SAN DIEGO — On Aug 28 2013, a map of the Middle East was handed out to an Arabic Class at San Diego State University. The class is taught by Professor Ghassan Zakaria, a respected professor at San Diego State. The map did not show the state of Israel, but instead, labeled Israel as "Palestine." There was no context, no explanation no discussion to frame the reasons why Professor Zakaria chose to distribute this particular map. Students were very concerned.
Jewish students in the class felt that replacing Israel with Palestine on a map and passing that map out in a public University classroom, supports and even promotes the idea that a Jewish State should not exist.
The right thing to do would be to go to the head of the department and complain about the professor, right? Well, I can tell you from personal experience, students in that type of situation do not want to risk their relationship with their professor, and also don't want to risk their grades, or their educational careers. Most students I know would rather be uncomfortable in a situation like this rather than risk their entire semester or year in order to voice their opinion. However, this time, the students united and spoke up. Instead of staying quiet, we brought the map to a place where they knew we could protest safely, StandWithUs (SWU).
SWU is a 12 year-old international non-profit Israel education organization that supports people around the world who want to educate their campuses and communities about Israel. The StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship, now In its seventh year, selects and trains more than 50 student leaders on different campuses in the US and Canada to educate about Israel and combat anti-Israel rhetoric.
StandWithUs – San Diego regional director Nicole Bernstein immediately alerted the community and posted on her Facebook an Action Alert. A flood of concerned letters were sent to the SDSU administration and the head of the department from individuals and even from professors at other California universities. SDSU's Aztecs for Israel strongly condemned the use of this falsified academic material and demanded a public apology from Zakaria and from the administration. SDSU's ABC affiliate, News10 broke the story that evening.
Thankfully, the university took immediate action. Ghada Osman, chairman of the Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages department at SDSU wrote that Zakaria would replace the map, stating: "Prof. Zakaria explained [to me] that the reason that he utilized the label 'Palestine' was because this map was supposed to reflect the view of Arabic-speakers in the region. After assigning the map, his aim was then to have students get into groups and research the political developments of each area on the map, with the assumption that this would lead to a discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the history of the state of Israel. After our conversation, Prof. Zakaria agreed that it would be more appropriate to discuss the context of the assignment at the outset. He will therefore explain the context and distribute a map that includes labels for members of the Arab League as well as Israel."
On the new map, "Israel" is hand written. He apologized to his class.
StandWithUs gave my fellow students in Professor Zakaria's class a safe outlet to voice their opinion, and mobilized more than 1,000 letters and calls to the university, according to the school's administration. As students, we want to ensure that our professors use material in classrooms that reflects honest and factual information and history.
Nicole Bernstein remarks, "SWU sees these kinds of issues on campuses all over the world, but we have never seen a university jump into action so quickly and so efficiently the way SDSU has; they took this issue very seriously and have done a tremendous job working internally to fix the problem. From our perspective, they are a model for all other universities where students encounter anti-Israel activities on campus."
StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein agreed and added, "We are especially appreciative and impressed by the university's rapid response to the concerns we expressed on behalf of students. We only wish other universities were as responsive to student concerns."
SDSU's administration took the situation one step further. President Elliot Hirschman and Andrea Rollins, Chief of Staff, Office of the President created two programs: the StandWithUs -San Diego State Jewish Studies Scholarship and the StandWithUs – San Diego State Israel Study Abroad Scholarship. This is the first time that any university has set up scholarship funds in partnership with StandWithUs.
To donate to the SDSU StandWithUs Israel funds, go to: http://campaign.sdsu.edu/giving/Default.aspx
Sheli Grumet is a junior at San Diego State University majoring in Communications and Public Relations. She is the vice president of marketing and communications for Aztecs for Israel