How A Turf War At Fresno State Turned Into An Anti-Zionist Witch Hunt
Shortly after Jewish Voice for Peace got word of “a truly terrible case of the suppression of Palestinian scholarship,” the coordinator of its Academic Advisory Council fired off an urgent dispatch to scholars around the world. As a prominent organizational supporter of the BDS movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, JVP sounded the alarm that “Pro-Israel advocacy groups” had torpedoed the search for the Edward Said Professorship of Middle East Studies at Fresno State University because all four finalists for the position had focused their research on Palestine. Something had to be done.
JVP quickly gathered over 500 signatories to an open letter demanding the reinstatement of the search. Because the Fresno State administration had acceded to “pressures from Israel advocacy groups” with “discriminatory agendas,” the JVP letter also called on the university to “apologize to the Middle Eastern (sic) Studies Program” and state its “commitment to upholding academic freedom.” It was a compelling cause that was joined by academics from across the U.S. and 21 foreign countries — including such well known figures as Judith Butler, Robin Kelley, and Richard Falk — but there was just one problem. None of it was true. There had been no outside pressure, and claims of discrimination were just a new version of an old conspiracy theory, in which “Zionists” get the blame for anything that goes wrong.
As I wrote in The Forward last June, the Fresno State controversy first surfaced on May 21, 2017, when Vida Samiian, the former dean of Humanities and an emerita professor of Middle East Studies, announced her resignation from the university in protest of the suspension of the Said Professorship search, which had been in progress for the past year. According to the university’s official announcement, the search had been postponed for procedural reasons, including the improper composition of the search committee. Samiian didn’t buy it. Instead, she angrily condemned a “documented campaign of harassment and intimidation of search committee members [conducted] by Israel advocacy groups to influence and derail the outcome of the search,” a charge that was readily accepted by JVP.
In fact, the university’s explanation was accurate. The whole affair was nothing more than a rather mundane episode of internecine faculty politics, which would have been readily discoverable under California’s Open Records Act if anyone had wanted to seek it out. But evidence, much less counter-evidence, was evidently not on the agenda when there were Zionist misdeeds to expose.
Within days of Samiian’s resignation, the Fresno State case had become a cause célèbre. In addition to JVP, the Middle East Studies Association posted a letter of concern asserting “good reasons to believe” that “inappropriate and prejudicial comments [had] unduly influenced the decision to cancel the search” and that the administration had “‘caved’ to racism because the four finalists were of Middle Eastern ethnicity.”
The Islamic Human Rights Commission went further, attributing the cancellation to “strong lobbying from the American pro-Zionist lobby,” and declaring “there is no doubt that the university has caved in to the lobbyists’ objections that all four candidates are of Middle Eastern and Palestinian ethnicity.” California Scholars for Academic Freedom attributed the alleged “egregious violations of academic freedom” to “some ideologically driven Zionist advocacy groups.” And according to the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, the Fresno State “administrators complied with the intimidation by Zionists and the anti-Palestinian/Arab assaults on academic freedom… at the behest of off-campus pro-Israel lobby groups.”
In reality, Zionists had absolutely nothing to do with the suspension of the search, and no lobbying groups seem even to have been aware of it. As is clearly shown in Fresno State’s 407 page file on the search controversy, which I recently obtained through an Open Records Act request, the main procedural problems had been identified over two months prior to the suspension, and they involved nothing more than inter-departmental turf disputes.
When funds had first been solicited for the Edward Said Chair, it was expected that the position would be housed in the Philosophy and Religious Studies department, which is part of the university’s College of Arts and Humanities. The four finalists, however, were all social scientists — two anthropologists, one political scientist, and another with a doctorate in Middle East Studies — whose fields belonged in the separate College of Social Sciences. It was this distinction, and not the ethnicity or specific scholarly interests of the finalists, that ultimately frustrated the search.
While it may seem trivial to outsiders, the question of academic qualification is important to departmental assignments. Over ten weeks before Samiian’s resignation, Dean Saul Jiminez-Sandoval of the College of Arts and Humanities expressed his concern about hiring someone who could not be “housed” in the Philosophy department. A few days later, the chair of the department voiced his own misgivings about candidates, who had “very little connection to philosophy.” “Will the new hire be expected to come to our department meetings?” he asked. Will they have a vote in department policies? Will they serve on faculty committees in our department?” On March 9, the department voted unanimously against accepting “non-philosophy or religious studies faculty into this department,” which had the effect of disqualifying all four finalists.
