Category Archives: Israel

Hostile Homelands: A. B. Yehoshua Excavates Jerusalem’s Boundary Lines

The Palestinian mutely contemplates the sheer concrete expanse of the Separation Boundary as an exile from his homelands, as if pressed by the newly constructed boundary barrier that he rather stoically observes.  What passes through his head, we can’t say, but this blurred figure, captured as he rather eerily recalls Rodin’s Thinker, seems to contemplate the new future of a redrawn boundary to which he has an existential relation. The erection of poured concrete walls have created an apparently permanent border boundary across what he regarded as a homeland, and would contest. But the existential present of this moment conceals the depth with which such boundary lines were long historically contested and redrawn on maps, in a contest of wills that transcends the individual or present tense.   For the man outside the Separation Boundary contemplates a complicated map of shifting territories, difficult to bound, whose boundaries have been painfully renegotiated in the past as they are again rewritten in the present.

The difficulty of discerning this figure’s face doesn’t conceal that his removal from the city of which he is resident, and the traumatic division among two halves of the city that he once knew as his home.  If the dream of Zionism parallels the time of the commission and production of monumental bronze castings of The Thinker, commissioned in 1880 from the sculptor who began to produce multiple versions from 1904, around the foundation of the political movement of Zionism launched in 1904, to establish the protection and international recognition of an Israeli stage, the fiction of deep affective commitment to the place and boundaries of Israel in the historically defined Holy Land is the subject of seductive palimpsestic unpeeling of the past of one family in A.B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, a historical novel retrospectively stretched across five generations who seek their orientation to a Holy Land and to Jerusalem in ways that they cannot fully ever grasp–but which the reader begins to as he reads the novel’s five parts, as the boundaries of the state of Israel are peeled apart over time in what seems a modern pentateuch of the state, and a new genealogy of the Holy Land.

The boundary line that has been drawn over an area once easily and regularly crossed by foot suggests the deep stakes at claiming a tortured relation to the homeland by the Israeli state, and the threat that the rebuilding of this boundary creates not only in his psyche, but that haunts the psyche of the Israeli state.  The deep memories of a tie to place that the boundary barrier seems to defend cut off residents from their home, even as they intend to create claims. The contrast between the existential remove of watching the concrete separation barrier recently constructed in the city and the historical attachment to the land of Jerusalem prompts questions of archeology of boundaries, barriers, and attachments to place.  The tension between the most recent barrier and the deep historical ties to place seem to condense the repeated historical redrawing of boundaries in the city and the nation, and  psychological problems of drawing or respecting boundaries between peoples and individuals, and the fragile nature of place across shifting boundaries. If rooted in questions of migrations from Europe, across the Mediterranean, and in Israel, which gains concreteness only in the difficulty to map the psychic relation of the person within this place.

Elias Khoury begins Gates of the Sun by describing the specific romance of the map in similarly inter-generational terms, and in truly global terms as ruminating over over the spinning of a globe in a camp outside Beirut, Abu Salem remembers a past toponymy in mesmerizing manner, shifting from Biblical to Palestinian register that shifts to from rhapsody to melancholy and from a real to an imagined map–“”That’s Acre. Here’s Tyre. The plain runs to heart, and these are the villages of the Acre district. her’s Ain al-Zaitoun, and Deir al-Adsad, and al-Birwa, and there’s al-Ghabsiyyeh, and al-Kabri, and her’s Tarshiha, and there’s Bab al-Shams. . . . . Ain al-Zaitoun is the most beautiful village, but they destroyed in in ’48,'” describing an Arabic Palestinian village that existed from the sixteenth century which was depopulated and left the map, as it entered the new boundaries of the modern Israeli state–within whose boundaries it disappeared, receding from maps into personal memory.

The historical challenges of occupying Jerusalem, and indeed preserving a deeply personal and spiritual tie to land, seems tied to border crossings–and indeed creating boundaries–across the city’s ancient geography that the man stoically overlooks.


We are perhaps all too ready to project his traumatic relation to the the contested boundary lines of contemporary Jerusalem, where concrete walls cuts Palestinians from the very regions of a city they long inhabited as it seeks to redraw its map, as if to further traumatize its residents.  While the figure of the Palestinian echoes the notion of a Rodin’s Thinker, contemplating his place in the world, he has a far more clearly located place than the famously mobile piece of sculpture, whose reproduction in casts and in marble transited around the world, moved on a pediment to any space, evoking an idealized act of thought in whatever context it stood:

Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA

Multiple casts of Rodin’s statue were famously mobile, able to circulate globally, independent of site, as icons of man’s intellectual superiority over the world and his surroundings. But the man sit with a site-specific sense o reflection, and effectively caught in the act of being displaced from his surroundings: a city which has long been praised because of its integrity in the religious imagination, and translated to a nation a term that was long reserved for applying to a people, has been beset by divisions that the boundary wall has mapped in Jerusalem is both palpable and insurmountable reminder. It reveals a pragmatics of division that is oddly and paradoxically described as intended to preserve the integrity of the city, by defining its place and security in the public imagination.  

