Map reveals divide amongst SDSU students

Prof. Ghassan Zakaria circulated this map in his Arabic 101 course at SDSU.

Prof. Ghassan Zakaria circulated this map in his Arabic 101 course at SDSU.

by Kenneth Leonard

Something has gone horribly wrong in the dispute between Israeli and Palestinian people, and there’s no reason to believe things are going to improve in the foreseeable future.

Two communities, one Arab and one Jewish, both of approximately the same size and number, have equally valid claims to at least part of Israel and Palestine. In 2009, polls showed that 78 percent of Israelis and 74 percent of Palestinians favored a two-state solution, so why hasn’t it happened?

For starters, prominent voices on both sides of the dispute claim to wield an understanding of God’s alleged intention for the land. Take, for example, the Messianic Jewish settlers who believe they have a divine right to certain territories and that by occupying other people’s land, they can somehow summon their mystical messiah—or messiahs, depending on whose tradition they are following.

Of course, on the other side of the equation there are parties who also believe that God is directly concerned with Middle Eastern real estate, but that Zionists have the wrong God. From the perspective of the Palestinian religious elite, God has set the land aside for Muslims only. This is why religious non-Muslims and secularists who live in Gaza can expect to be brutalized, while those who are doing the victimizing maintain a sense of justification.

The region is unstable and exists in a state of perpetual violence largely because the parties of God have played such a large role in the overarching discourse that decides the fate of the Israeli and Palestinian territories. I’m obviously only focusing on one aspect of the conflict, and several other factors complicate the pursuit of peace in that part of the world. My point is that the dialogue is fractured and ineffective for several reasons. All of this religious nonsense is just one set of symptoms that reveal a much larger problem.

As an op-ed writer for a college newspaper, I have as much of a chance of sorting out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as I do of choosing to levitate out of my chair right now and flying around campus—it’s simply not going to happen. However, I feel entirely justified in pointing out that the mechanisms by which any conflict could be resolved are broken.

Successful conflict resolution depends on both sides recognizing each other’s needs while regulating their own emotions and behavior. Unfortunately, for an example of how not to resolve conflict, one needn’t travel to Jerusalem. It’s possible to catch a glimpse of one of the most tragic—and often silly—conflicts in the world right here at San Diego State.

Earlier this semester, a map was distributed in a language class here at SDSU that apparently labeled Israel as Palestine—from the perspective of several students and, eventually, several other members of the local Jewish community. The map was handed out by lecturer Ghassan Zakaria on the second day of class in Arabic 101. In a report by The Aztec last week Zakaria declined to comment on the backlash he’s received because of the map and he clarified that the map was not intended to be a political statement; it was meant to educate students about the location of Arabic-speaking countries. Approximately 15 percent of Israel’s population speaks Arabic, so Israel didn’t warrant a mention on a map of Arabic-speaking nations. In short, the professor didn’t include a non-Arabic speaking nation on a map of Arabic-speaking nations, sparking outrage from the Jewish community.

From an outsider’s perspective—and I, a white dude who grew up on the west side of Chula Vista, am definitely an outsider—the entire controversy surrounding this map is petty and stupid. I certainly don’t mean to trivialize the emotional response many students have had to this map, and I understand what all the fuss is about, but it’s all silly and counterproductive.

This leads me back to methods of conflict resolution, and how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a great example of how not to do things.

“I don’t really believe (the class) was the right place for dialogue. It is a language class, it’s not a class about conflict,” said an anonymous SDSU student who spoke to 10News about the map. This student summarizes what’s wrong with the entire picture. It’s always the right time and place for dialogue. Where in the world is there a more safe place for dialogue to take place than in a university classroom? The problem with this entire picture is that people think it’s never the right place for real, meaningful dialogue. Instead, opposing factions retreat to their perceived safe zones and lob attacks at their enemies while entrenched in dogmatic ideology that helps nobody and accomplishes nothing.

Shortly after Zakaria’s map was distributed, colleagues emailed me links to organizations such as pro-Israel advocacy group Stand With Us and SDSU’s Students for Justice in Palestine, urging me to dive into the fray and sort out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as if that was something I was interested in or capable of. After a week of consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that the map controversy is more sad than substantial, and various pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups’ time would be better spent searching for common ground and breaking down barriers to communication than focusing on trivial nonsense.

In response to the controversy, Stand With Us San Diego regional director Nicole Bernstein said, “This is not only anti-Israel, it’s the elimination of Israel.” Bernstein failed to mention how other non-Arabic speaking nations including Eritrea, Ethiopia and Chad were also eliminated from the map. So far, I have not heard of any African students protesting Zakaria or asking for an apology from the university for being anti-Ethiopian. I also haven’t heard any Eritrean students suggest SDSU faculty is trying to wipe Eritrea off the face of the planet as Stand With Us San Diego did in an email circulated by Aztecs for Israel that alleged SDSU faculty was “calling for the extermination of Israel.” Does anyone really think this type of rhetoric does anything to bring peace to Israel or Palestine?

In the wake of the map controversy, SDSU issued a statement to KGTV, saying “While SDSU encourages scholarly debate and discussion of varying opinions, presenting inaccurate information to students is not acceptable.” Well, I applaud our university for ensuring non-Arabic speaking nations will be included on maps of Arabic-speaking nations from now on. According to, SDSU has also created two scholarships in collaboration with Stand With Us “for the study of Judaism and for study abroad travel to Israel” because of the map controversy.

SDSU has clarified policies and created two new scholarships. The university apologized to students, and I think now is the perfect time to point out that nothing has changed and nothing has been resolved. Is it time for dialogue yet?