SFSU augments Jewish, Islamic studies programs

For Professor Marc Dollinger, San Francisco State is more than a campus. It's a living laboratory.

A specialist in Jewish social responsibility, the 38-year-old scholar says SFSU's troubled campus mirrors his current area of study. He's writing a book on the "transformation of Jewish liberalism from the Martin Luther King Jr. era through the Six-Day War to the split between Jewish and non-Jewish liberals over Israel, among other issues."

The fifth-generation San Franciscan will teach his first SFSU course in August, and will occupy the university's Richard and Rhoda Goldman endowed chair in Jewish studies and social responsibility.

And, despite queries from concerned friends not unlike those heard by people expressing a desire to travel in Israel, Dollinger knows exactly what he's getting into, and can't wait.

"It is a tinderbox, the situation is ugly and it could be disappointing. But, first of all, for me, SFSU is a homecoming. The Bay Area Jewish community is my home, has been my home, and I always wanted it to be home again," said Dollinger.

"I feel a connection to this place above and beyond an academic job. And if you look at it as just an academic job, this is the most important place for there to be a Jewish studies program. This is the place where we need to be right now. It's not a place to run away from, it's a place we want to run to."

Dollinger is no stranger to anti-Israel or even anti-Jewish activity on campus. He was a pro-Israel activist as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley during the Lebanon War, countering members of the Muslim Student Association who handed out copies of "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" on campus.

In his most recent position at Pasadena City College, Dollinger created a stir when he loudly criticized fellow history professors for presenting a lesson on the Holocaust in a format simulating "The Jerry Springer Show."

Dollinger, who felt his attempts at dissent were stifled by the administration, said he's looking forward to working at SFSU, where President Robert Corrigan has acknowledged a problem on campus, and has set up a task force to address it.

"We can agree and disagree and will agree and disagree, but at least we have someone willing to put a position out there and engage it," he said. "What I like about SFSU, as bad as it all is, is they are engaging this issue."

In addition to Dollinger, San Francisco State announced the hiring of two professors for a future Islamic studies program: Carrel Bertram, a specialist in Muslim art and architecture, and Maziar Behrooz, an expert in 19th and 20th century Iran.

While only announced recently, all three professors were hired months ago, long before a confrontation at a May 7 pro-Israel rally marked a low point in campus relations.

The school hopes to add additional Islamic studies professors in the near future, eventually developing a minor in the field similar to the one offered in Jewish studies. The Jewish studies program has requested the addition of a professor specializing in Israeli history, and it is uncertain if or when that wish will be granted.

Jewish studies professors were enthused with Dollinger's hiring, calling him an excellent fit for the campus and the program.

"I am pleased. I think the program has long needed an American story and I think his work will be interesting," said Professor Laurie Zoloth, the program chair. "It's terrific to have another full-time person join the faculty. This is a young scholar who comes highly recommended and really advances the program."

Professor Fred Astren referred to Dollinger as a "smart guy," who deals in issues "still shaping the world of American Jews and California Jews of today. In terms of the content and focus of what he does, he's very attractive."

Dollinger, who has taught at Bryn Mawr, Cal State Northridge, Long Beach State and Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, sees his position on campus as consisting of three elements: academics, research and community service. As for the community service component, he aims to set up a lecture series, speak with Bay Area Jewish leaders and "open up the campus for people in the community."

"I've been given the freedom to develop Jewish social responsibility as a new academic field," he said. "This is more than a dream come true."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.