state.

Today, I offer this story on a Jewish professor at Fordham who came under attack for his position in support of the Israeli government. And so I once again reiterate that the principles of academic freedom must be extended to all, even those with whom we disagree, or we have no principles. Because the pressures brought to bear on pro-Palestinians such as Salaita today can be brought on pro-Israel voices tomorrow. Fight for the principle, not the individual.

Here’s the newest story, as I understand it.

The American Studies Department at Fordham voted to support the broader decision by the American Studies Association to endorse the Boycott-Divestment-Sanction movement intended to pressure Israel (in this case via its universities) to end the occupation. Six Jewish members of the department at Fordham, including the historian Doron Ben-Atar, left the program as a result. Then Ben-Atar got accused of religious discrimination and summoned before a hearing.

In The Tablet, Ben-Atar narrates:

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. 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.

After, the Title IX coordinator at Fordham, Coleman, asked to meet with him on an ill-defined question of a Title IX violation. Ben-Atar got an attorney, allegedly offered to meet with Coleman, but that never happened. In the end:

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.

So let’s parse some of this. This is not, to be sure, Kafka. Kafka speaks of secret courts with overwhelming power and secret charges; Ben-Atar had a single officer with limited power who ultimately decided he didn’t do anything wrong. Still, the process was clearly flawed and Fordham should revisit these procedures. When being investigated, we all deserve to know what we’re accused of doing.

I don’t know what happened at that meeting of the Fordham American Studies department. I don’t what words were said, but I’m sure they were angry in tone on all sides. I don’t know what the consequences would have been for Ben-Atar had the officer found him to have violated Title IX, if then it would have moved into a more transparent phase. It’s definitely all troubling.

Importantly, compared to Salaita, Ben-Atar remains employed, did have a process (if not perhaps due process), and seems to have been protected by the rules of tenure and rank. I’m sure it was troubling to him to be accused of religious discrimination.

Here’s the key takeaway – The “next Salaita” could well be an ardent anti-Palestinian voice who lacks the protections of rank and tenure enjoyed by Ben-Atar. Ben-Atar cannot now move universities safely, lest he find himself in the liminal space in which Salaita became vulnerable. An ardent anti-Palestinian writer who lacks tenure could easily find themselves mired in a Salaita-like situation in which a risk-adverse administration decided not hire/tenure someone in the future.

Salaita needs to support Ben-Atar. More crucially, because Ben-Atar still has a job, Ben-Atar needs to support Salaita.

It is the only way to protect academic freedom.

3 Replies to “Civility Wars – What We Learn From Fordham”

  1. Fordham American Studies says:

    Fordham's American Studies Program never endorsed the American Studies Association boycott.

    On the contrary, the Program's Executive Committee conducted literally months of review of faculty positions on this matter and determined that it had to remain neutral on this controversial matter:

    See today's Tablet:

    Professor Ben-Atar engaged in months of harassment of his colleagues, attempting to intimidate them into capitulating to his demands.

    You are absolutely correct that there was nothing Kafka-esque here. The problem is that there is still a bully defaming this university, this program, and its leadership

  2. Mary says:

    From a quick reading of the quotes of Professor Ben-Atar, he needs to define if he is opposing anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism. He uses the terms as if they are interchangeable and they are not. If he feels people at his institution are taking an anti-Zionist stance, they are taking a political position. If they are taking an anti-Semitic stance, they are practicing religious or ethnic bigotry, or both. That difference is an important one.

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