Consider the maps we use
I always enjoy seeing my kids bring home assignments from Hebrew school, and last week was no exception. On a map of Israel were labeled five major cities whose names the students had to write in Hebrew. For my part, I delighted in reminding my son that we have relatives or friends in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, and near Be’er Sheva. There was only one problem with the map, I noticed. There was no Green Line. So, to the untrained eye, it looked like Israel’s borders span from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
As I often do when I want to tease out a political conundrum, I took to social media. On my public Facebook page, I offered to donate $36 to charity for the first person who can show me a Green-Line-indicated map of Israel currently being used in any Jewish educational setting. Laurie MacDonald Brumberg wrote that a Washington, D.C., Jewish day school has a National Geographic map containing the Green Line hanging in the classroom. Karin Klein of Chicago showed me a Green Line map she said was used at a Schechter day school. And from Gabriel T. Erbs I learned that J Street U has launched an initiative to circulate Green Line maps to educational institutions. Apparently, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs has agreed to champion this among URJ camps and Hebrew schools, according to a March 22 article published on JewSchool by David A.M. Wilensky. Gila Miriam Chait added that Yachad, a pro-Israel, pro-peace group in the United Kingdom, is following suit.
What is at stake in the mapping debate? We all know that Middle East maps are heavily invested with the symbolism of legitimacy and delegitimization. The Palestinians have long been accused of erasing Israel from their school maps of Palestine – both from the Palestinian Authority and from Hamas. An article in the current online Jewish virtual library makes precisely this point. It’s clearly ironic that we are doing the same thing we accuse our adversaries of doing.
Some might argue, however, that since the Green Line is an armistice line, not a border, that there is no need for Israel to include it. It is true that it is not a border, but neither does Israel’s international territory extend eastward from Jerusalem all the way to the Jordan River. The point is, the West Bank is under occupation – whether one sees the occupation as justified or not – and maps should reflect this geopolitical reality.
Now, beyond simply making more accurate and, therefore, educationally useful maps, what might a more politically informed Israel curriculum entail? From my kids, I have heard about the ingenious ways that Israel foiled the Egyptian invasion of 1948, including placing stones in irrigation pipes to create noise simulating artillery. My 8-year-old was impressed. I know that for Yom Ha’atzmaut, their Hebrew school served falafel, and I hoped and expected that my kids will learn some Israeli folk songs. Some folk dancing would be great, too. What I remain less certain about, however, is how much complexity about Israel’s future our kids’ schools are willing to impart. Will kids learn who the “Palestinians” are? I know that I am guilty of frequently muttering to them about “Israel and the Palestinians” without proper context. While narratives of inter-state war can be much simpler to impart, when it comes to the Palestinian civilian aspect of Israel’s founding, and the current military occupation over millions of Palestinians, it’s difficult to know where to begin.
When we learn about the past, it’s equally important to consider the future. In fact, no one knows more about the importance of historical memory in shaping today’s collective political outlook as the Jewish community. As Wilensky writes in the context of the maps, “it’s unpleasant for many to hear, but the final status of a two-state solution – if such a thing can ever be achieved – is going to rely heavily on the Green Line. Putting visual depictions of that reality before the eyes of American Jewry will go a long way toward showing them the somewhat unpleasant truths that will help build a more absolutely pleasant future.”
As for the J Street U’s map initiative, given that Jacobs has pledged to roll them out at Reform schools, I hope he will make Ottawa’s very own Reform Judaism supplementary school an early stop.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. This article was originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.