Positive Picture at University Goes Untold

It has been a great year in Jewish studies at San Francisco State University (SFSU). The program enjoys surging enrollments.

A comparative religion course on Judaism, Christianity and Islam fills to capacity with representatives of all three faiths. Jews and non-Jews sit together and debate the question of intermarriage in a class on the Jewish family. For the first time ever, students can now graduate with a major in modern Jewish studies.

These positive developments will likely surprise many observers, especially in the wake of international media coverage that has focused on several high-profile anti-Semitic incidents at SFSU. These accounts have sensationalized extremists at the cost of a more nuanced and accurate understanding of campus life.

When an e-mail describing events at an Israel rally raced around the country last spring, news organizations began a journalistic version of the old schoolyard game of telephone, with each telling of the story even more dramatic than the last.

A student-led Israel program quickly became a pogrom. A bitter, but nonviolent altercation degenerated, according to news reports, into fists flying.

Major newspapers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Jerusalem picked up the story. Internet Web sites posted the e-mail, while Jewish magazines reprinted the story, with their own analysis added, in the months that followed.

The descriptions proved so negative that a colleague with scholarly expertise in American journalism told me that he imagined lawlessness throughout the campus, and a Jewish leader suggested that I carry a Smith & Wesson revolver to protect myself.

As alarming as this and other events have been, they are not the greatest campus threat. At SFSU, much of the public perception of Jewish life has been defined by the deplorable acts of a few, while a host of impressive stories have not been told.

Extremists will always seek our attention and exploit it for their own ends. We will have suffered a worse defeat if we allow these incidents to define our larger understanding of the university or our place in it.

While last May’s high-profile confrontation between Jews and Palestinians captured the public’s imagination, few heard of a decade-old, student-initiated Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group. Organized by a Palestinian American graduate student and her Israeli American friend, the SFSU Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue invites Palestinians and Jews to "listen to all narratives, overcome stereotypes, [and] see each other’s equal humanity."

Many of the fears elicited by the news coverage of last spring’s contentious rally could have been eased had readers known about this effort for deeper understanding.

Last February, as part of the university’s commitment to a year of civil discourse, three leading Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals flew from Israel and the West Bank to offer their assessments of the conflict. A former adviser to the Israeli foreign minister, a consultant to Israel’s negotiating team and the executive vice president of Bethlehem University engaged the audience and one another on the prospects for peace in the region.

Without political vitriol, they presented a variety of perspectives and understandings. Members of the panel remarked that such a dialogue could not have occurred in the Mideast.

It was the invitation to speak at SFSU that brought these communal leaders together. The university, far from causing intragroup discord, created an impressive opportunity for regional leaders to engage one another in constructive debate.

SFSU, like so many universities, offers the opportunity to interact with people of diverse backgrounds. This came home for me when I befriended SFSU’s first-year professor of German language and literature.

When I learned that the Jewish studies program would receive a copy of the Nuremberg Trials transcripts, I got on the phone to my German-speaking friend to ask him if he would survey the volumes with me.

Together, we struggled to unseal the boxes and remove the 40 books inside. He opened one of the transcript proceedings and in a powerful and chilling moment, recited testimony. Hearing those words, in perfect German, haunted me.

After he translated the passage into English, we began what has become an ongoing dialogue of our own. He shared his own struggle with Germany’s past and the ways he has tried to create reconciliation among his generation of Germans and Jews.

I observed that a mere 60 years after World War II, the two of us could sit together and study a document from the worst moment in our collective histories.

Stories such as these abound in the university. It is a place where countless interactions help people come to understand one another in profound, new ways.

During the years to come, there is sure to be more bigotry from ideologues intent on abusing the pluralist spirit of the university. But they should not enjoy the ability to define the university, its principles or the beliefs of those who teach and learn there.

Perhaps, in fewer than 60 years, a young Palestinian and Jewish scholar can sit and learn together, as well.

Marc Dollinger is acting director of Jewish studies and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman chair in Jewish studies and social responsibility at San Francisco State University.