It’s all about borders

Look for Israel on the maps published in academic journals even by ace Israeli scholars. You may not find it. Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa are there. But next to Lebanon you might see Galilee; by Syria, Golan Heights; and across from Jordan, Negev. Ramallah, Nablus, Jericho, Hebron may or may not appear, depending on the topic, the scholar or the publisher. This fact struck me over years of editing academic studies, particularly for geographers and geologists.

So I started to search for Israel’s border, and if not the border then an explanation for its absence. Some authors noted various theoretical factors that may obfuscate the picture – the cross-border aquifer or tectonic plates. Some acknowledged that certain journals choose not to print the word “Israel.” This may or may not cause a spat, leaving the authors to have to decide whether to advance their careers in those pages. I consulted a cartographer who has spent a career delineating Israel for countless professors and lecturers, three generations of them in fact. She was not easily coaxed into the conversation until asked whether different authors had her draw Israel’s eastern border in different places to make political points beyond their academic theses. “Oh-ho!” she exclaimed in that quintessential Israeli way. Meaning yes. Some insist on highlighting Judea and Samaria, others are equally adamant that the West Bank be marked as beyond Israel.

This affirmed the freedom of expression to be found at that university, where all voices are valid, but it did not shed light on the border of Israel. If leading academics cannot – do not, will not – concur on where the border lies, what does that mean?

It means that they have leeway to jiggle it because it does not exist. No Israeli government has drawn the line since 1967, nor has the proverbial buck ever stopped at where it might be drawn, wherever that may be.
The confusion has had serious consequences. It has allowed the emergence of differing societies among us, all claiming to be Israel-supreme.

There seems to be a parable in there: Just as the state of Israel’s eastern boundary shifts, is contested, erased, redrawn and airbrushed away, the country’s societal and moral/ethical boundaries have been allowed to do the same, across the board.

We teach children boundaries by explaining to them where they are so that they are very sure when they cross them, which sometimes they must – in order to know that they really are there and that there is a price to be paid for crossing them. But ambiguous boundaries start very early it turns out, as early as the playground. There is usually no real price to be paid for bullying, allowing elementary school toughies to graduate to high school with knives in their pockets. Jewish children in the Old City of Jerusalem are not punished for spitting on priests, nor are Jewish boys for spitting on Jewish girls in, say, ultra-orthodox Beit Shemesh, as has been witnessed.

Then there is the classroom. Who is in charge, the pupils or the teachers? Hard to know sometimes. One explanation for this is the teachers’ own understanding of the content they are to impart to the young minds in their charge and their liberty to teach it. This brings us back to that hot-potato physical border: as education minister (2001-06), Limor Livnat ordered that the “Green Line” [the 1949 armistice line between Israel and its Arab neighbors] be removed from all textbooks. Not made fainter or debatable but deleted, and not to be discussed. Ask anyone under the age of 20 to show you where the Green Line is – well, good luck with that one. This affects students’ understanding of history and social studies as well as geography as they move on to become soldiers and voting citizens. [To be sure, the Green Line was never a recognized border but neither were the lands seized beyond it ever formally annexed by Israel, leaving them to be “occupied” and forever contested.]

The children soon grow up to be drivers who scoff at motoring boundaries by refusing to stay in one lane or even on their own side of the road. As for indicating, perhaps fear of having to abandon their political views, right or left, even momentarily is a reason for failing to show those around them their intent. This too contributes to general frustration and an extra layer of confusion.

Domestic violence is another grey-area boundary that is crossed daily and yet only when it results in death is it openly addressed. What serious measures are taken to prevent it, as opposed to treating it post facto in a moment of public outcry and in prison? This murky border facilitates the erasure of women’s voices and images in the public space, despite existing policy forbidding it.

Ignorance, we know, defies borders. Spotlighting it here in the context of “what is an Arab?” we find that it is frighteningly endemic, with full citizens of the state repeatedly lobbed with “enemy” Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. And where calling someone an “Arab” is a stinging insult. (Replace any curse or insult with “Jew” and note a different response.)

This borderless boundary has long been institutionalized: generations-long Arab residents are denied citizenship, and therefore the most basic right to vote, as is the case in East Jerusalem. There, 300,000 Jerusalemites, almost 40% of the city’s population, are permitted to vote in municipal elections but not national ones.

It’s the big things and the little things: Unattended full trolleys at the supermarket check-out (the buyers occupying their place in line as they continue to shop). Fraudulent building permits. Exploitation of foreign workers, and confusing imported laborers and asylum seekers. Violence, racism and bigotry on the sports field. A government minister proposing real new boundaries as an election ploy. On and on it goes, without even broaching abuse of power or the corruption onion, whose myriad layers may now start slowly peeling off.

But then who is there to catch the boundary-benders, to enforce the law, since the law enforcers themselves so flagrantly and crassly disrespect it? Now we know that much of the police top brass, apparently driven by anything but the heads on their shoulders and primarily from below the belt, have no boundaries at all. So what code of behavior do they think they can impose on the rest of us?

It is symbolic that just as Israel has allowed its physical/geographical borders to blur, so has it let its social/moral boundaries to fray. How do you know you have crossed a line if you do not know where the line is?

People: Draw the line on March 17
The time long passed when Israel should have been clear about where its borders are – all of them. If they are not clarified in the absolutely very near future, we are likely to implode. The line that should be at the forefront of that mission is Israel’s eastern border. It cannot be allowed to creep farther and farther away because millions of Israelis are becoming confused and concerned about which Israel they must fight for. It is emblematic of the danger to Israel’s other frontiers.

No one is naïve or dumb enough to think that if Israel has fixed physical borders it will solve all its problems with the Palestinians and the Arab world, and bring world peace. But for almost 50 years no Israeli government has told us: this is where the line is. This is where our responsibility lies. We must all fight to defend it, together, even when we have differences of opinion.

Shouting about whether or not our enemies want peace or whether there is any potential partner holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp is irrelevant for as long as we do not make order in our own house. This applies to our economic, social, educational and welfare realities just as it does to our geopolitical front. What is it that the government(s) actually want(s) us to fight for? We are losing the point and losing it fast. Especially when we see that our governments are not fighting for us.

The children of Israel need to know where their borders lie. So that they may know when they are crossing them… and when others are crossing them too.

About the Author
Lisa Perlman works in the field of communications, primarily as a language editor.