Foreign Policy Blogs

“Mapgate”? Professor’s Map Leaves Israel Out

"Mapgate"? Professor's Map Leaves Israel Out

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An Arabic-language professor at San Diego State University (SDSU) recently handed out an interesting map of the Arabic-speaking world to students on the second day of class. In it, the territory that makes up the state of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip was labeled simply as “Palestine.” This provoked several students in the class (who apparently were apprehensive to confront the professor directly) to reach out to StandWithUs, an international nonprofit organization that supports Israel.

Within days, both the Office of the President at SDSU and the Chair of the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, Ghada Osman, issued public statements of regret and promised it would not happen again, and the professor, Ghassan Zakaria, apologized to his class and handed out a new map. The new map, which is a copy of The Economist website’s map of the Arab League, labels the West Bank and Gaza as the Palestinian Territories and leaves the rest of the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River unlabeled (as Israel is not a member of the Arab League). The professor hand-wrote Israel on the map to mark this area. Figures 1 and 2 below display the maps that were distributed to the class.

Figure 1: Original map

Original SDSU Map Handout

Figure 2: New map

Revised_SDSU_Middle East Map - with Israel Included

The whole debacle evolved into a mini-scandal. First, a couple local San Diego news stations picked the story up, devoting live segments on their news shows to the controversy, as well as a written pieces on their websites. Eventually, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wrote a piece on it, which was republished in The Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel online newspapers. Other news outlets covered the story as well.

In a written statement on the incident, Department Chair Ghada Osman remarked that,

Prof. Zakaria explained 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, Prof. Zakaria’s aim was then to have the 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.

According to Nicole Bernstein, the Regional Director at StandWithUs San Diego, after receiving the original map several students went to their advisers, and afterwards to StandWithUs. StandWithUs put out a public alert about the situation, after which the statements from the university were issued. Bernstein, who I interviewed for this article, said that the university responded “within 36 hours” and that she was “very impressed” with how the institution handled the situation. She said that she was “very proud” of the students for standing up and risking their grades in pursuit of receiving an apology and a correct map. Bernstein was also very pleased that the university subsequently created two new scholarships, one for Jewish Studies and another for study abroad in Israel, soon after the controversy was resolved.

Yet the SDSU branch of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) was not pleased. In an open letter sent to the SDSU Provost by the group and signed by over a dozen other (mostly student) organizations, SJP wrote that

…it is perfectly reasonable that while teaching a class on Arabic language and culture, Lecturer Ghassan Zakaria would include a view of the Middle East and North Africa aligned with the perspective of most Arabic speakers. It happens that many in the Arabic-speaking world do not recognize the state of Israel, but instead understand the region to be historic Palestine. If one of the aims of such classes is to understand how Arabic speakers themselves view the region, this map will aid students in that understanding. In fact, Mr. Zakaria would be remiss if he did not include this perspective…His right to free speech should not be infringed upon or censored in any way.

The Los Angeles chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a Jewish organization that according to its website “works to achieve a lasting peace that recognizes the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians for security and self-determination” also chimed in with a letter criticizing StandWithUs for brazen intimidation tactics and an overt anti-Palestinian bent.

It may be noted that whatever kind of behavior StandWithUs has engaged in, this still does not obfuscate that fact that the map was inaccurate, as Israel is an internationally recognized country. Nevertheless, Mr. Zakaria certainly did have the right to distribute the original map to his class to show how most Arabic speakers view the region. Yet as evidenced by Osman’s written statement (above), the map was not distributed with any accompanying explanation, and in fact Professor Zakaria agreed that he should have done so. Both SJP and JVP seem to discount the notion that it may be legitimate for some students to feel very uncomfortable receiving a map that labels the entire area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea “Palestine”, especially without any explanation.

Despite the public letters from SJP and JVP, Bernstein reported that StandWithUs had received no negative backlash as a result of its involvement with the incident.

It seems SDSU officials and employees want to put the whole scandal behind them. Two calls to the Office of the President at SDSU did not find anyone willing to speak on the matter. On the first call, the Office of the President’s Chief of Staff, Andrea Rollins, directed me to the Department of Marketing and Communications, which did not pick up numerous calls. An additional call to the Office of the President was handled by a man named Richard, who asked for my phone number and told me that the Department of Marketing and Communications would get back to me. I gave him my number but never heard from the department. There was also no response to e-mails, phone calls, and voice mails left for Ghada Osman and Ghassan Zakaria (using contact information provided on the SDSU directory).



Justin Scott Finkelstein

Justin Finkelstein recently received a Master's degree from New York University in Near Eastern Studies. He has spent most of his academic career and thereafter studying the Arab-Israeli conflict. His Master's thesis explored and analyzed the competing histories of the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem (1947-1949) and the potential for its solution.

He is currently a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia. He has traveled to both Israel and Morocco and has attended the Middlebury Arabic School program.