In January 2003, as the Marines prepared to storm Baghdad, the war's opponents gathered in a small hall at Cal State Fresno to hear a USC linguistics professor talk about her life as an Israeli and U.S. peace activist. The premise of Hagit Borer's lecture was hardly novel. She believed that Zionism and democracy were incompatible, and that Israel's occupation of the Palestinian West Bank needed to end for peace to begin.
"If you say a Zionist state cannot be democratic, you're immediately branded an anti-Semite," she said. "And if you're like me, you are branded a self-hating Jew."
A small, frail man who had been fidgeting in the front row blurted out in Hebrew, "Yes, that's what you are."
"That's what you are."
Borer tried to take questions from the crowd, but the man persisted. He stood up and began shaking his finger, not at Borer, but at Vida Samiian, the dean of arts and humanities who had organized the event with her husband, economics professor Sasan Fayazmanesh. Both had grown up in Iran and protested against the Shah while students at UCLA in the late 1970s.
"It's all your fault," the man shouted at Samiian. "It's all your fault."
Samiian could hear the indignation in his heavily accented voice, but she had no idea who the man was. John Krebs was a former county supervisor and Democratic congressman who took on corrupt developers and subsidy-grabbing farmers even as his virtue sank his political fortunes. His father had been one of the early Zionists who left Germany in 1933 and settled amid the Arab villages of British-controlled Palestine. When it came time to kick out the British and build a Jewish nation, Krebs joined an underground movement that rejected the terrorist tactics of more radical Jewish groups. After living a half century in the U.S., he didn't support the policies of Sharon and no longer gave money to AIPAC. But the suicide bombings in Israel had bled away any sympathy he had for the Palestinians.
"Palestinian terror, Osama bin Laden terror, I don't see any difference," Krebs would later explain. "I see it as an anti-Western mentality."
The reality, though, was that neither the PLO nor Hamas had ever staged an attack against the U.S. The purpose of the lecture series was to advance the idea that the Palestinian grievance against Israel was about dispossession and statehood, not Al Qaeda-like jihad. But for a speaker to even imply that a Palestinian suicide bomber carried in his heart a different—daresay more authentic—cause was too much to hear in this time, in this place.
After the Borer lecture, Krebs joined forces with Weil, the frog farmer who headed the local AIPAC, and other temple leaders. With a stack of angry e-mails backing them, they appealed to top university officials. President John Welty couldn't very well cancel the remaining anti-war speakers or bar a planned Palestine Day. So, in an effort to mollify those on the right, he freed up $7,000 to bring in somebody with a different view. It was no small get-even that Weil's choice for speaker was Daniel Pipes, the Middle East scholar who had written that "all Muslims, unfortunately, are suspect." True to his word, Pipes had started his own "Campus Watch" website that drew up a list of university professors he believed were terrorist fellow-travelers.
Samiian and Fayazmanesh hoped it would end there, but those on the right wouldn't let go. The high-speed grapevine buzzed with news about "Cal State Palestine" and the two Iranian professors who, depending on the website, were either Marxist or fascist or worn-out paranoids. "One wonders if the farming community of Fresno, California, is well enough represented by this local community of Marxists and anti-capitalists who run with and support the terrorists of the PLO," read the story on FrontPageMagazine.com. Before it was over, Fayazmanesh would also find himself on Sean Hannity's website, beneath the headline "Terrorist Prof at California State University, Fresno."