The diplomat had big maps on the walls of his airy office at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem. As mid-level envoys do, he was providing some off-the-record talk. I confess that I don't remember what he said. I do remember how my wife and I gaped at his maps: They showed the Green Line, the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank.
That was in the late 1980s. Maps showing the Green Line were impossible to find in Israel. (The diplomat said his maps came from the CIA.) The Israeli government's cartography service had a monopoly on the map market. You could get topo maps showing the location of every picnic table and archeological site in the country, but not the boundary between Israel and occupied territory. Maps showed only the post-1967 lines dividing Israeli-controlled land from neighboring Arab countries. In official cartography, occupied Hebron and Nablus looked like part of Israel. The practice tended to obscure political developments. As a journalist, I often covered settlement in the West Bank -- but when a new community was established, sometimes I wasn't sure whether it was in Israel proper or in land conquered in the June 1967 Six-Day war.
Government maps still dominate the market, and still don't show the Green Line. Neither do schoolbooks. But this week, Education Minister Yuli Tamir issued instructions to show the border line in new textbooks. Tamir, a founder of the Peace Now movement, represents the center-left Labor Party in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's crazy-quilt coalition. Right-wing pols immediately accused her of politicizing the classroom. Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition Likud said it would call for a parliamentary vote of no confidence. A group of rightist rabbis said Tamir had "declared war against God" by suggesting a division of the homeland divinely granted to the Jews.
None of the rightists, naturally, find any trace of politicized education in the practice of hiding from children the borders of their own country. In a curious way, though, they have a case: In Israel -- and not just in Israel -- facts are political. Denial is the consensus position.
To be fair, the right didn't erase the Green Line. In my own research on settlement history, I found the instructions to do that in the office files of Yigal Allon, a leader of the socialist left in the country's early years. Like a lot of Israeli leftists back then, Allon was also an ardent nationalist. After the Six-Day War he hoped to see Israel keep much of the land it had conquered. At the time, he was minister of labor, and by bureaucratic accident, the map department belonged to his ministry. On October 30, 1967, less than five months after the war, he ordered the maps redrawn.
But the cartographic change was cosmetic. Most of the West Bank -- all but East Jerusalem -- remained under military occupation. Annexing it would have meant granting citizenship to Palestinians, and turning Israel into a binational state. Legally, therefore, the Green Line was still the edge of sovereign Israel. What lay beyond had the legal status of "belligerent occupation."
Since then, the border has been part of daily life, while remaining invisible. Soldiers serve in, and the media reports on, "the territories," meaning the occupied territories. The right, particularly the religious right, has assigned great value to moving to settlements in "Judea and Samaria" -- the Biblical name given to the West Bank. A map demarcating Judea and Samaria would, in fact, be showing the Green Line. The membership criterion for the Council of Settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza is being over the Green Line. (More denial: the council has not changed its name, despite last year's evacuation of the Gaza settlements.)
For nearly 40 years, Israel has treated its own border the way Victorians treated sex: It shapes society, but explicitly portraying it violates respectable conventions. Those who do so are seen as daring, not quite part of polite society. Bright children know the border exists from adult conversations, know it will be terribly important when they come of age, and are not quite sure what it looks like. My daughter, child of an impolite father, asked her high school geography teacher why the Green Line was missing from a map he handed out, and left him wordless.
The politics of denial go beyond that. Golda Meir famously declared that there was no such thing as a Palestinian nation that was distinct in any way from other Arabs. In 1970s Israel, it was daring to disagree with her. When I began working as a journalist in the 1980s, some left-leaning reporters at my paper used the word "Palestinians" -- and some right-leaning editors replaced it with "Arabs." The original Oslo Accord of 1993 made no mention of a Palestinian state as the necessary outcome of a peace process; the idea was too radical for then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to present to the public.
Eventually, even Ariel Sharon would learn to say "Palestinian" and declare that there would be a Palestinian state. His successor, Olmert, hopes that the border between Israel and Palestine will be the "security barrier" (read: "fence" or "wall") that Israel is building through the West Bank. On a recent government-published hiking map, I found the route of the fence. But it was labeled "security road," giving no clue of barbed wire on the landscape. New denials replace old ones. Since the second Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000, few Israelis besides settlers and soldiers risk driving into the West Bank, and so few see Palestinians lined up at roadblocks. A foreign policy imbroglio need not be half a world away to be pushed out of consciousness. A half a mile is enough.
Israelis, I should stress, have no monopoly on repressing facts. In offices of the Palestinian Authority and PA-linked agencies, I've also seen maps with no indication of the Green Line. Everything from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River is marked Palestine. My wife's office once got a PR fax for tourist rooms in Ramallah "with a view of the Palestinian coast" -- meaning the Israeli coast. To take part in the Mideast make-believe game, other countries -- including the United States -- have their embassies in or near Tel Aviv, acting as if that city is Israel's capital. No matter that the Knesset, Supreme Court and Prime Minister's Office are located in West Jerusalem, inside the Green Line, and so within the territory internationally recognized as Israel.
There's no sign yet that the government cartography department is ready to roll back Allon's instructions and put the Green Line back on maps for grown-ups. But some privately produced road atlases show it, albeit in an illusive gray, like invisible ink just beginning to appear. On the Internet, that virtual territory of repressed images, more maps can be found.
Tamir's intention of letting school kids know what their country looks like is, in its way, akin to introducing sex education somewhere in the Bible Belt. If Tamir holds on to her job, if the bureaucrats actually make the change, and if the teachers dare use the books, children will learn a dangerous reality. No longer will it be necessary to seek the information from a foreign agent who speaks off the record and comes armed with CIA maps.
Gershom Gorenberg, a senior correspondent for the Prospect, is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977.
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