Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Nothing Went On At Fresno State

Last year, I blogged about an emergent controversy at Fresno State, where a faculty member alleged that a Middle East Studies search was canceled due to external "Zionist" pressure. Her claims quickly got substantial attention amongst the usual suspects -- JVP put together a condemnatory letter that quickly amassed 500 signatures -- but there was a crucial component to the case that remained missing.


Like, any of it.

The Fresno State administration consistently maintained that the search was suspended due to procedural problems; reporters who contacted the local Jewish community found nobody who had even heard of the search, let alone organized against it. Against that, those crying Zionist sabotage were left stringing together a few stray (and unattributed) comments allegedly made by some skeptical faculty members expressing concern.

So at the end of the day, was there any "there" there?

Fortunately, Northwestern University Law Professor Steve Lubet took the time to made and wade through a FOIA request for the relevant records that could answer that question. And it turns out that the University's denials were completely, absolutely, and 100% justified. The search was canceled because the finalists were all social scientists, but the position was going to be housed in a humanities department which didn't want to add faculty from outside its discipline. It was that mismatch which caused the search to be delayed a year (presumably so the parameters of the position could be realigned with the areas of specialization of the most interested candidates). Not a single document revealed any contact, let alone "pressure", from Zionist or Israel-advocacy organizations -- leading the President of the Faculty Senate to flatly declare (in an internal document) that the original complaining faculty member who made the allegations was simply "lying".

One hopes that puts this matter to bed. But it is fair to question how this "controversy" exploded in the way that it did. I wrote at the time:
Abba Eban once famously quipped that "If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions." So too, it seems, that if JVP circulates a letter saying Fresno State was devoured by a hellmouth and Israel had summoned it, it would amass 500 signatures within the week.
Lubet uses this to coin the term "Occam's BDS razor": the simplest explanation, anytime anything on campus doesn't go precisely the way pro-Palestinian advocates would like, is the interference of nefarious pro-Israel lobbying. We can see how that mentality shook out at Fresno both "vertically" and "horizontally". "Vertically", a few offhand remarks that were critical of the search proceedings got elevated to cases of "harassment". And "horizontally", these few remarks were roped together to form the locus of an imagined conspiracy of intimidation against the entire search. The ease at which these jumps are made is itself illustrative of antisemitism in its structural dimension -- even the tiniest shreds of Jewish public or private discourse immediately metastasize into dark threats of domineering power. Such moves, I have to think, wouldn't fly (or wouldn't fly as easily) were they not so easily slotted into the grooves of antisemitic discourse.
Lubet concludes similarly: the fact that the allegation of Jewish interference was taken as gospel with virtually no evidence whatsoever, coupled with the (perhaps more alarming, though less surprising) fact that none of the bodies which leveled the accusation at Fresno State have shown any interest in even reviewing the documentation showing that the claim was groundless, is properly thought of as a manifestation of antisemitic conspiracy theorizing.

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