Jewish faculty on US campuses paying a heavy price for standing up for Israel

'The Jerusalem Report' looks at the academicians being bruised and battered by BDS on campuses across America.

Zeina Ashrawi, of the Students for Justice in Palestine Society of George Mason University, participates in an anti-Israel rally in Washington, DC (photo credit: JIM WATSON / AFP)
Zeina Ashrawi, of the Students for Justice in Palestine Society of George Mason University, participates in an anti-Israel rally in Washington, DC
(photo credit: JIM WATSON / AFP)
“SOMEONE MUST have been telling lies about Josef K., because he had done nothing wrong, but one day he was arrested.”
So begins Franz Kafka’s novel, “The Trial,” which sums up the dread felt by Doron Ben-Atar, an American history professor at New York’s Fordham University in the spring of 2014 when he was accused of some vague misdeed that had to do with his strong stand against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
It began with an emotional faculty meeting to discuss the American Studies Association’s resolution to boycott Israeli universities, the first academic group to vote for a ban. Some US universities severed ties with ASA, and Ben-Atar urged Fordham to do the same. The Israeli-born professor further stated that he would resign from the Fordham branch of the association if it did not break with ASA and would fight it until it did.
For that statement, Ben-Atar was charged with a spurious Title IX violation (a US federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex) and had to defend his reputation in a Kafkaesque process in which he was never shown anything in writing nor told what he had done wrong. He says that, according to the university official in charge of the investigation, the fact that he had retained a lawyer was proof of his guilt.
Eventually, he learned that the charge against him was religious discrimination – ironic, given that he was protesting anti- Semitism. The charge was later dismissed.
“I will pay, for the rest of my life, the price for standing up for Israel. I am a tenured professor, but I will never become a candidate for an endowed chair, the next step in my career, now that I’m outed as a troublemaker,” he tells The Jerusalem Report in a telephone interview.
“Please understand that I paid no significant personal price. I am an Israeli, two meters tall, I’m not afraid to say what I think. But the reality is that those who are not as fortunate as I am need to be very careful because their careers could be destroyed. I have junior faculty colleagues who are afraid to be identified with anyone associated with Israel.”
Andrew Pessin, a Connecticut College philosophy professor, read about Ben- Atar’s ordeal, sympathized, but moved on with the daily grind of teaching philosophy to undergraduates and being a father of three small children. It wasn’t until he, himself, was targeted on his campus by pro-Palestinian students that he reached out to Ben-Atar.
Convinced they are part of a wider phenomenon, Pessin and Ben-Atar are collaborating on a book of essays contributed by academicians bruised and battered by BDS.
Prof. Denise Nussbaum, chair of the sociology department at Mt. San Jacinto College in California, refuses to set foot on campus, and teaches online from home since being ostracized and labeled an Islamophobe. Nussbaum had complained to the college’s Amnesty International club about their choice of speaker, a known Israel-hater, Miko Peled, an Israeli Jew. The complicated Middle East conflict should be presented in a balanced and scholarly manner, she argued, and signed her e-mail “Proud Zionist and Jew.” The club’s Iranian-born faculty adviser, associate math professor Shahla Razavi launched a campaign against Nussbaum accusing her of stifling free speech.
“I received hateful text messages, phone calls and comments when I walked across the campus every day,” she tells The Report. At a large faculty meeting several months later, an associate professor of history, Gary Vargas, assaulted Nussbaum grabbing her by the arm; no one came to her assistance, she says. Nussbaum is suing the college’s Governing Board for $9.5 million for a long line of charges, including assault and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
To add insult to injury, says Nussbaum, the college had hired an attorney to defend Vargas. “I had to stop going to campus, because I had such anxiety I would pull over at the side of the road,” says Nussbaum.
Prof. Corinne E. Blackmer of Southern Connecticut State University had a large map of Israel on her office door. In March 2008, someone ripped it to shreds and threw it on the floor. Shortly afterwards someone left a swastika on her car. The college police decided it was a hate crime because she is gay rather than because she is Jewish. The English and Judaic Studies professor now teaches a class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The more Israel is hated, the more I love her,” she tells The Report. “Since that time, I became more active in defending Israel.”
