Sacred Toponymy Matters: the Territory in the Map

9.  A more familiar cartographical image maps a Palestine settled by Palestinians in traditional costumes, while intentionally erasing the existence of Israeli cities, to retrieve an imagined community and affirm and imaginary continuity with a land  lost long before 1948, staking a fictive communion with the past by perpetuating a harmonious image of a counter-mythology that belies the current country’s deep-set divisions.  The map not only embodies territory but actually settled the region with figures in traditional garb–as if in a throwback to the early modern Ortelian atlas, but placing the traditionally costumed figures at the center of a current map, rather than on the margins of its ornate borders–and affirming them as the resident inhabitants of the land, if it might double as a tourist map.

Based on 1945 Palestine, ommitting Israeli cities

But more accurate registration of the dispersion and displacement that was experienced underlies this fantasy map, which in light of their actual geographic displacement, might in fact be termed something of an exercise in mapping as a survival skill.

Refugee Bubble Map

Monde Diplomatique

For the stakes are particularly high, if one needed any reminding, in the current mapping of Israel as in much of the Middle East, where the numbers of refugees overrun actual borders, and seem to constitute something like a mobile population.  The above map of displacements aligns nicely with the diffusion of maps in textbooks used within the Palestinian Authority, although their remapping of the region to omit Israel reflects a somewhat terrifying refusal in large numbers of textbooks that are produced on either side of the Green line to reflect the “other” in adequate ways: the claim that only some 4% of schoolbooks for Palestinian schoolchildren depict the Green Line, and six out of ten show no boundary between Israel and the PA is not only an act of wish-fulfillment typical of colonized lands, or a form of wish-fulfillment, but an act of actual resistance:  in Israeli textbooks, just over three quarters do not label Palestinian territories or omit these boundary lines, by presenting a “unilateral national narrative.”  But the complex omission of boundaries  are not only disinformation, so much as, for many Palestinians, no doubt an act of resistance, as much as an intentional fostering of a demand for reclaiming lost lands.

While such maps have gained most media attention for their secondary aim of denying the existence of a Jewish state, a major obstacle to the negotiating process, although the earlier erasure of Arab toponomy was an active remaking of the same map.  The erasure of Arabic toponymy in East Jerusalem shortly after it was taken over by Israeli forces in 1967 had already brought the removal of Arabic names. In ways that foreshadow the recent kerfuffle about the political meaning of the public display of embroidered maps that not only affirm an Arabic presence in the region but erase the state of Israel–and reinstate the pre-1948 borders–in a UNRWA center serving Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.


The considerable brouhaha provoked by the public display of this map by UN officials was of course about its refusal to recognize Israel’s claims to statehood–and existence as a state–and apparent erasure of a national history.  But the omission is a common occurrence in many maps produced in the territory of the Palestinian Authority–and indeed in many of the lands that still do not recognize Israel as a state.

Yet the proximity of these maps to as highly map-literate a culture as Israel–and indeed one in which maps provide a clear basis for affirming and defining the sovereignty of the modern nation–constituted a huge cause for alarm.  The lack of consensus about the territorial boundary lines in the Middle East and Holy Land in an age of Google Maps is in fact stunning: only 4% of maps in school textbooks used within Palestine show the green line separating Palestinian territory from the Israeli state, or include the place-name identifying “Israel” to the west.  The effect seems to obliterate the country’s historical existence: some six out of 10 maps depict no borders, and another third include the green line but make no reference to Israel.


A Palestinian map proudly charts a bright green and united territory as if to bestow identity upon the region, imaginary cleansed of its current political boundaries or place names, as if to restore the land to its earlier toponymy, in a quite intentionally bizarre obscuring of Hebrew place-names with Arabic toponyms that seems to revise the map as a potent site for argument:


The concern over the placement and instructional use of maps in educational texts and the classrooms controlled by Hamas within the Palestinian Authority; Israelis argued that they openly deviated from standing agreements about the school curriculum within the Palestinian authority.  Despite considerable concern that the omission of borders is mutual wish-fulfillment, the oppositional nature of this mutual self-acknowledgement threatens to derail the possibility of a two-state solution.


The refusal to recognize Israeli state gives new currency to earlier debates about imagining and representation of Israel as a state–and a tradition of melting history into the surface of the map, where Palestine was presented and transmitted as an integral and coherent cultural form.  The stakes are oddly different–Israelis guard their right to exist, while Palestinian teachers try to rearticulate their own relation to what they see as lost land. The 2001-2 map of “Palestine” used in a 7th grade textbook within the Palestinian authority imagines a single country, omitting any Israeli place-names and casting all toponyms in Arabic script–

The 2002-3 schoolbooks prepared for third graders invited students to learn to locate cities in a “map of Palestine” as an undivided entity, with no evidence of a green line, and indeed the region of Israel and neighboring states tinted the yellow-and-green of the Palestinian authorities.
Map for 3rd Graders to Complete of Palestine, 2002-3

