Critical Currents: Maps, minds and mores

No country can afford to teach its young to deny facts and defy their meaning

The uproar evoked by Minister of Education Yuli Tamir's long-overdue decision to restore the Green Line in Israeli textbooks smacks of hypocrisy, inconsistency, self-delusion and mental manipulation. Those who play with maps distort minds. For too many years, schoolchildren have lived in almost complete ignorance of the physical contours of their own collective being. Quietly, systematically and perniciously, the 1949 armistice lines have been deleted from their history books. The Green Line that has been rubbed out of their course of instruction does not exist either in their heads or their consciousness. When asked in a recent survey to draw this boundary, they invented lines that are nowhere evident, just as they have been taught to internalize other imaginary frontiers. The glorification of the distortion of this essential knowledge - protestations aside - has been both continuous and purposeful. For the past two decades successive panels of historians, geographers and other social scientists have sought to correct this glaring pedagogic lacuna, to no avail. Their pleas got lost in the labyrinthine corridors of the Education Ministry. Attempts to raise the topic in the Knesset also failed (I personally engaged in extensive correspondence and presented several parliamentary questions on the elusive Green Line, receiving a mixture of derisive and evasive answers). The media, so busy with other burning matters, has been unusually silent in this regard. The result is that a generation of Israelis is, at least on this crucial subject, historically, geographically and politically illiterate. They have been well schooled in how not to deal with historical facts, not to confront obvious realities, and not to contend with conflicting political narratives. In short, Israel, which prides itself above all else on its brainpower, has nurtured the evils of ignorance. THE EXPECTED opposition to the vital rectification of the Green Line in Israel's textbooks therefore cannot be dismissed as merely another manifestation of the internal political debate on the future political boundaries of the country. It touches on something much more profound: the intellectual well-being and normative health of its citizens. No country can afford to teach its young to deny facts and defy their meaning. The Green Line - whether one likes it or not - is an integral part of Israel's past and the focus of the ongoing conflict over its future relations with its neighbors. As long as Israel has neither annexed the West Bank nor negotiated an agreed change, the demarcation it signifies is a political fact. Even those who would like it to disappear use it to buttress their claims. Opponents of the Green Line, those who want to will it away both in the textbooks and in practice, therefore persistently cross a much more troubling red line. They engage in the worst kind of historical revisionism which condones the selective (if not blatantly inaccurate) rendition of events. By withholding facts they not only encourage the rewriting of history, they actually applaud its reconstruction to suit their particular worldview. No society, least of all Israel - which draws its legitimacy so heavily from its past - can allow itself to engage in the promotion of such national delusions. Maps without any indication of the Green Line also fly in the face of reality, as if the distinction between Israel and the West Bank can be eliminated by the application of an eraser. In this mind frame Israel did not capture Palestinian territories in 1967 and has not occupied them since. There is no separation wall, Palestinian Authority or, for that matter, Palestinians who reject Israeli overrule. Anyone examining the soon-to-be-revised materials studied in too many Israeli schools might get the impression that all those residing in the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan live in harmony - free to move about at will and to pursue their lives tranquilly. The constant repetition of this virtual image gives license to the avoidance of any serious effort to come to terms with the complexities of the Palestinian-Israeli conundrum. It is thoroughly irresponsible and, more detrimentally, exalts an ethic of irresponsibility. Politically, too, the practice of cartographic manipulation is foolish (and hence ultimately totally counterproductive). Israel has for years demanded a complete overhaul of those Palestinian textbooks which ignore its existence. It has justifiably protested the publication of maps which lay claim to Palestinian hegemony over the entire area. But it is unwilling to recognize the inconsistency of its stance: it has insisted that Palestinian educators do what it has not demanded of its own. There is no room for double standards either in the classroom or in daily life. Sadly, Palestinian and Israeli pupils have been exposed to just such practices. They have been brought up on mirror maps that highlight values of exclusivity at the expense of the other. Instead of carrying out their stated task - teaching about their neighbors and laying the foundation for coexistence - these materials have implanted opposing, incursive, political visions and endowed the prolongation of enmity and conflict with moral virtue. The lessons learned are too alarming for words: the redrawing of actual maps is an instrument for the realization of the frontiers they extol. Yuli Tamir has done Israeli children and Israel a tremendous service. By reinstating the Green Line in the textbooks and in the consciousness of Israeli students, she has underlined the unwavering significance of intellectual honesty. In the process, this seemingly small but ever-so-meaningful move may yet contribute to the creation of a climate which helps to open minds and hearts. If it succeeds, it can also entertain workable alternatives to perpetual strife and conflict.