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Israel Boycott Controversy Continues at Fordham

University’s English department chair responds to Tablet article

Staff Notes
November 14, 2014
Fordham University. (Flickr)

Last month we published an article by Doron Ben-Atar, a professor of History at Fordham University, in which he detailed the Kafkaesque proceedings the university initiated against him after he spoke out against the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, a Title IX investigation he alleged was secretive and politically motivated. Glenn Hendler, chair of the English department at Fordham University, submitted a response to Ben-Atar’s article, which we’ve published here. Ben-Atar’s reply to the response is printed below.

Fordham History professor Doron Ben-Atar has managed to become a minor cause celebre following the October 13 publication in Tablet of his article about being “investigated on secret charges,” ostensibly because of his opposition to the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions. As part of his publicity campaign, he also published an official letter describing the results of a Fordham administrator’s investigation.

This letter centers—not, as Ben-Atar claims, on “religious discrimination” or an alleged Title IX violation—but on two complaints that Fordham American Studies director Micki McGee filed against him. One was a charge of verbal harassment. The other was his threat to “fight the American Studies Program at Fordham in every forum and in every way” if it did not withdraw from the national association. The letter deems this threat “a possible violation of relevant sections of the University Code of Conduct,” specifically a section that forbids “engaging in, or inciting others to engage in, conduct which interferes with or disrupts any University function.”

I attended the meeting where Ben-Atar made this threat. I found it disturbing at the time, especially since the rest of the meeting had been a heartfelt, respectful, and passionate sharing of widely divergent views. His statement poisoned what had otherwise been a very productive conversation. The last thing I said at the meeting was that I found his statement troubling and wanted to know what he meant. I never got a reply.

Let me be clear: There are many strong statements Ben-Atar could have made that would not have disturbed me, and that it would be outrageous for the university to have investigated, such as a promise to fight the program’s policy decision. No statement of opinion should ever be punished.

But Ben-Atar did not just present an opinion; he made a threat against an academic program (which surely counts as a “University function”). I directed Fordham’s American Studies Program for several years, and I care deeply about the program itself and especially its undergraduate majors, who are among the university’s most brilliant and thoughtful students. The program is a small but crucial part of the institution’s intellectual life. My main motivation in writing this response is to defend that program, and its students, from the retaliation Ben-Atar threatened.

In his Tablet article, Ben-Atar dismisses anyone who took his threat seriously with a charmingly self-deprecating “As if I could?” Yes, he could. A strong, determined person could certainly do great harm to the institution, its faculty, and its students, not through physical violence, but by sheer obstruction. To claim powerlessness in this context is disingenuous.

Why would Ben-Atar make such a threat? After all, there was no proposal on the table in favor of the boycott. In fact, nearly everyone at the meeting who spoke up against withdrawing from the national organization—other than myself—did so as an opponent of the ASA’s resolution. One expressed the desire to remain in the organization in the hopes of overturning its decision. Others not at the meeting wrote the program’s executive committee urging it not to withdraw. As a result, the committee decided to take no stand on the matter, and to continue its membership in the ASA, as the vast majority of American Studies programs and departments in the United States have done.

Weeks after this vote, following an e-mail campaign by Professor Ben-Atar that included ungrounded accusations of anti-Semitism, five of 54 members of the American Studies affiliated faculty joined him in resigning from the program. He makes much of the fact that all of those who resigned are Jewish, and that no non-Jewish faculty resigned. I don’t know the religious affiliation of every faculty member, but it appears that a majority of Jewish faculty affiliated with the program (including me) declined to follow his lead, a fact that Ben-Atar leaves out of his story.

It’s also important to note that the investigation of Ben-Atar’s conduct was carried out by an administration that has taken a strong official stance against the ASA resolution. Not one administrator has said a word in favor of the boycott. Nor, as far as I know, have any faculty members at Fordham other than myself.

In other words, Ben-Atar’s self-portrayal as a beleaguered defender of a minority opinion, as someone who has been victimized by an academic establishment that is supposedly anti-Israel and at least implicitly anti-Semitic, just does not hold water. He is, rather, someone who did not get his way in this instance, whose response to his frustration was to make a threat that some of those present found intimidating, and who is now claiming victim status because someone called him on that conduct. I hope that readers, regardless of their positions on the larger political issues at stake here, do not fall for this ploy.

Glenn Hendler is chair of the English department at Fordham University. The opinions here are his own, and do not represent those of the university, or of the department he chairs.


My colleague Glenn Hendler’s letter says nothing of our university’s Kafkaesque investigation or of the misuse of anti-discrimination procedures as a means of punishing me for speaking up against discrimination. Fordham did better in an early version of its public statement last month when it declared that all the charges against me were baseless, and promised to issue an official apology.

How did I fight the program? Precisely the way Professor Hendler describes. I turned to colleagues and asked them to join my protest. Most couldn’t care less. According to Professor Hendler, the five other professors who resigned from the program did so only because of me. His charge betrays his low opinion of his colleagues’ intellectual abilities and independence.

The nub of our disagreement is that Professor Hendler supports the boycott resolution of the American Studies Association whereas I believe it is founded upon anti-Jewish bigotry. The Association has become a hotbed of prejudice and an analysis of the program of this year’s annual meeting proves my point. I would also like to direct Tablet’s readers to Sharon Ann Musher’s explanation of her resignation from the Association as well as to her analysis of the boycott process in the recently published The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel.

Professor Hendler’s ad hominem attack, coming on the heels of the program director’s attempt to punish me for opposing the boycott, reinforces the larger point of my Tablet piece: those fighting the new anti-Semitism must be willing to pay the price. I chose my path when I shared my ordeal with Tablet’s readers.

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 this month.

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