Education is antidote for venom at SFSU

San Francisco State University has received a lot of publicity in the last few weeks. While much of it is positive, there is also the familiar story: A hate-monger shows up, waves a swastika, rants about how Jews are vermin and that they control the world, suggests that all whites are devils and that gay people are evil. On the radio and on TV, there is the usual flurry of attention that hate speech brings.

And because public universities in California fought long and hard to ensure free speech, this mean-spirited, terrible speech can be heard.

When Khalid Muhammad comes to town and spills his hate and deceit, it is easy to feel despair. That's the problem: to overcome the sense that nothing will ever change, that racism is insurmountable, that no one can be trusted. But we must overcome this hate. We cannot let it overwhelm us.

If you turned away from the cameras last week, other powerful, steady, quiet voices were on campus the day the hate-monger came, and the next day and the next. In nearby classrooms, students of all ages and backgrounds were hard at work.

More than 40 students took their Modern Hebrew final; 50 took their final in the origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; 30 finished their class in the Hebrew Bible; 20 were working on their term papers in Jewish Ethics and Morality. And more than 150 more, in classes on the Holocaust in the history, literature and film departments, were learning exactly how hating the Jews and denying their humanity cascaded into genocide.

Russian immigrants — graduate students mastering their new language, English — were writing about the oppression they suffered in the past. Philosophy students were opening the pages of the Talmud to prepare for their last class. A lecture series on Zionism was being offered for the first time on the SFSU campus.

With dedication, exacting scholarship and passion, faculty in the quickly growing Jewish studies program are teaching about race, class, gender and power. And students are learning and listening, arguing and analyzing.

A new class about blacks and Jews in the media explored the mythology of hate: how extremists explain complex despair and social upsets by pointing to the Jews, or the blacks or immigrants. We studied how any public fight between blacks and Jews makes the front page again and again. We allowed for the frankest of exchanges in class, for a full airing of all charges.

Stating your opinions directly to the student beside you, not shouting them randomly into the air and walking away, turns out to be very complicated.

Last fall, the class heard from members of The Isaiah Project, a group of African-American and Jewish community leaders who have decided to work together on addressing the relationship between two communities that have much history and many values in common.

Of course, it is harder to hear these voices: Hate makes the headlines; not so the sudden, extraordinary miracles that ordinary friendship can bring. To best combat the blindness of hate, one must really see another human being's story, to see real differences but also the real possibility of solidarity.

Democracy is a lot of hard work. If we want to keep it alive at SFSU, at least three things must happen.

First, we need the strong support of the university administration, and we have it. President Robert Corrigan has been an outspoken and consistent opponent of the words and actions of hate.

Second, the response to hate speech must be far broader. Not only Jewish voices should speak out against it, but also a robust coalition of all churches, as well as gay activists, spokespersons for peace and justice, and all who hate bigotry.

Third, we as a community must never to give up on the 20,000-plus students at SFSU who did not go to hear the hate speech — and the hundreds who wrote, called or spoke to us in the Jewish studies program and Hillel to make sure we knew we were not alone.

Finally, the best answer to hatred must be the knowledge that we will overcome it. And we will teach the richness, complexity and variety of the Jewish experience and the relationship between that experience and the larger social polity we share.

Last week we decided that the best "demonstration" of Jewish resistance to bigotry was a university community that is committed to teaching.