Professors Spin Antisemitic Conspiracies at Cal State-Fresno
California State University, Fresno. Photo: fresnostate.edu.California State University, Fresno (CSUF) is the last place that one would expect conspiracy theories about Jewish power to proliferate — because Jews make up less than one percent of Fresno’s population. But leave it to the academic world to provide fertile ground for this ugly trope.
It began last year, when CSUF sought to hire someone for an endowed professorship to be named after the late Columbia University professor Edward Said. When the hiring committee failed to appoint one of the final four applicants — all of Middle Eastern heritage — and CSUF canceled the search, an acrimonious battle ensued.
It didn’t take long for anti-Israel CSUF professors to push the antisemitic canard that Jewish faculty members and outside groups had interfered in the hiring process based on the job candidates’ ethnicity.
Joe Parks, the Equal Employment Opportunities representative on the search committee, told the Fresno Bee, “The search was canceled because when the finalists came to campus, the Jewish faculty complained.” Elsewhere, Parks singled out “the Jewish community” as being responsible for the school’s failure to hire one of the applicants.
In solidarity with Parks, Vida Samiian, the semi-retired director of CSUF’s Middle East Studies Program and dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, quit. “I have decided to resign in objection to the unethical and discriminatory cancellation of the Edward Said Professorship,” she wrote. “The administration carried out the vicious and discriminatory attacks launched by Israel advocacy groups against the search committee and the four finalists who were of Middle Eastern and Palestinian ethnicity [emphasis added].”
Samiian refused to offer evidence of these “attacks.” Yet — based merely on hearsay — she impugned Canary Mission, an organization that documents “the people and groups that are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on college campuses in North America.”
Meanwhile, the university unequivocally denies the charges that outside pressure affected the hiring decision, and said that administrative, rather than political, reasons were responsible for the cancelation of the professorship. According to CSUF President Joseph Castro, the new faculty member was to be partially assigned to the Department of Philosophy, but the search committee was not represented or elected by that department. He cited the participation of an “unauthorized party” in the committee’s deliberations as a further violation of policy.
CSUF provost Lynnette Zelezny confirmed that “the university was never pressured by any individual or group to cancel the search based on candidates’ ethnic background or political point of view,” nor was it “exposed to any pressure from any source at any point in time.”
This statement was backed by Jewish leadership throughout the Fresno region. As reported by the Jewish News of Northern California, “Leaders at all of the city’s major Jewish institutions dispute the allegations. They said they were unaware of the search committee until reading news articles about its cancellation.”
One of those interviewed, Ephraim Hajdis, president of Congregation Beth Jacob in Fresno, pointed to Samiian’s “track record of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel activism,” which includes organizing the libel-filled 2003 “Palestine Day” on campus; inviting rabidly anti-Israel historian Ilan Pappé to CSUF in 2012; and endorsing the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (which, not coincidentally, has called on CSUF to resume its search without “Zionist interference.”)
As further evidence of Samiian’s lack of credibility, her signature appears on an open Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) letter alleging that CSUF’s decision was based not “on the pretext of procedural concerns, but in fact in response to pressures from Israel advocacy groups.” The letter goes on to blast the University for supposedly making a “discriminatory presumption that a focus on Palestine in a Middle Eastern Studies department would somehow negatively impact the ‘Jewish community.’”
That the signatories to JVP’s letter include the most virulent anti-Israel and, in some cases, antisemitic professors from the field of Middle East studies contradicts JVP’s claim. Among them are the American University of Beirut (AUB)’s Steven Salaita, UC Berkeley’s Hatem Bazian, San Francisco State University’s Rabab Abdulhadi and Princeton University’s (ret.) Richard Falk.
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) jumped on the “discrimination” bandwagon, while wisely avoiding the antisemitic conspiracy-mongering afflicting its cohorts. In an open letter to Castro and California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White, MESA cited Parks’s claim that “the administration ‘caved’ to racism.” As proof, the organization apparently relied upon reports from “search committee members” of “inappropriate and prejudicial comments from their CSU Fresno faculty colleagues and emeriti.”
What’s truly prejudicial is the assumption running throughout this manufactured controversy that the Said chair should be filled only by an applicant of Middle Eastern background. In contrast to the modern academic mantra that prioritizes race, creed and ethnicity, what is key in any academic appointment is education, intellect and integrity. To argue otherwise it to favor advocacy over scholarship.
Furthermore, there is no evidence of outside pressure on CSUF from “pro-Israel advocacy groups” and the “Jewish community.” If those making such allegations have a case to make, then they need to make it. Instead, they are exhibiting the very bigotry and deceit that they claim to oppose. They are political activists, not scholars, and in their reaction to the administrative nixing of the appointment, they have shown their true character.
Cinnamon Stillwell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the West Coast representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She co-wrote this article with Campus Watch Fellow Michael Lumish. The proprietor of Israel Thrives, he holds a Ph.D. in American history from the Pennsylvania State University and has taught at Penn State, San Francisco State University and City College of San Francisco.