Reconsidering Jewish Studies

New USF Program Mixes Academics with Activism

Three decades ago, the University of San Francisco became the first Catholic university in the United States to have a Jewish Studies program. In 2008, the school made history again by reshaping the minor into the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice, the first formal academic program of it’s kind in the country.

The program, directed by Professor Aaron Hahn Tapper, takes the unusual approach of mixing academics with activism. On a campus with little established pro-peace Israel-Palestine activism, the challenges are daunting.

Despite evolving out of a Jewish Studies program, the new minor offers courses perhaps not typical of a Jewish Studies department. Alongside classes like “Jewish Literature and Culture in 20th Century Europe,” the program also offers a class on religious nonviolence in Israel-Palestine and a series of Arabic language courses. According to the school’s website, the Jewish Studies and Social Justice program, an interdisciplinary minor, “engages students in both theoretical and practical applications of what it means to be a Jewish social justice activist, empowering participants to transform our world into its potential.”

It’s no coincidence that Hahn Tapper is also co-founder of the nonprofit Abraham’s Vision, which engages Jewish, Israeli, and Palestinian university students in dialogue and activism surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Abraham’s Vision’s co-executive director, Huda Abu Arqoub, hopes that the Jewish Studies and Social Justice program will inspire activism and dialogue relating to Israel-Palestine at USF.

“We need to empower [the students] enough for them to affect foreign policy,” Arqoub says.

While San Francisco is a hotspot of pro-Israel and pro-Palestine activism, there is not much cooperation between activists on opposing sides at city campuses. As recently as November, violence broke out between the student groups Zionist Freedom Alliance and Students for Justice in Palestine at an event at nearby UC Berkeley.

At USF, the there is little pro-peace Israel-Palestine activism. “Say Israel-Palestine and the first thing that comes to people’s minds is violence,” Arqoub says. She describes a war-weary mentality among Arab students who don’t want to instigate conflict over distant political controversies. “Many of them have Jewish friends or boyfriends,” she says.

USF Hillel President Stacy Petersohn said that as a club they would be “willing to discuss things with anyone, so long as they were not anti-Semitic or thought that there should be no homeland for the Jewish people at all.”

The spring offerings for Judaic Studies and Social Justice received little attention from USF students. One spring course was in danger of cancellation at the close of the fall semester. Another course, which had been full when offered in previous years, was severely under enrolled. Hahn Tapper says there are currently six students in the minor, which he says is not small by the standards of the school.

Hahn Tapper says he is not discouraged by the course enrollment. He hopes to collaborate with Palestinian faculty member Dr. David Sa’ah to start a student club with Arab and Jewish USF students. “[There is] a strong sense of tangible student activism at USF,” Hahn Tapper said. He is confident that his new academic program and the associated initiatives will be able to re-direct that activism towards the pursuit of social justice in Israel-Palestine.

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