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November 19, 2004 :: No. 90

Students Developing Peace Plan as Part of Arab-Israeli Conflict Course

“In my family, we did not talk about how my parents arrived in America — only about where they came from,” said George Giacumakis, professor of history and director of Cal State Fullerton’s El Toro Campus. “My father came from Crete, and my mother came from the Sparta area of Greece — but we have no record of how it was they entered this country. Perhaps they entered legally or perhaps they didn’t. We will continue to conduct research, even if we only have limited information.”

So what does this have to do with the upper-division history course, “Arab-Israeli Conflict,” that he teaches?

“It’s the first lesson,” says the historian with a smile. “To understand the Arab-Israeli conflict, you need to understand the emotion and history behind immigration. It’s all about who has the legitimate rights to an area. Is it those who were there first? Those who are current caretakers? And, more importantly, who decides who is right? By making it more personal — students write their own immigration history — students often have a better understanding about how some of these issues arise.

“The purpose of looking at their own histories helps students understand the positions of both sides,” he adds. “I have them imagine that a neighbor moves into their house or the house owned by a grandparent. How would that make them feel?”

Students in Giacumakis’ class are asked to describe their own family histories, with particular attention to how they arrived in California.

“I follow that up by asking, ‘What gives you the right to live here?’” he says. “Some have families who lived here for decades. Others are new to the area. Often the responses I receive are, ‘Well, I’m a citizen and it’s my right to move here.’ But yet, if we go back a few hundred years, this area was part of Mexico. We are a land of conquests. We have historically taken over areas that belonged to others. Does that make it ours? Theirs? Who decides?”

As part of his class, students are required to write a proposed peace plan for the controversial Israeli-Palestinian-Arab conflict.

“Many students come in with very strong views and opinions on the conflict. My job is to challenge those views and make them deal with them from a position of logic,” says Giacumakis.

He strives to make students aware of their preconceived biases and be understanding of those with different positions.

“We look at the histories and culture of Palestinians and Arabs, as well as Israelis. We study Middle Eastern systems of law—ancient to Islamic law.

“Then, we research the past peace proposals over the decades. The last three have failed. So we look at the reasons why they might have failed. Frankly, it is often a very frustrating process for the students,” he admits.

“These are complex problems and there aren’t easy solutions. Both sides have legitimate claims. My job is to make students understand these claims and work toward a mutually beneficial solution.”

Students also pay close attention to what’s currently happening — not only in the Middle East, but also in the world community — and how that affects Middle Eastern politics.

“For instance, we spent half of the class last week talking about Yasser Arafat’s death, and what this might mean in relationship to the Palestinian people and the peace process,” says Giacumakis.

“Another example: the European Union recently condemned Israel for building the fence,” he notes. “I’m not sure if building a fence is the right strategy or not, but it is a little disingenuous of Europe to condemn it when they themselves are building fences against some Eastern European nations to keep illegal immigrants from streaming into Western Europe.”

Students bring these topics to class, where they are discussed and used as background for developing their own peace proposals.

“My goal is to have the students develop their knowledge about the Middle East, be able to analyze situations from a point of logic, and recognize the realities they must address.”

Media Contacts: George Giacumakis at 657-278-4374 or (949) 936-1605 or
Valerie Orleans, Public Affairs, 657-278-4540 or