Two Jewish professors at Wheelock College in Massachusetts have recently filed federal workplace discrimination complaints against the school alleging they were subjected to anti-Semitic discrimination that damaged their reputation and careers.
Professors Eric Silverman and Gail Dines allege that they were harassed after speaking out about a lack of Jewish perspective on campus, according to copies of the complaints filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Many of these cases never reach the mainstream media.
“I didn’t have a strong sense of how pervasive this is,” Pessin tells The Report. “These are very personal wounds when you are attacked on your own campus. It rattles you. A lot of people tell us how uncomfortable they feel to continue at their campus. I have not set foot on my campus since this happened to me. ”
IF BEN-Atar felt like a protagonist in a Kafka novel, Pessin feels more like Alfred Dreyfus, the French-Jewish officer falsely accused of treason. Pessin fell victim to a coordinated digital lynch by pro-Palestinian students that hinged on a deliberate misinterpretation of his words.
“I was incredibly naïve,” he says. “I believed long after the evidence suggested otherwise that these were normal college students of good will and no ulterior agenda.”
The story begins with a Facebook post Pessin penned denouncing Hamas in August 2014 during the IDF’s Operation Protective Edge and comparing Israel’s blockade on Hamas to someone keeping a “rabid pit bull chained in a cage.” The context of the post made it clear Pessin referred to the Hamas terrorism and not to Palestinians in general.
Indeed, the post was one of a series of 17 he wrote during the war – the other 16 of which all explicitly named Hamas.
Seven months later, in a coordinated attack, three editorials accusing Pessin of racism and promoting Palestinian genocide appeared in the Connecticut College student newspaper taking his comment out of context.
They were written by a Muslim student active in Students for Justice in Palestine and three others majoring in the college’s Global Islamic Studies program. The student paper published the comments without giving Pessin an opportunity to respond.
He had previously clarified via email to the Muslim student that his post referred to Hamas and not Palestinians in general. He apologized, deleted it and thought that was the end of the matter.
“What happened to Andy is terrible,” says Ben-Atar.” He is a well-respected scholar and they turned him into Public Enemy No. 1.”
Pessin became the center of a campaign of vilification with various academic departments and even the university president falling in lockstep, denouncing Pessin’s alleged “hateful” rhetoric. An online petition calling on administrators in this small, private liberal arts college to condemn Pessin’s “racism” was started by the student paper editor – the same one who had not given Pessin a chance to respond.
The college president canceled classes for a day about a month later when racist graffiti against blacks was found on campus and called for a mandatory campus-wide forum on racism in which Pessin’s name was brought up and his few defenders were jeered. A Palestinian flag was draped on a banister near Pessin’s office and he received death threats.
“The entire campus exploded,” says Pessin.
“Not a single person contacted me to ask what the post was about, and apparently no one bothered to read the 16 other posts in the series, which made it clear what the post was about and which I left up on Facebook until the death threats started coming. It was so devastating; I was minutes away from a nervous breakdown.
“What pulled me back from the edge was when people outside campus started reaching out to me, hundreds of emails from Jews around the world. A petition on my behalf was circulated with 10,000 signatures. I saw how important it is, not just psychologically, but also for the cause. When you’re being attacked, you can feel very alone. When you see there are thousands of virtual soldiers ready to support you, I started to feel strong to fight back and to reach out to any other individual to help them. It made me even more committed to Jewish and Israel advocacy.”
In the aftermath, the college gave Pessin a three-semester sabbatical, and he is scheduled to return to Connecticut College in the fall of 2017.
“The damage can never be repaired,” he says. “Friendships and relationships are permanently destroyed. I don’t believe I can ever respect more than a handful of people on that campus.”
The plan to silence Pessin has backfired, however.
With time on his hands, Pessin, the author of several popular books on philosophy, is channeling his energies to battle BDS on several fronts, including a weekly newsletter, articles for a Jewish newspaper and helping other academicians.
Another plan that backfired was the campaign to silence Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer at University of California, Santa Cruz. After being the subject of “a wellplanned, well-orchestrated and well-funded campaign of harassment to make an example of me,” in her words, Rossman-Benjamin stepped up her efforts to speak out on behalf of Jewish students through her work with AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit organization devoted to investigating, documenting and combating campus anti- Semitism, which she co-founded in 2012.