The strong sense of an occupation of the city by generations–“All the generations before me/donated me, bit by bit, so that I’d be/erected all at once/here in Jerusalem, like a house of prayer/or charitable institution,” poet Yehuda Amichai evokes the deep tie to a past that physically ties him to Jerusalem’s present and pasts.  The proprietary sense tied to generations of Jews as bound  to the city of Jerusalem by a binding tie to place defies mapping. But the excavation of this actually quite modern sense is excavated in Amichai’s poetry and an inevitable subject of Israeli fiction.  The next poem in Amichai’s 1973 collection, Poems of Jerusalem, turns from the ties to place to the disruptive nature of the border barrier already built in the Old City, on each side of which flags are raised–“To make us think that they’re happy./To make them think that we’re happy.”–but that obscure who is flying a kite over the Old City, on a string held by a child who stands on its other side; if he cannot ever forget his tie to the city, its walls of separation are never able to be forgiven, but “If I forget thee,/let my blood be forgotten,” to describe the tortured relation that he felt in 1973 to the mapping the relation of the city so closely intertwined to his blood-line.

The issue of bonding to place within one’s blood line was more clearly mapped across time when A.B. Yehoshua compiled a fictional dossier on the testimonies across six generations of men residents in Jerusalem in Mr. Mani, a five-part 1992 historical novel that rewrites a Pentateuch of the Israeli state, or at least the Zionist dream of basing a Jewish state in Jerusalem, a city whose layered history Yehoshua knew well from his father, a local historian of the city, and that in a sense captures his own deep ambivalence to Jerusalem as a homeland or occupied city.  By tracing testimonies of the male members of the Mani family who settled in the city and manufactured this imagined tie to place, he allows them to give evidence of their ties to the city across generations we read in chronological reverse, in ways that seem to unpeeled their own deep internalization of their ties to the city of Jerusalem–and the cross-generational desire to create or recreate a physical tie to place. Even if it is only textual, and returns to landmarks in the city, more than to boundaries that we can understand as fixers, the novel traces mental boundaries, offering poignant testimony of the redrawing of Jerusalem on the map.

While the novel is removed from historical mapping and remapping of the settlement of the city, it traces a deeply psychic map, preserved in Faulknerian fashion of what might as well be a fictional country but could not be disguised as such. The intensity of personal projects of mapping a relation to place and remapping the desired union of each generation to the city, as if to realize the frustrated desires of their forefathers to map and thereby to create a new relation to place, without attending to its residents, so deep was their desire to protect, redraw, and identify with the place of the ancient city.  The creation of one side of the conversations of the Mani men provides a basis to excavate the deeply unfulfilled emotions needs that they bequeathed their descendants, and the incomplete relation that each transmitted as a failure to bind their own family to the city, and the difficulties that they have mapping their relations onto the presence of the city’s actual inhabitants.  The deep neediness of Mani men reveals the strength of ties of rooting oneself and family in place, and the heightened trauma of such a desire for attachment that has built up over generations, a traumatic tie to place that is visited upon its other residents.

The trauma of the Palestinian who regards the concrete barrier is not, literally, on most maps constructed of Jerusalem or of the Holy Land.  Indeed, the trauma of excluding Palestinian presence in the city that the Jewish state has adopted plans to occupy fully, and the provocation of publicly acknowledging it as a capital, seems to seek to enshrine the trauma in maps.  For the boundary barrier expanded the line of Israeli control over the contested city–and even exceeded the territorial claims the so-called Green Line of the 1949 Armistice, or the pre-1967 bounds–but were never intended to provide a territorial boundary for the state.  If those bounds were treated as the new boundary of a national territory after 1967, the expansion was tired to be remapped by the progressive construction of the barrier or boundary wall much further in recent years, as if to over-write and banish earlier memories of settlement, and to stake a rewritten Israeli sovereign relation to the city, now provocatively defined as a national capital on maps.

