Genshaft allies cite her religion in Al-Arian case
By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer
In the newspaper stories and court papers filed in the ongoing battle between the University of South Florida and Sami Al-Arian, she is known simply as USF president Judy Genshaft.
But to an increasing number of people following the controversy, she is much more than that.
"The Jewish president of the University of South Florida, Dr. Judy Genshaft, is under pressure to reinstate a known terrorist who she suspended after he appeared on Fox's Bill O'Reilly show. . . ," reads a letter attached to an Internet petition and circulated among Web sites run by synagogues and Jewish advocacy groups. "Please sign and forward this to as many of your friends as possible, they do not have to be Floridians to care about this!"
When they were done, 15,000 petitions were submitted. It is impossible to tell how many of those were the result of the plea to the faithful.
Anyone who has followed the eight-year saga of Al-Arian and USF is aware that he is a practicing Muslim. But in the two years since Genshaft became USF president, her religion has received virtually no attention.
That could change.
As USF seeks a judge's blessing to fire Al-Arian, the university is continuing a slow march toward proceedings in which Genshaft's faith could become an issue.
For while the university is asking a court to determine that Al-Arian's constitutional rights would not be violated by his termination, his contractual rights may be settled in a different proceeding.
Should Genshaft get a court's permission and then fire Al-Arian, she would almost certainly face an immediate grievance from the faculty union.
"One of the things that grievance might allege is discrimination based on religion. If discrimination becomes an issue, then the motivation for that is relevant," said Roy Weatherford, president of USF's faculty union. "I'm afraid that we're going to reach the point where that could become part of a legal case."
Genshaft, who sits on the board of a family foundation that contributes thousands annually to Jewish causes in her hometown of Canton, Ohio, and owns development bonds in Israel, said Friday that her religion has no bearing on the Al-Arian case.
"That was never a part of this," Genshaft said. "Absolutely not."
Al-Arian, a Palestinian born in Kuwait and educated in Egypt, became a permanent resident of the United States in 1975 and was hired by USF in 1986 as an assistant professor of computer science. He was active on campus in Palestinian causes.
That activism became nationally known in 1994, when a Public Broadcasting Service documentary alleged that Al-Arian was involved in supporting terrorism against Israel. Several newspaper articles later, it was revealed that Al-Arian was under federal investigation as a possible fundraiser and organizer of Middle East terror groups.
A three-month investigation by a lawyer hired by USF found no evidence to support the charges and the controversy briefly faded.
On Feb. 23, 2001, Genshaft was inaugurated as USF's sixth president. Norman Gross was there.
Gross, head of a group based in Palm Harbor called Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting (PRIMER), is a retired professor from the University of Rochester. He represented that school at Genshaft's welcoming ceremony. At the reception that followed, he pulled her aside.
"I was introduced to her in-laws, the Greenbaums, so I knew" that Genshaft was probably Jewish, said Gross, whose group advocates fairer treatment of Israeli causes in the media. "I said to her that she had a problem on the campus, Al-Arian. I said I think that you should look into his activities. Maybe it was chutzpah on my part, but I didn't think it was out of line."
Genshaft, who does not recall that conversation with Gross, said she was already aware of the Al-Arian controversy. Someone, she can't remember who, sent her a packet of newspaper clippings about the professor between the time she was chosen USF president and her arrival.
Gross kept up the pressure.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, attention was once again focused on Al-Arian. The professor went on the O'Reilly Factor television program, and the controversy was renewed. Amid a public outcry, and concern about the university's ability to raise money if USF gained a national reputation as "Jihad U," Genshaft suspended Al-Arian from his job, then moved to fire him.
Gross started a petition. Posted on Feb. 22, 2002, on the Tampa Bay PRIMER Web site (www.tampabayprimer.org), it says:
"While we uphold the liberties in our Bill of Rights, we feel that Sami Al-Arian continues to manipulate them. . . . And he has single handedly caused the shameful label "Jihad University" to be bestowed on the campus."
