Last year, California State University at Fresno halted a search to fill a newly created professorship in Middle East Studies, named after the late professor and pro-Palestinian apologist Edward Said. In response, an emerita faculty member, Vida Samiian, abruptly resigned the committee in protest, citing 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.” The anti-Israel organization Jewish Voice for Peace quickly produced a petition with 500 signatures condemning the university’s action, and the Middle East Studies Association, a group called the Islamic Human Rights Commission, and a few others joined in. But the decision to suspend the search, which, contrary to allegations was not canceled, and in fact will soon be resumed, had nothing to do with Israel or politics, and everything to do with a struggle over departmental turf, as Steven Lubet explains:
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. 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. . . . The four finalists, however, were all social scientists. . . . It was this distinction, and not the ethnicity or specific scholarly interests of the finalists, [as Samiian alleged], that ultimately frustrated the search. . . . The details surrounding the search suspension were fully known to Samiian, who was copied on most of the internal correspondence. . . . 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.