THomas Coex:AFP Getty

Thomas Coex/AFP

At what cost?  The project of a unified Jerusalem will hardly conceal the deeply pained relation to the territory, however, and seems destined to only augment its military defense.  At this point, it may be opportune to return to the historical excavation of the pained nature of these boundaries–and the compromises that they create in the occupation of lands–is addressed in deeply psychological terms in Yehoshua’s Mar Mani, or Mr. Mani, which traces or excavates the ever-growing costs of such a divide.  The curiously retrospective structure of the five books of the novel peel back historical layers of mapping a personalized Jerusalem through the testimony or discussion with men in a family of Mediterranean Jews and their ties to Jews of central Europe, that throw into relief the intensity of a psychological concentration that takes the Holocaust as its justification for the fulfillment of a Zionist project for retaking the Holy Land.

The project of settling Palestine is seen through the eyes of the long stateless Jews and the ties they have staked to the land from the late eighteenth century.  While often cited as a justification for the existence of Israel as a state, Yehoshua includes the genocide of the Second World War in his novel about five generations of a family who settled in Jerusalem, but throws the history of their tortured relation to place in a far broader context of the ways that people have long pressed against boundaries, and indeed, confused their own personal boundaries with relations to barriers and boundaries that existed, were drawn, or were being redrawn on maps, even as they tried to use maps to navigate their relation to the city for their descendants.  Is the tortured relation to the city something that was bequeathed as a failure to define personal boundaries, and to understand the boundaries that might have existed between Jewish settlers of jerusalem and its inhabitants, that continued to inform either the construction of the wall that extends beyond the pre-1967 border line–


–and the hard place of the wall that divides the complex expansion of the old municipal border of 1949 to encompass its Palestinian and Jewish populations, and the tortured relation each feels to its place.


The border boundary that divides Jerusalem today as emblematic of an utter divide between populations, illegal and asserting itself to be a concrete evidence of the application of the law:  the boundary wall seems to deny any past habitation and any past, to create a new realty of borders, even as it seeks to affirm and inscribe a new divide in the city, even if under the pretext of protection from terrorist attacks.  But the broad historical conflicts of claiming Jerusalem as a Jewish city–even in the face of a Palestinian majority presence–and ruling it as a sovereign part of a Jewish state, rather than one the acknowledges its multiple ethnicities, conceals the tortured relation to place that is the result of denying any voice to its original inhabitants.

Building the boundary reminds us of the existential quality to any line of partition, and the deep effects with which it immediately effects the place and its inhabitants.  The wall, one might say, stares back at the man, sheer concrete without any sense of history or human habitateion, to protect the area extending past the Green Line as if to fix its future movement in the historically shifting map in stable terms.  This unstable map–which seems poised to be shifted once again, for national gain, in the 2017 annexation of the new construct of “Greater Jerusalem” including settlements along the West Bank, transforming a place previously without integrity to fulfill a prophecy of the “expansion” of the city as a part of the Jewish state, using a term of false if apparent neutrality to conveniently conceal and not account for the historical presence Palestinian inhabitants of the same place.

The wall is a remapping of history, and human habitation, after all, and a defense of claims by the Israeli state, built as if concretizing a timeless prophecy, and built as a timeless construction.  The remapping of space and the space of Jerusalem seems the subject of the e classic novel of A.B. Yehoshua about six generations of a Jerusalem family whose intent to throw the immediacy of the current conflict into historical relief continues to have bearing on the apparent absence of population in the retracing of shifting boundaries and the claiming of sovereignty over lands that, in the historical myopia that sees the utter tragedy of dehumanization of the Holocaust–or the condition of statelessness–as the fulcrum for its foundations if not the justification of its existence, but removes its borders and boundaries from history or from the land’s inhabitants, by cartographically declaring it to be an almost timeless truth of territorial advancement and an iconic image without need for an explanatory legend.

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Filed under boundary walls, collective memory, Israel, Jerusalem, Jewish diaspora

Sacred Toponymy Matters: the Territory in the Map

In very few cases are the associations of place-names so powerfully resonant as in those that derive from a biblical frame of reference:  they speak across time, in a powerfully incantatory way, unveiling a sense of space in maps, and claims to that space, even if they may no longer exist in space.  If Palestinians may ruefully note that Jews–or Israelis—live in ruins, the resonance of past inhabitation inhabits the present through place-names.  Local toponymy on a cartographical canvas is rarely (if ever) so evocative of narratives that are present in a collective memory as in maps of the Holy Land, whose readings are designed to orient readers to a sacred space, as much as within a territory.