One should never dismiss the map as less than an argument, one might quite correctly conclude.  This 2002 Hamas “map” of Israel openly evacuates the region of the area of a state, and retains toponymy in Arabic script.  When found in the tent of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, co-founder of Hamas and often named as its spiritual leader, the discovery of the map was taken as evidence of his denial of Israel’s right to exist as well as an outright denial of Jews’ historical settlement of the same land.  It was quickly associated with Yassin’s demand that “Israel, as the Jewish state, must disappear from the map” and his fiery claim that the Islamic land of Palestine was “consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day.” (The map, produced by Hamas and including data about the Palestinian diaspora and the refugee camps from 2000 on its left margin, beside the map, was allegedly found in Sheik Ahmed Ahmed Ismail Hassan Yassin’s tent after an attempted assassination in September 2003, however seems standard fare within the Palestinian Authority–not to mention Abu Dabi.)

Hamas maps Palestine

The mapping of the region becomes a creative act of remembering locations, and restoring, in some sense, a region whose toponomy was erased and rewritten since 1948, when the landscape, cemeteries, sites of worship and family dwellings were eradicated and renamed, and became of what is now Israel.  According to a recent 2012 study–albeit one that received some criticism from Israelis-94% of Palestinian textbook maps fail to identify of Israel while 87% of Israeli maps lack mention of Palestine or the Palestinian territories.  Demand for a bi-national textbook project has been greatly advanced by Prof. Sami Adwan as a result.  But the fights held on cartographical space (or maps) reveal something of a bloodless war, in which no shots are as of yet fired, for redrawing boundary lines in paper, with full-color visualizations of the absence of the state that settled it.  There is a constant dialogue in them, not between different practices of mapping, but between maps and memory–or how memory matters in the structuring of the map, and matters perhaps more than written knowledge, as in this version of the tapestry map similar to that delivered to the UNRWA.

'Popular' embroidered map of Palestine found in  Operation Defensive Shield

But such resistance, clearly, did not occur in a vacuum.

When the medievalist Meron Benvenisti, retired as deputy mayor of Jerusalem, in which capacity he had administered East Jerusalem and been the city’s chief planning officer in  Teddy Kollek’s administration from 1971-78, he converted some of his expertise on the role of the Christian crusaders who had transmitted so much knowledge of the Holy Land–and so many myths of the middle east–to the West, to compile a new database of place-names and political developments in the contested West Bank from 1984.  A fierce advocate of a binational state and critic of the “extreme inequality” Arabs face in the Israeli state, and a critic of the destruction of Arab homes in Palestine from 1948 too often disguised under such self-serving justifications like the “evacuation of intruders from state lands,” Benvenisti was skeptical of the mysticism with which the love of or longing for the Israeli territories had been for so long imagined as a “Land destined for us in the depth of its experience [sic] as was written in the Bible,” or the cult of the Homeland that underpinned the transfer of power to settlers after the 1948 war as if it were a practice of repatriation. The remapping of Palestine was in a sense a nationalization of a doubly spiritual and physical space–in which the map serves  as one means among others “for establishing and proving the claim of ownership over the redeemed Land of Israel.”

The cult was enacted by the attempt in 2009 to Hebrew counterparts in ways presented as “purifying” the toponyms exhibited on road signs, maps, and communities by removing the Arabic versions, in ways that were feared as an attempt to “erase Arab heritage from much of the Holy land,” as Jonathan Cook wrote;  when the transportation minister Israel Katz in the government of Benjamin Netanyahu issued an edict to remove Arabic names from Israel, East Jerusalem, and parts of the West Bank, he presented the change in the guise of a move of “standardization”–erasing the Arabic “al-Quds” or “al-Nasra” from signage identifying Jerusalem and Nazareth–in ways that received significant push-back.    Katz argued with barely concealed polemical undertones that “This government, and certainly this minister, will not allow anyone to turn Jewish Jerusalem into Palestinian al-Quds,” although Arabic, Hebrew, and English names had been exhibited on parallel signs in the past; Ahmed Tibi, an Arab legislator in Israel’s Parliament, objected ruefully that “Minister Katz is mistaken if he thinks that changing a few words can erase the existence of the Arab people or their connection to Israel.”  The attempt was recognized as an attempt to force the recognition of all Jerusalem as part of the Israeli state, and render invisible the Palestinian presence outside of areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. 10.  The country becomes just difficult to map, even if granting territorial maps the status of legal precedents.  Indeed, the map of land-ownership by Jews before 1948, based on a 1947 British survey of the region prior to the partition plan that is often cited as a rebuttal of the origins of the Israeli state, reminding viewers of the memory of a land where Jewish ownership was limited, before the legal entity of the state of Israel existed, to keep alive a map that has been obliterated, lest it be forgotten.


A historical map of  Palestinian and Jewish land ownership that was developed at the same time for the United Nations reveals a slightly more mixed picture, much debated by different parties, and also clearly reveals (or forecasts) the problems of uniting the territory within the boundaries that Israel would come to occupy:


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Filed under biblical maps, historical maps, Holy Land, Israel, sacred territory

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