The Protocols of the Elders of Fresno
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 substituted for Jews in stories about behind-the-scenes control of government, financial institutions, and the media. Some conspiracy theories are descended from age-old and seemingly ineradicable prejudices, others are driven by contemporary political allegiances, and many partake of both.
It is seldom possible to know when and where such rumors begin, or how they develop into conspiracy theories, but a fascinating example recently emerged at California State University, Fresno. On May 21, Prof. Vida Samiian posted an angry letter of resignation from the Fresno State faculty, complaining that the search to fill the Edward Said Professorship in Middle East Studies had been derailed by "vicious and discriminatory attacks launched by Israel advocacy groups." The unnamed pro-Israel groups had launched a "campaign of harassment and intimidation of search committee members" according to Samiian, aiming to prevent the appointment of any of the four "superb finalists because of their Middle Eastern and Palestinian ethnicity."
Samiian's letter included no factual support beyond a few supposedly "inappropriate comments" from fellow-faculty members, one of which was a non-vicious request to "share with me the deliberations of the search committee." Providing no further details of the alleged "attacks" by so-called Israel advocacy groups, Samiian only speculated that "the administration, especially the Deans and the Provost, received additional communications against the candidates and the search." The Fresno State administration adamantly denied the charges, in strong statements from the President Joseph Castro, Provost Lynnette Zelezney, Dean Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval of the College of Arts and Humanities.
Nonetheless, Samiian's unsubstantiated accusations were soon picked up by critics of Israel, who enthusiastically repeated and embellished them without qualification. A letter circulated by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and signed by over 500 academics, falsely stated that "Israel advocacy groups launched a campaign to cancel the search," and that Fresno State's administration had been "influenced by outside organizations with discriminatory agendas."
Samiian's claim did seem to be corroborated by one Fresno State colleague. Her letter quoted Prof. Joe Parks, the Equal Opportunity representative on the search committee, saying,
As a young man during the 1960s, I am an old Civil Rights fighter and recognize racism when I see it in front of me. I believe the administration 'caved' to racism because the four finalists were of Middle Eastern ethnicity.... I believe the administration violated the integrity of the academic search and the Academic Freedom of Higher Education in the United States of America. It is shameful that we are still fighting racism, bigotry and hatred during this new 21st century. (Capitalization and ellipses in original.)
Parks subsequently added that "The search was canceled because when the finalists came to campus, the Jewish faculty complained." It thus seemed as though Parks, a professor in the school of education, actually knew of some incident of Israel-inspired interference. But that turned out to be untrue.
In an interview with the local news site GV Wire, Parks admitted that he had no first-hand information at all. In fact, he had heard about the alleged intervention – which he attributed to "members of the faculty who are of Jewish heritage [and] members from the Jewish community" – from Samiian. According to GV Wire, "Parks said he heard of the complaints second hand and did not know who exactly they were from." (In 2008, Parks was reprimanded by Fresno State for making "offensive comments in class related to gender, race, national origin, ancestry and religion." In an email, he told me that he could not "name the individuals" who complained about the search, or provide quotes, because "that sets me up for a lawsuit.")
Thus, we have the genesis of the rumor: Samiian shared her unfounded suspicions with Parks, who then repeated them back to her so that she could then cite him for support, all without any actual evidence.
National organizations soon embraced and embroidered Samiian's narrative. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), for example, issued a letter of concern, complaining that "prejudicial and inappropriate comments" had apparently "unduly influenced the decision to cancel the search." In support of its conclusion that "the administration 'caved' to racism," MESA quoted Samiian's letter quoting Parks, which was based in the first place on hearsay from Samiian herself.
As the conspiracy theory ripened, the alleged intra-faculty complaints to unnamed members of the search committee morphed into a story of outside pressure on the upper levels of the university administration. The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) attributed the cancelation to "strong lobbying from the American pro-Zionist lobby," 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." And according to the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), 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."
The beauty of a fully developed conspiracy theory is that virtually everything – including contrary facts and even the complete absence of evidence – can be reinterpreted as confirmation that stealthy forces are operating silently in the shadows. Writing anonymously in the "insurgent" journal Abolition, a self-identified finalist for the Fresno State job conceded that there was no direct evidence of outside pressure to suspend the search, but no matter. In classic conspiracy reasoning, he or she simply cited this as proof of the "Israel lobby's effective but untraceable blacklist." In another bit of intellectual gymnastics, the finalist blamed a conspiracy of silence for the fact that not a single faculty member (other than Parks, and we know where he got his information) has independently confirmed Samiian's account: "perhaps a gag order has been imposed on any faculty contradicting official narrative regarding the search."
In other words, the Zionist lobby is so powerful that it does not even need to do any actual lobbying to get its way; rather, it can exert clandestine control over university administrators solely by virtue of its very existence – furtive and invisible as it may be.
The Fresno story took on ever-new dimensions as it bounded across the Internet. In The Intercept, the Canadian journalist Murtaza Hussein decried "the role played by the website Canary Mission in influencing the search committee." Hussein rightly identified Canary Mission as notorious for smearing pro-Palestinian student activists, but the site – which does use deeply offensive tactics, in my opinion – had nothing to do with the Fresno State search. According to Samiian's letter, one retired Fresno State professor had only "apparently referenced the Canary Mission Website" when complaining about the finalists to an unidentified member of the search committee.
But that's all there was to it: an unverified, offhand comment from a retiree to a committee member, which Hussein then inflated into the "troubling" role of Canary Mission "in influencing" the committee decision. For those keeping count, this is an example of (at least) quadruple hearsay. An unidentified retired faculty member "apparently" mentioned Canary Mission to an unnamed committee member, who then seems to have told Samiian, whose posted letter was read by Hussein, who then reported an exaggerated account in The Intercept. Actually, there were a few more steps, because Hussein also shared the purported Canary Mission connection with JVP's Naomi Dann, and then repeated back her affirmation that "outside pressure from Israel advocacy organizations succeeded in preventing the university from hiring a professor for a position working on Palestine and related issues."
In fact, the Canary Mission site, which profiles faculty members it perceives to be anti-Israel, had no mention of Samiian or anyone connected to the Fresno State search.
Messages relayed in the children's game of telephone become distorted and unrecognizable; messages circulated in the anti-Israel rumor mill become amplified and all too recognizable. I don't expect apologies from Samiian or Parks, and I have not seen any indication that JVP or the many other organizations will retract their condemnations of the non-existent Zionist manipulation of university administrators.
Sad to say, it looks as though the Protocols of the Elders of Fresno will be with us for some time to come.