Commentary Magazine


Academia’s Islands of Authoritarianism

As a history professor, Doron Ben-Atar might have had some frame of reference for the creepy and alarming campaign of censorship and intimidation waged against him by fellow faculty at Fordham University. But those historical parallels would only have made the episode all the more disturbing.

Ben-Atar told his story yesterday in Tablet magazine. It’s worth reading the whole story, but the essential facts are these: Ben-Atar was, as most right-thinking people were, staunchly opposed to the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, which the group voted on last December. He joined a steering committee to fight the boycott and, as a member of Fordham’s American Studies executive committee, pushed to cut ties with the ASA until it rescinded the boycott. Here’s what happened next:

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.

He was cooperative, though he was treated as hostile. He was eventually cleared of the absurd charge of religious discrimination–for opposing religious discrimination!–and learned a hard lesson about the place of Jews in American higher education in 2014:

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.

Ben-Atar was merely expressing his opposition to bigotry against his own people, and for that he found himself trapped in a Yuri Dombrovsky novel within a prestigious university in the city with the largest number of Jews outside of Tel Aviv. Aside from the obvious presence of anti-Semitism among the American universities in charge of shaping the minds of the next generation, there are a couple of important lessons here.

The first is that the academic boycotts of Israel are not about Israel. Most of us know this, of course, and those leading the boycotts almost certainly know it. But they have been able to claim limited targets, and thus try and dispute the accusations of anti-Semitism. They are boycotting Israel, they say, a sovereign state. And they are doing so because of the state’s policies, they say.

What Ben-Atar’s case exposes to the light of day is that these boycotts are not simply about preventing collaboration with academics in Israel. They are about regulating and restricting the speech and the behavior of Americans, and specifically Jews in America. Ben-Atar endured not just character assassination but the threat of the kinds of charges that could follow him throughout his academic career. It was a warning shot, and not a subtle one.

The other lesson is that there is a burgeoning crisis in higher education in which universities are roping themselves off from the basic right of due process. In September, KC Johnson explored the “crusade against due process for college students accused of sexual assault” in COMMENTARY. That crusade has only continued, with colleges removing due process from the accused and, in California, a law inserting the government into the bedrooms of college students and which critics fear will criminalize much sexual contact. (Encouragingly, the crusade has its vocal critics on the left as well.)

The larger picture, then, is one in which American universities, issue by issue, are walling themselves off from American constitutional rights and general principles of law and order in order to create islands of authoritarianism and institutions of enforced groupthink. That groupthink is no longer an emptyheaded anticapitalism. It now includes the threat of torpedoing careers for opposing anti-Semitism and bureaucratizing human contact. That there is a crisis brewing can no longer be denied. The question is, what will American academia do about it?

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