Although many of the best-known maps of the regions are reconstructions, the location of holy sites as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Caeserea or Mt. Sinai create points of entrance, more powerfully than siting points, for plotting multiple master-narratives across a historical gulf and spanning different epochs; the map is alternately the container and the field, the historical synthesis, but also the screen.  Toponyms both powerfully mark place and offer a sense of access to sacred space in the Middle East, in ways that illustrate the dual deictic functions all maps have of showing or making present and of conjuring narratives.  So evocative is the verbal map of the region in scriptures that the map they help to weave and any later maps that respond to this image create a place where time collapses–where the present is poised to dissolve into the past.

If the Old Testament discussed military maps, administrative maps, and historical maps, these were written, instead of drawn.  Reading the Pentateuch or New Testament extends an invitation to organize an image of regional coherence absent in the Hebrew or Christian Bible, however, and in a society where maps were increasingly familiar medium of information, they offered a powerful poetic and increasingly a polemic means to create a palpable present for readers of scriptures even when they were–or perhaps especially because they were–both physically and geographically removed from the region and the very space that they described, but preserved in a different space of the book, and through it into the very different register of collective consciousness.

Maps drawn of Palestine and of biblical history combine the ostensive functions of displaying place (showing) with the connotative functions of map signs to make present a landscape that was perhaps never seen as such:  in so doing, they show readers where they might be, and offer a map that corresponds to their reading of sacred narrative, and indeed of giving enargaic power to that narrative in the present.  But they are most powerful examples of a form of “distanced reading,” around which one can weave multiple narratives about the territory, or narratives of pilgrimage and sacred visitation, without necessarily going there and visiting the very sites that the maps situate before the viewer.  For the particular power of maps of the Holy Land lies in how they offer the possibility for a reader to enter the narratives as much as they provide a description of space.  When the most familiar verbal map of Canaan–“from Dan to Ber-sheba” (2 Sam. 24:2)–created a very loosely defined region, it allowed viewers to enter the specific sites it described.  Drawn maps served to frame the pilgrimage across and intellectual inhabitation of a region and emplot specific events for viewers who become, even when physically removed from the region, vicarious witnesses to an always-present Holy Land.

This makes them especially difficult to translate into territorial records, so much as mental spaces, or to exist as a sort of Moebius strip of mental spaces and physical grounds, in ways that makes their status as territories all the more difficult to negotiate–or to place oneself.  Such drawn maps offered spaces of mental inhabitation, even when removed from an actual territory, by organizing place-names redolent of biblical events from Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Kings, and lending concreteness to sacred places in a collective memory.  This post seeks to trace the reading of the drawn map across communities of readers, moving from how early and Enlightenment maps of the Holy Land collapsed a sense of time, bridged spatial distances for their readers, and rendered them particularly powerful vehicles of thought and imagination.  If Google Maps invite readers to place themselves in a real-time map, the maps of sacred lands exist to preserve a historical relation or tie to aland, in which one permanently places oneself.

For such maps collectively created an affective tie to “place” over time, compelling map  readers to develop affective ties in particularly compelling ways that led the territory currently occupied by Israel and the Palestinian authority circumscribed. The recent discussions of the impact that generated in the Obama White House at a map showing the circumscription of Palestinian presence in the state of Israel–or in their own homeland in the West Bank–suggests the tenacity of refusing to relinquish any sense of territorial continuity that would be needed to gain a sense of sovereign independence or territorial identity in wha was coyly if rightly described as a “Palestinian archipelago” by French cartographer Julien Bousac published the year Obama took office as President–with cartographic brio to reveal the inaccessibility to Palestians of areas under full Israeli control and occupation, revising the alleged Palestinian territory as essentially fragmented into islands removed from each other with what seemed natural barriers–even if they include areas populated by Palestinians–and the difficulty of imagining the territories recognized as Palestinian as approaching a territory.  Indeed, the fragmented nature of the land is a set of outposts confined by military presence under surveillance, rather than anything approaching an actually autonomous or independent state.


image©Julien Bousac, 2009


–if open to misreading that Bousac’s rendering connoted an Island Paradise or vacationland by its self-conscious use of the colorful iconography of a tourist map was disarmingly out of synch, and not a case of the brio of Francophone cartooning.  For even if the cartographer rejects interpreting his map figuratively as “a ‘drowning’ or ‘flooding’ the Israeli population, nor dividing territories along ethnic lines, even less a suggestion of how to resolve the conflict,” but objectively describes the fragmentation of Palestinian population surrounded by lands that are occupied by Israelis and Israeli military soldiers.  The map invites a reading of just how much Palestinian negotiators found themselves “at sea” in negotiating with the Israeli state given the current situation on the ground, or swimming in an Israeli fantasy of concessions.  It reflects the stark contrast between the fantasies of taking the concessions at the Oslo Accords as a working solution and the “grim realities” of actuality, where each outpost lies at a remove from the de facto capital of the Palestinian Territories, Ramallah, with which none are contiguous, even as all are surveyed.


