More Israel courses on the menu for local universities

When Marc Dollinger joined the faculty of San Francisco State University in 2002, the school offered one class about Israel.

Last school year, it offered eight.

“You need a student base of support to run any new classes — when we saw a 30 percent growth in Jewish studies overall, we felt confident we could expand our offerings,” said Dollinger, a Jewish studies professor at S.F. State.

Similar growth has happened at U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis and Stanford University.

In fact, a new study published by Brandeis University indicates that the past three years have seen a huge increase in the number of Israeli courses offered in universities across the country.

The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis published the report, “Searching for the Study of Israel,” which examined Israel studies programs on hundreds of American college campuses.

The report found that 316 institutions offered 1,400 courses that include Israel studies in some way. Nearly 600 focus specifically on Israel. The courses represent about a 69 percent increase in since the Israel on Campus Coalition last examined the topic in 2006.

Stanford and U.C. Berkeley were among the schools with the largest increase in Israel-focused courses, the report found.

David Biale

In the 2008-09 school year, both universities offered four Israel-focused classes.

These Israel-focused courses stand apart from, say, Hebrew language at Stanford, or Hebrew literature at Berkeley, thought to be the best school in the country for the discipline.

This semester, Berkeley offers 12 courses focused on or containing content related to Israel; U.C. Davis offers four; S.F. State offers three and Stanford offers 11.

“The idea is to think about Israel in a comparative context, and I think it’s great that there is interest from students,” said Vered Shemtov, co-director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and a professor of Hebrew language and literature.

Marc Dollinger

Across the Bay, the growth is a result of two primary factors: increased student interest in the country and region, and support from Bay Area foundations that provides the funding necessary to bring visiting professors from Israel and to expand Israel course offerings.

“We have a particular focus — to move politics off the plaza and turn it into education in the classroom,” Dollinger said. “Given all of the rhetoric outside of the classroom, we want to tell students that they can take courses and study in a disciplined way and get a much better understanding of what’s happening.”

David Biale, a professor in the Jewish studies program at Davis, echoed that sentiment.

“I’ve always found the atmosphere in our courses is a very academic and intellectual one, not a polemic or ideological one,” he said. “Those who have tables on the quad and argue with one another don’t take our classes, maybe because they don’t want to be challenged in their beliefs.”

Most of the new courses at Bay Area universities focus on Israeli cinema (at S.F. State), fiction (at Davis) or other aspects of culture and society, such as music (at Stanford) and media (at Berkeley).

Professors report healthy enrollments. At Stanford, upward of 90 students enrolled in “Terrorism and Security in Israel.” At Davis, a course entitled “The Arab-Israeli Conflict” saw nearly 80 students enroll.

“A majority of our students are not Jewish,” Biale said. “Jewish studies and Israel studies have become very mainstream — a student may take a Jewish history course just like they take Chinese history.”

The growth of Israel studies is the third generational shift within Jewish studies, Dollinger said.

The first generation was the creation of Jewish studies departments in the mid-1970s. Then, in the late ’70s  and early ’80s, departments began offering a plethora of classes about the Holocaust.

More recently, there has been an increased focus on Israel.

Stanford, for instance, has received funding from the Koret and Taube foundations to expand Israel course offerings and Hebrew culture and language classes.

The Jewish Community Endowment Fund and Koret also helped Stanford acquire in 2005 a collection of books, pamphlets, magazines, posters and other documents from Tel Aviv’s development in pre-state Israel.

“The collection increased our interest in presenting and including classes on Israel,” Shemtov said.

S.F. State has received grants from the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the latter of which gave $3.75 million in 2008 to permanently endow a professor of Israel studies.

“The growth of Israel studies has really been a partnership between the larger community and the academy,” Dollinger said.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.