S.F. State to get new Israel studies professorship

A permanent professor of Israel studies will soon join San Francisco State University’s Jewish studies program, making it the only Bay Area university to have such a full-time scholar on staff.

The new position was created thanks to an endowment of $3.75 million from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund — the largest endowed chair ever received in the California State University system.

“The current state budget is coming down enormously hard on education, and particularly on the California State University system,” said Fred Astren, director of the Jewish studies program. “It would simply be impossible to move forward in Israel studies without this gift.”

The new position also will transform the Jewish studies program into a full academic department within the university. “It’s a matter of status and prestige that we’re happy to rise to,” Astren said.

Israeli studies is an emerging field of academia that embraces a variety of disciplines. Like American studies, Israel studies looks at the nation through its history, politics, language, culture, art, socioeconomics, religion, ethnic makeup, international relations and modern society.

“You can approach Israel in two ways,” Astren said. “One is to teach the conflict. The other is teach about a society, a normal place where people live lives. As an academic, you have a responsibility to both approaches. It is intellectually dishonest to choose one and ignore the other.”

There are nine American universities with endowed professors of Israel studies; S.F. State will be the 10th. There are also permanent professorships in Toronto, Sydney, Calgary and Oxford. Dozens of other universities have visiting professors who teach Israel studies, including U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University.

The S.F. State Jewish studies program currently has three full-time professors, including one who also is endowed by the Goldman Fund. The organization also put up the money for a two-year visiting professor of Israel studies, a position currently held by Uri Bar-Joseph, an Israeli.

Given the history of vociferous Jewish-Palestinian dialogue on campus, S.F. State may seem a surprising choice for the Bay Area’s only endowed chair of Israel studies.

Richard Goldman said it’s specifically “because of the reputation the university has throughout country as being a hotbed of Palestinian protest” that he got involved with expanding the S.F. State Jewish studies program in the first place.

Goldman described the new Israel studies position as “a bold step forward” that he thinks will help make S.F. State a more tolerant campus.

Astren agrees that an Israel studies professor could help diffuse conflicts that may arise in the future.

“Israel studies will soon be a part of the intellectual conversation of this campus in way it hasn’t been before,” he said.

“The discussion on campus about Israel needs to move from the plaza and into the classroom,” he continued. “That way, students will be exposed to academic and critical approaches to Israel instead of the emotional rhetoric one hears on the plaza.”

Recruitment of the Richard and Rhoda Goldman professor in Israel studies begins in the fall; the appointee is expected to join the faculty in August 2009.

When the chair joins the faculty, the program will expand into a full academic department. As a department, the Jewish studies faculty will be able to offer more classes to Jewish studies students as well as those studying in other departments. Astren also believes the chair in Israel studies will be valuable to the growing Middle East and Islamic studies program at S.F. State.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.