Bousac key



The tenacity of such an effective fragmenting any territorial presence of the Palestinian Territories would provoke a realization of the political obstructionism of the Jewish State when virtually the same map circulated in the US State Department over six years later, in 2015.  For the map of the same data, from hen presented within the context of a briefing book to inform American special envoys on negotiations between Palestinians and Israeli authorities, whose impact as a rendering of the isolation of Palestinian population centers in the West Bank was considerably grimmer.  In the Oval Office, it didn’t allow room for misreading as a systematic isolation of the Palestinian people–


imageNew Yorker


Rather, the disarming symbolism of the dry region of land only underscored the sense of an intentional dismemberment of settled lands.  The dismembering of continuity or territorial integrity seemed only irrevocable response to the very notion of a two-state agreement, and a grim assessment of the project of two states that Israelis intended to pursue.   The version of the ironic map of Boussac, at any rate, when it reappeared in the form of a state document by 2016, at the end of the Obama presidency, struck members of the U.S. State Department–though they were hardly new as a reflection of the situation on the ground–as they depicted “What a One-State Reality Looks Like,” as if lifting the veils from observers’ eyes who hadn’t grasped the geopolitical strategy of fragmenting Palestinian outposts int heWest Bank.

The description of broad shock on Obama’s part at evidence of such systematic isolation of Palestinian population centers sparked concern that it not be shared with Israelis, as if it were a state secret, even if it reflected the extent of Israeli settlement in the West Bank.  (Some high-level U.S. negotiators though it could “raise awareness” about the systematic attempt to thwart Palestinian unity when Jews lost a majority status in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and current State of Israel–but the map was treated as a state secret.)


palestinian archipelagoNew Yorker

Perhaps the earlier appearance of Boussac’s map without a text–the State Dept. version informed its readers that the 6,335 million Jews then living in the longstanding sacred lands that stretch from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Ocean were effectively outnumbered as of December 2015 by 6,561 million non-Jews who also lived in the same region–made the map less directly effective as an argument.  But the figures–even if contested by Israeli officials–suggest that Jews are no longer a majority in the lands of Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank, in ways that suggest a new need to isolate the Palestinian presence there.  The power of these observations rest in the presumption that the argument of jurisdiction is fundamentally one of democratic consensus, however.

This line of thought however runs the danger of dismissing the power of mapping territorial coherence in a religious imaginary, and indeed the scriptural power of the revealed nature of the map:  if the map of Palestinian fragmentation, reprising the map, first published in Le monde diplomatique and widely shared during the Palestine Festival of Literature of 2012 as “brilliant,” it is perhaps better seen as tragic.  For what was a revelation and wake-up call for the Obama administration and both the usually aware President Obama and his special envoy for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, Joseph Lowenstein, who were loathe to share the map with Israeli allies, as if it were a secret, the maps’ revelatory power for the Americans must be balanced with the truly revelatory power maps gained as counterparts to scriptural reading.  For the authoritative status of the map of middle eastern territories in the imagination as a record of the territory to which a people was implicitly and indissociably tied has long motivated in a way that is deeply internalized the mapping of Israel as a state.

Of course, the Boussac map was in the past rather superficially read as rendering a painful area of contested residence and war by such a “cheerful color scheme.”   Rather than seeming to suggest a tourist map of an archipelago–with a “vacationy vibe,” as Big Think had it, echoing fantasies of a paradisal archipelago far from the “grim realities”–the starkness of imagining the actual locations where settlements were confined was made by the presence of battleships along the paradisal islands to denote zones “under surveillance.”   Broussac presented the bucolic image as if in response to an interrogative as to whether the Palestinian people would ever be likely to regard this state of divided discontinuous regions of rule as constituting anything satisfactory.  Much in the manner that the bucolic spaces of pastoral poetry were described as far removed from war, the “offer on the table” of dislocated outposts lacking continuity was in not in fact removed from war or a plan for the future, but evidence that the confines in which Palestinians were recognized would be a state of perpetual war rather than a starting point for peace.

Yet the map was also testimony to the deep resonance of the toponymy and cartographic mapping of the region within the Israeli and Jewish imagination–a prominence that plays no small part, pace Boussac, in the tenacity of territorial claims by the current Israeli state.

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