In 2009, Rossman-Benjamin, who taught Hebrew and Jewish studies, filed a 32-page complaint with the US Department of Education’s office of Civil Rights alleging a hostile environment for Jewish students on her campus.
“I gave so many examples of instances in the classroom where professors used academic freedom to promote their own anti-Israel agenda, an intellectual and emotional harassment of Jewish students,” says Rossman-Benjamin. It took two years, but in March 2011, a federal investigation of her complaint was launched only to later be dismissed due to intense lobbying by pro-Palestinian groups, she says.
“Their argument was that, by virtue of us complaining of anti-Semitism, we are creating a hostile environment for Arab Muslim students. It’s Orwellian. The hypocrisy is breathtaking and they get away with it,” she relates to The Report.
Rossman-Benjamin gained a reputation as someone willing to stand up for Jewish students and paid the price. “They wanted to make an example of me because they knew I’m high profile, not only as a faculty member, but also because I spoke nationally on the subject.
If they could demonize me, they could use me as an object lesson. If you speak out against us, this is what we will do to you.”
As in the Pessin case, her enemies conducted an archaeological dig to find something they could use against her. They came across a two-minute YouTube clip of a talk she had given at a Boston synagogue in the summer of 2012 in which she stated that some members of pro-Palestine student groups were foreign students who came from Arab countries where anti-Semitism is endemic. Some of the groups, she said, have ties to international terror groups.
“They made it seem that I had said this to students in my classroom and started a petition with the video clip calling on the president of the University of California to condemn me for racism and Islamophobia,” says Rossman-Benjamin. “They got people from all over the world to sign but that wasn’t enough. They took pictures of Muslim students with a description ‘I am not a terrorist but Hebrew professor Benjamin says I am.’ They made fliers and put them all over campus. This is my campus. I walk through this campus every day. Then they put up more than a dozen YouTube testimonials.”
The campaign then expanded to other California campuses.
“I had cause to be fearful for my personal safety,” says Rossman-Benjamin, who since the incident and after 17 years of teaching is now on leave for several years of her own volition.
Several professors in litigation with their universities declined to be interviewed by The Report.
The American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing some of them, stated: “The ACLJ is concerned about the recent upswing in actions against Jewish students and professors on our nation’s university campuses. We are in the process of assisting several faculty members dealing with discriminatory and harassing conduct – both by anti-Jewish/pro-BDS student organizations and by university administrators – based on nothing more than their Jewish ethnicity and/or their protected pro-Israel speech.”
Much of the anti-Semitism against Jewish faculty is subtle and nuanced, and does not make headlines or reach the courtroom.
“It’s part of contemporary academic life,” Kenneth Waltzer, professor emeritus of Jewish studies at Michigan State University, tells The Report. “Junior faculty members have to stick their head in like a turtle and not be open about their politics because they are coming up for tenure.”
Waltzer and Mark Yudof, former president of the University of California, recently founded the Academic Engagement Network, which enlists faculty members on campuses throughout the US as allies in the battle against BDS. More than 200 have enrolled so far, and Waltzer and Yudof hope to form a nucleus of pro-Israel faculty on each campus.
It has been surprisingly easy to recruit faculty, even in the sciences, law and medicine, says Waltzer. “Especially the older tenured faculty has reached their fill with stuff. A number of people said they have been waiting for this and say, ‘I’m fed up, we have to do something.’” Although there is consensus about the significance of the problem, there is disagreement about whether BDS is a passing fad or here to stay.
Waltzer believes it will run its course and peter out. “I think there is a sell-by date sticker on it, but I’m not sure how close we are to that,” he says.
Rossman-Benjamin, however, worries it will get worse. “Right now, it’s bad but it’s going to get far worse to the point where there will be real physical violence on campus. In my opinion, that day is not far away,” she says, worrying mostly about the students.
“The clear and present danger is not only for the safety of Jewish students, but also for their souls,” she says. “It is difficult to be Jewish and they have to turn off their identity in the critical years when students form their identities. And some go over to the other side. We are losing a whole generation of Jewish students to this conflict.”