New Jewish studies head foresees SFSU tensions easing

San Francisco State's new Jewish studies head sees calmer days ahead at a campus long troubled by clashes between Jews and pro-Palestinians.

Fred Astren thinks the ending war in Iraq could spark a new direction in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If that happens, he said tensions could ease at his university and others nationwide.

"I believe for us this could be a good time," said Astren, an associate professor who came to SFSU seven years ago.

Now on a five-month fellowship at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in England, the 50-year-old Astren said he hopes to help move the university "toward debate and dialogue, not confrontation, name-calling."

A specialist in Jews of the Arab world and Islamic history, Astren will return to San Francisco in June.

Describing Astren as an extraordinary scholar with "an almost gentle manner about him," SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan said he expects the new director of the Jewish studies program "will provide solutions and find ways for people to work together."

Astren is replacing Laurie Zoloth, an outspoken professor who left the university in January for a post as an ethics professor at Northwestern University's School of Medicine.

Last spring, Zoloth drew international attention to SFSU when she wrote a widely circulated e-mail that described pro-Palestinians at a May 7 campus rally as "an angry, out of control mob, literally chanting for our deaths."

While acknowledging past tensions on his campus, Corrigan said, "I think Fred will be probably more laid-back, less intense, perhaps."

Interviewed by phone in England, Astren said his academic specialty gives him a unique perspective on the fierce differences that have erupted on the campus grounds.

Besides a goal to "revitalize" the SFSU program and deepen links with the wider Jewish community, he said, "the ideal campus situation would be one where even diametrically opposed views can be heard."

Astren said he is in no position to assess the current climate on campus. But before he left in January, he observed optimistic trends for a more peaceful atmosphere.

He cited a "commitment" from university administrators "to build a campus environment that is safe for all students, where a broad range of opinions can be heard and where people can engage in discussion."

Astren served on the task force for intergroup relations that in December proposed tighter rules governing rallies on campus. The group also suggested establishing an Islamic studies department and hiring an Israeli studies professor.

Corrigan said many of those recommendations had been adopted, and that he hopes funding will be found to hire an Israel specialist for the Jewish studies program.

Acknowledging past incidents of anti-Semitism on his campus, Corrigan nonetheless said, "I think that much of what Laurie had to say was in the heat of the moment and was exaggerated."

Reached in the Chicago area, Zoloth replied, "I would regret that he would think that."

The "events are true," she maintained, saying her e-mail was just one of dozens written by students and faculty about the May 7 clash.

She said she was proud of the work accomplished in her eight years at SFSU and had no regrets "whatsoever" about her e-mail.

She said she left San Francisco for professional reasons, accepting a job that "few in my field would ever turn down."

As for his new role on campus, Astren said he hopes to create a successful "community of learning for Jews and non-Jews."

At SFSU, he teaches a popular course on Judaism, Christianity and Islam that routinely attracts 40 students of many backgrounds each semester. "I think it creates a safe environment for discussing things that otherwise can get out of hand on the plaza," he said.

His approach is to "find ways for debate and dialogue and ways for people to see the other side."

Astren said he is buoyed by efforts of a student-run Israel Coalition, for which he served as a faculty adviser. He also is awaiting the contours of a Bush administration "road map" for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. "It might be that we will see what we've been waiting for all our lives, which is some resolution to this situation," he said.

While in Oxford, Astren is researching a book on the effects of Islam on Jews in the Middle East during medieval times.

A member of Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom, Astren holds a master's degree in Arabic and a doctorate in Near Eastern studies from U.C. Berkeley. Along with Arabic, he is familiar with Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and other languages.

While Astren is away, Marc Dollinger, a professor specializing in ethics and Jewish social responsibility, is serving as the program's acting director.

As of last fall, the program, which attracts 200 to 300 students each semester, began offering a bachelor's degree in Jewish studies.