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California State University Halts Middle East Studies Search Due to Outside Pressure

Cal State Fresno has caved in to pressure from pro-Israel groups opposed to its Middle East Studies program.

Members and supporters of the Stop the JNF Campaign, part of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, rally outside the New York Hilton Midtown on September 18, 2016. (Photo: Joe Catron / Flickr)

Outrage is mounting nationwide in the wake of a recent decision by administrators at a California state university to shut down a search for a scholar of Middle East studies in response to pressure from pro-Israel advocacy groups. Not only is this case notable for its violations of academic freedom, but it also repeats what appears to be a pattern nationwide of curtailing Palestinian studies. Speakers programs, classes and academic appointments have been interfered with, solely on the basis of the subject matter and the ethnic and national identities of those involved.

Administrators shut down the hiring process to fill the Edward Said Professorship in Middle East Studies at California State University (CSU), Fresno, on April 26 after pro-Israel advocacy groups allegedly raised an outcry over the candidates being considered by an academic search committee. Vida Samiian, a dean and linguistics professor at CSU-Fresno who directs the Middle East Studies program, told Truthout that pro-Israel advocacy groups began their “campaign of intimidation and harassment” after the shortlist of finalists for campus interviews was announced by the search committee. “Search committee members were pressured and questioned about the four finalists who were of Palestinian and Middle Eastern origin with research focused on the region,” Samiian said.

The administration thereupon cancelled the search, despite the objections of the search committee and those of Samiian. The university cited alleged procedural irregularities (the fact that the academic search committee was appointed by a dean rather than elected and voted in by a department) as reasons for the cancellation, but it had previously approved the search and had expressed no concerns until it received outside pressure. Moreover, Samiian says, the appointment of the search committee by a dean followed precedent followed by interdisciplinary programs like the Middle East Studies program.

After the search was shut down, Professor Samiian resigned in protest, saying that the administration gave in to pressure not to hire in the area of Palestine studies and not to hire Middle Eastern Americans. In her resignation letter, she wrote:

These finalists were, appropriately, Middle Eastern Americans and their research focused on the region, in particular Palestine … it was then that a documented campaign of harassment and intimidation of search committee members began by Israel advocacy groups to influence and derail the outcome of the search and, if possible, prevent it from moving forward…. Such comments and interferences are attacks on academic freedom, integrity of the search process, and the principles of non-discriminatory practice that we uphold in the academy. These were reported to the administration, but instead of addressing the discriminatory nature of these attacks, the administration carried out the request of the attackers and decided to close the search. By doing so the administration chose to implement the discriminatory demands of the Israel advocacy groups and individuals.

The suspension of the hiring process at CSU-Fresno in many ways resembles the infamous firing of Steven Salaita, a case that ended with Salaita being awarded a settlement of $600,000 (plus legal fees) but still without an academic position. In Salaita’s case, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign argued that he was allegedly unfit for the position because of some statements he issued on social media. Meanwhile, at CSU-Fresno, the university capitulated to outside pressure before any offer could even be made.

The decision of administrators at CSU-Fresno came in direct contradiction to the principles affirmed in a resolution discussed and voted on during a May 19-21 convention of the California State Democratic Party — a resolution that is remarkable for its forthright support for a just peace in Israel-Palestine. The statement condemns the Israeli occupation, affirms the Palestinians as full participants in the peace process, and argues for unfettered public discourse on Israel and Palestine.

The text of the California Democratic Party resolution, entitled “Opposing Trump’s Dangerous Provocations; Supporting Peace, Justice and Equality for Israelis and Palestinians — And Robust Discourse in California,” states:

The California Democratic Party favors a US policy that would work through the United Nations and other international bodies as well as with Israel and the representatives of the Palestinian people for a just peace based on full equality and security for Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike, human rights and international law, in line with the words of Sen. Bernie Sanders in his 2016 message to AIPAC: “Peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights and economic well-being for the Palestinian people.”

Crucially, the resolution bears directly on the issues raised by the CSU-Fresno scandal. It states: “And be it further resolved that the CDP rejects any effort to restrict or discourage open public discourse on issues surrounding Israel and Palestine.” But that is exactly what happened at CSU-Fresno.

This strange convergence of events should not be overlooked. Politicians and those involved in mainstream political organizations are usually very reluctant to speak out for Palestinian rights — the fact that Bernie Sanders did so during his bid for the presidency was the exception that proves the rule. Yet here we have the California Democratic Party making this bold statement for Palestinians and for “open public discourse” at the same moment that California state educators are acting to shut it down.

A number of organizations have come forward to protest the cancellation of the search. California Scholars for Academic Freedom, a group of more than 200 academics who teach at over 20 California colleges and universities, is issuing a statement noting the specific academic standards that the CSU-Fresno administration has breached:

By closing the search over the objections of the search committee, your administration implemented the discriminatory intent of the attacks launched by special interest groups. These attacks are in violation of Title VI. They have focused on the Middle Eastern and Palestinian ethnicity and national origin of the finalists.

Jewish Voice for Peace has published a letter of protest that specifically rejects the notion that protecting the “Jewish community” is a legitimate excuse for cancelling the search: “This action appears to be based on a false and discriminatory presumption that a focus on Palestine in a Middle Eastern Studies department would somehow negatively impact the ‘Jewish community.’ It is deeply alarming that academic hiring decisions are being influenced by outside organizations with discriminatory agendas.”

Conservatives often argue against “politicizing” the academy — but their lack of self-consciousness when it comes to Palestine is remarkable. Here we have an authorized search for a specific area of study being squelched at the behest of individuals who object to not only the subject to be studied, but also to the ethnic makeup of those who would teach it. The well-known “Palestine exception” is visible here in stark relief: What other area of study would come under such attacks, and, just as significantly, for what other issue would university administrators be so willing to abrogate their responsibility to their academic communities?

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