SFSU dean: Near Eastern studies could ease tensions

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Just back from his first trip to Israel, a San Francisco State University dean plans to create a new curriculum aimed at improving stormy relations between Jewish and Palestinian students.

D. Phillip McGee, dean of SFSU's College of Ethnic Studies, wants to formally propose a Near Eastern studies program sometime during the next school year.

"I now see that it's needed," he said.

McGee hopes the study program would help prevent the frequent and, in his opinion, often uninformed, confrontations that erupt outside the classroom.

The Jewish community's preliminary reaction to McGee's proposed program is mixed, ranging from enthusiasm to skepticism.

McGee was inspired to create the program during his trip to Israel last month. He was one of 16 non-Jewish political, civic and academic leaders taking part in an annual tour sponsored in part by the Jewish Community Relations Councils in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. The other sponsor, Project Interchange of the American Jewish Committee, focuses on sending non-Jews to Israel for educational seminars.

Two years ago, San Francisco State began offering a Jewish studies program under the College of Humanities. Palestinian students have been asking for their own ethnic studies program for several years. But McGee put them off because he wasn't sure what he would be agreeing to.

"My own lack of information pushed me not to move on it," said McGee, who has headed the College of Ethnic Studies for 15 years.

During the trip, he had an opportunity to meet with a wide range of individuals, including Palestinian activists, Druze villagers, West Bank settlers and Ethiopian immigrants. As a result of this intense immersion, McGee realized he needed to take the Palestinian students' request seriously.

"I can see there needs to be the demonstration of balance in the university," he said.

McGee also credits Rita Semel, tour leader and a Project Interchange consultant, with providing a vision of how a Near Eastern studies program could examine some of these Palestinian issues, in the context of a broader view of the region.

So far, McGee has no specific ideas either about the curriculum's makeup or about which college would house the program. But he hopes communication between Palestinians and Jews would improve as they learn about each other's history and culture. He also believes many students could benefit from some basic facts about the region.

"The opinions of many of them are not based on information and knowledge," he said.

Palestinian and Jewish students at SFSU have been at odds for years. One of the most recent confrontations took place at an Israel culture fair set up outside the student union. During the May event, Palestinian students drew symbols equating Stars of David with swastikas and wrote "Zionism equals Nazism" on the plaza's pavement.

Semel, who is also former executive director of the S.F.-based JCRC, says a Near Eastern studies program could minimize ethnic polarization at San Francisco State.

"I support anything which opens up education for people. I think ignorance is one of the greatest instigators of misunderstanding," she said.

Semel plans to work through the JCRC in order to keep the ball rolling. She is hooking up McGee to William "Ze'ev" Brinner, a retired professor and former head of U.C. Berkeley's Near Eastern studies department.

Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, director of SFSU's Jewish studies program, said he believes McGee's "heart is in a really good place" and agrees that Near Eastern studies could create bridges between Palestinian and Jewish factions.

"I think he's on the right track," said Eilberg-Schwartz, who has expressed interest in collaborating on the program.

But he warns that faculty members would have to be willing to interact with one another. In addition, he said, the program's chief administrator would need the "right vision" and the desire to focus on community-building.

Two other Jewish leaders on campus are slightly less optimistic, saying they're not sure a new study program would improve the situation.

"I think it could go either way," said Orit Abramowitz, new administrator at SFSU's Hillel.

The success of a Near Eastern studies program would depend on its staff and curriculum structure and whether it would include conflict resolution — a necessity, in her view. Instead of easing problems, she said, Near Eastern studies could create more tension if students end up arguing over the types of courses offered and the content of classes.

Student Brad Weinberger, president of the Zionist Action Committee, is even less optimistic.

He doesn't believe Near Eastern studies would curtail those students who lead anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic demonstrations on campus. And he thinks such a curriculum would likely end up biased in favor of Palestinians.

"It's hard to find people who are objective on this topic — on either side," added Weinberger, who will start his senior year this fall.

Though Semel said she can also imagine various pitfalls, she'd rather focus on the positive potential of a Near Eastern studies program.

"It's sure worth a try," she said.