That created a dilemma for Dean Jimenez-Sandoval. “I’m at a loss,” he wrote, “because I’m trying to find a good place for the candidates.” Efforts were made to house the professorship in either Linguistics or Anthropology, but they came too late and, in any case, would have violated university regulations regarding the formation of the existing search committee. Other options were explored in hopes of saving the search, including bringing the program under the direct supervision of the dean of Humanities — with no departmental home — but that was vetoed by the dean of Undergraduate Studies.
The search was therefore closed for the year — not terminated, as some protesters have assumed — and the finalists were invited to re-apply the following year. Throughout the entire process, the Fresno State administration did not receive a single communication from any outside organization, Zionist other otherwise, objecting to any aspect of the search.
The details surrounding the search suspension were fully known to Prof. Samiian, who was copied on most of the internal correspondence. She explained none of the administrative problems in her public resignation letter, however, insisting instead that the procedural issues were “merely a pretext, and in fact the search was cancelled based on animus towards the national origin, racial and ethnic background of the four finalists.”
Internally, the Fresno State administration reacted to Samiian’s accusations with consternation. “I have seen zero evidence of pressure from any external group to shut down the search,” wrote the president of the Faculty Senate, “and on this at least I am comfortable saying that Vida is lying.”
The JVP signatories were never informed of the actual reasons for closing the search, and neither they nor anyone from the various protesting organizations ever made an effort to find out. The Fresno State file includes no inquiries — by letter, email, or formal Open Records Act request — from any of the groups that accused the university of trampling on academic freedom.
But even without investigation, Samiian’s own statement included enough red flags to alert JVP and the others that she was seriously stretching the truth. Her letter included no detailed support for her claims of “harassment and intimidation of search committee members” beyond a few supposedly “inappropriate comments,” one of which was a modest request, apparently on behalf of some Jewish faculty, to “share with me the deliberations of the search committee.” Samiian also complained that a colleague had declined her invitation to attend a lecture by one of the finalists, asking “Why should I come to listen to a talk about Palestine and Lebanon?” The same person, she added, had “criticized the four candidates’ areas of scholarship.”
It takes a mighty thin skin to regard such comments as harassment. And in the latter case, it turns out that Samiian’s colleague had a legitimate reason for raising questions about the search. As I learned from the Fresno State disclosures, the person mentioned by Samiian was Prof. Sergio LaPorta, who was then the incoming chair of the Philosophy and Religious Studies department. Given the department’s unanimous vote to insist on disciplinary fit, it was completely reasonable – and far from nefarious – for him to question the non-philosophy subject matter of the candidate’s lecture and academic specialization.
In any case, Samiian’s resignation letter described nothing that could be considered an “attack” by so-called Israel advocacy groups, and she only surmised that “the administration, especially the Deans and the Provost, received additional communications against the candidates and the search.” The wholly speculative nature of Samiian’s claims should have at least raised questions before JVP and the others joined her accusations about the “unethical and discriminatory cancellation of the Edward Said Professorship search.” As we now know, however, Samiian’s conjectures were repeated and amplified uncritically, even though they were baseless.
Jews have historically been the target of conspiracy theories, from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in 1903 and still ardently promoted in many places, to today’s internet memes about the secret power of the Rothschild family. In current iterations, unnamed “Zionists” are often the villains of stories about behind-the-scenes control of government, financial institutions, the media, and, increasingly, universities. Some conspiracy theories are descended from age-old prejudices, others are driven by contemporary political allegiances, and many partake of both.
Whatever their form or origin, the conspiracy theories are widespread and persistent. Jewish Voice for Peace, and other groups, jumped predictably to the conclusion that Zionists had been responsible for closing the Said Professorship search, when even the slightest inquiry would have shown the assumption to be false. Even after the unequivocal denials by Fresno State administrators — including President Joseph Castro, Provost Lynnette Zelezney, and Dean Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval — not one organization retracted its accusation of Zionist intervention, or sought further information.
Perhaps most troubling, the protesting organizations now refuse even to look at disconfirming evidence. I have sent multiple emails to officials at Jewish Voice for Peace, the Middle East Studies Association, and California Scholars for Academic Freedom, offering to provide them with the Fresno State file on the professorship search. Any responsible organization — and especially those espousing academic values — would want to review the materials and perhaps retract, or at least correct, their erroneous statements. Regrettably, I have received no responses to my offer.
Despite all accusations to the contrary, “Israel advocacy groups” had nothing to do with the suspension of the Said Professorship search, which will resume, following a short interruption, later this year. Sadly, it appears that anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists will be taking no time off at all.