Versatile historian named first SFSU Israel Studies chair

Though he grew up near Tel Aviv, Israel Studies professor Eran Kaplan takes a dispassionate approach to teaching the history of his homeland. He says he teaches it no differently than he would, say, the history of France.

Objective scholarship is his goal in the classroom at San Francisco State University, where Kaplan has just been installed as the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor in Israel Studies, which is within the Jewish Studies department.

The chair was endowed in 2008 with a $3.75 million gift from the Goldman Fund. Kaplan is the only such professor in the Bay Area. Surprisingly, no other local university, not even U.C. Berkeley or Stanford, has an Israel Studies professor on the faculty.

Eran Kaplan

“I’m hoping to build a program in Israel Studies,” he says, “offering courses, and drawing students from a variety of backgrounds, teaching them about modern Israel.”

His first two offerings are a history of modern Israel and a history of Jerusalem. The latter goes all the way back to the time of King David. The former goes up roughly to the Camp David summit from 2000.

But no further. Kaplan does not want his classes to include what he calls “café discussions on modern affairs. I’m not writing op-eds in the classroom.”

At the same time he concedes Israel Studies is a new discipline. After all, the subject is only 63 years old.

“It’s a new field, a new nation,” Kaplan says. “We don’t have the perspective of the American or French Revolutions quite yet.”

SFSU has a history of strident anti-Israel activity on campus, including a notorious 1995 contretemps over an outdoor mural that depicted Stars of David with superimposed dollar signs — graphics that critics labeled anti-Semitic.

So far, Kaplan has found the campus a welcoming place, his students ready to listen.

“My sense is there is great diversity in the classroom, but they are coming to learn, and they are learning,” he says. “They have to do readings, prepare, look at historical documents. Once you are in a traditional academic setting, you’re in it.”

Kaplan comes to SFSU following a three-year tenure at Princeton University, where he held a similar post. He has also taught at the University of Cincinnati, the University of Toronto and Boston University.

His lectures over the years have included a variety of topics, from Modern Hebrew and Israeli cinema to Jewish Orientalism. He earned his B.A. in history and philosophy from Tel Aviv University in 1994, then focused on the history of modern Zionism for his doctoral dissertation at Brandeis University.

The latter was published in 2005 as a book, “Jewish Radical Right: Revisionist Zionism and its Ideological Legacy.”

He describes his academic perspective as “beyond post-Zionism,” a view that incorporates the (now 20-year-old) revisionist history of the founding of the state of Israel written by Israeli historians such as Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe, into a more contemporary analysis.

“There were interesting post-Zionist debates in the 1980s and 1990s,” he says, referring to various positions on the role that Israeli forces played in the displacement of Palestinian refugees. “I’m trying to contextualize them, and find out why the critique came up in the 1980s. What was it about Israel that allowed it to emerge and why did it come to an end in late 1990s? The other aim is to figure out what will come in its wake.”

He adds that Morris, whose early research debunked the conventional wisdom that Palestinians voluntarily left their villages, has reversed course and is now a severe critic of the Palestinians who once embraced him.

In the months and years ahead, Kaplan says he hopes not only to build on SFSU’s Jewish Studies department, but to also make connections in the broader Bay Area Jewish community.

“This university is very tied in to the community,” he says. “So I hope to be a presence.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.