Links to the petition began to appear on several Web sites devoted to Jewish and Israeli causes. Among them was a Web site called USAJewish.com, which claims 12,000 subscribers and 200,000 page views per day.
But on that site, and elsewhere, the petition was introduced by the anonymously penned letter referring to the "Jewish President" Genshaft.
"We need to stand up to the misinformed pressure groups and support Dr. Genshaft's position," reads the letter, which was sent along through e-mail chains and contains a link to the Tampa Bay PRIMER petition. "We have developed an Internet petition that we hope you could circulate among your members in the hopes they will sign it and forward it to their e-mail friends across the nation."
The signatures poured in to PRIMER and were presented to Dick Beard, chair of the USF board of trustees.
Gross said he was pleased by the number of signatures. But he said he didn't know about the link to Jewish sites on the Internet, or the mention of Genshaft's religion in connection with the petition drive.
"Oh, no, no, no. I've got to tell you that that is not something that we would have wanted," Gross said. "I certainly don't want to label Judy Genshaft as the Jewish president of USF. I don't think that is helpful."
Al-Arian said he has known for years that Genshaft was Jewish. He thinks it was mentioned during interviews she had with the faculty before she was chosen as president.
But the embattled professor, who remains on paid leave from his job while the court case is pending, said he has never made an issue of Genshaft's faith.
"Because I don't want to make baseless accusations that someone's religion or ideology is influencing their actions," Al-Arian said. "I don't have any evidence that she is doing any of this or taking any of these actions because of her religion."
Among the reasons Genshaft has stated for firing Al-Arian is his statement "Death to Israel," made at a December 1988 meeting of the Islamic Concern Project Inc. Al-Arian says it was rhetorical speech, not intended to literally encourage the death of anyone in Israel.
Genshaft is one of three family members on the board of the Genshaft Family Foundation, a nonprofit corporation based in her hometown of Canton, Ohio.
The foundation was created after Genshaft's father, Arthur Genshaft, died in 1979. He was the former president and chairman of the board of Superior's Brand Meats and president of Sugardale Foods in Ohio. He was also president of a Canton synagogue.
Tax returns for the foundation for the years 1998, 1999 and 2000 show that it gave more than $100,000 in each of those years to Jewish causes. The bulk of that money went to the Canton Jewish Community Federation, which then distributes the money to various Jewish charities in the Canton area.
The tax returns also show that the foundation has a $10,000 stake in bonds from the Industrial Development Bank of Israel. That bank, based in Tel Aviv, uses money from bondholders to loan to industries considering investment in Israel.
Genshaft, who gets no personal benefit from the foundation, said she did not know about the IDBI bonds until Thursday, when a St. Petersburg Times reporter asked her staff about them. The investment predates her membership on the Genshaft Family Foundation board, and she said it has no impact whatsoever on the decisions she has made in the Al-Arian case.
"Absolutely not," she repeated.
Al-Arian, who until Friday was unaware of the Industrial Development Bank bonds and the charities associated with the Genshaft Family Foundation, now wonders.
"It raises the question of whether her judgment is tainted by her ideology, by her affiliations," Al-Arian said. "Even if she says that it doesn't, you still have the appearance that there is a conflict there."
Thor Halvorssen, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has been backing Al-Arian's right to academic freedom in the USF case, disagreed. He said Genshaft's religion, her charity choices and her foundation investments should have no bearing on the controversy at all.
"It is completely irrelevant to me," Halvorssen said. "It does not represent to me something that raises eyebrows at all."
Bruce Rogow, a South Florida attorney representing the USF trustees in the suit against Al-Arian, said that the investment and the foundation ties were no reason for Genshaft to step aside in deciding the Al-Arian case.
"There is no basis now, nor will there be at any time for her not to make the decision," Rogow said. "She will make the decision."
-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
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