Why Do Jewish Camps Erase the Green Line on Israel Maps?

At a teen dialogue program for Palestinians, Israelis and Americans in Evanston, Illinois, some years ago, a small, commonplace, clip-out map of Israel undermined a concerted grassroots peace-building effort.

The map portrayed a barebones Israel, with borders stretching laterally from the Mediterranean to Jordan. Distributed to the kids within a larger information packet, it looked like an ordinary map to the Israeli and American Jews, an outline similar to ones they had seen in school, camp and synagogue.

But to the Palestinians the map was shocking and upsetting. Where was the Green Line? The Israeli-occupied West Bank? Gaza? Their homes? Where was the demarcation that marked off the country ruled by Israel’s citizens as a democracy from the Palestinian territories it rules through military occupation?

For the Palestinian teens, half of the equation of a potential two-state solution was missing.

“It was just an innocent little map to advertise a trip to Israel, but the symbolism was prevalent,” said Rabbi Andrea London, who hosted part of the program at her synagogue, Beth Emet. “Here we were talking about the importance of a two-state solution, about the importance of Palestinian rights, and we had obliterated it all.”

Maps of Israel are everywhere in Jewish communities. They hang from synagogue walls. They’re painted on classroom murals. They’re printed on T-shirts, yearbooks, magnets, travel brochures and luggage tags.

In Jewish day school, many students learn to draw the borders of Israel until they can do it with their eyes closed. More often than not, the borders these maps delineate are roughly of the land God promised to the Israelites in the Bible — without any indication of Palestinian territories. Yet oftentimes, nothing indicates the map is a rendering of a biblical promise, and it can be easily misconstrued as a map of modern-day Israel.

This week, as Jewish youngsters head off to summer camp, those maps, long regarded as unexceptionable renderings of the Jewish homeland they are taught to cherish, are coming under some unusual scrutiny from within. Those now thinking about what they communicate include the head of the Reform movement — American Judaism’s largest denomination — and the Ramah network of Jewish summer camps affiliated with the Conservative movement. From the outside, J Street, the dovish Israel lobby, has been pushing the issue.

But more broadly, this re-evaluation is also a spillover from Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the rendering and use of maps of the region have led to some prominent criticisms of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

At its most basic level, the Green Line shows the internationally recognized armistice lines that constituted Israel’s effective border until the 1967 Six Day War gave it control of the West Bank. It is shown clearly on almost all professionally produced maps outside Israel and outside of those used in Jewish venues. Though Israel occupies the territories taken during that war, it has never annexed them — with the exception of East Jerusalem, whose annexation the world has not recognized. As a matter of official policy, the United States and the international community hope eventually to hold peace talks based on the Green Line with mutually agreed upon adjustments to establish two states.

Proponents of using maps with the Green Line see it as a matter of accurately depicting a reality on the ground; life in the West Bank and Gaza is not the same as life in Israel proper. Opponents worry that exposing campers to the Green Line makes the issue too political. They point to Palestinian maps that depict all the land as Palestine, without Israel, for vindication. Other administrators have simply not given much thought to the maps displayed at their camps.

Those pointing to how the Palestinians use maps have a point. They can cite a U.S.-government funded study in 2013 by researchers from Yale University, Tel Aviv University and Bethlehem University. The study found that 58% of the post-1967 maps used in Palestinian Authority schoolbooks in the occupied territories show the polity “Palestine,” incorporating everything between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, including present-day Israel. There is no mention of Israel.

But the Israeli books examined in the study came off even worse. Seventy-six percent of the post-1967 maps in them show Israel as the area between the river and the sea, with no mention of the P.A. and no notation of the Green Line that separates Israel from the West Bank and Gaza.

“This type of education can create a lasting obstacle to peace,” said Bruce Wexler, the psychiatrist at the Yale University School of Medicine who directed the study, when it was released. “If you grow up seeing maps that seem to imply that the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is your homeland… and you are asked to give up some of that land to make two states, you would feel you are losing something that you never had to begin with.”

But Barbara Tversky, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, cautioned, “Maps are not the only contribution to perceptions of rights; it’s the discourse around the maps. It wouldn’t make sense to reduce a complex historical, social, and political situation to maps.”

Andrea London’s son, Yonah London, was a participant in the 2010 dialogue program in Evanston. He initially paid no mind to the clip-out map because it was the same Israel he had been shown in Jewish day school and summer camp since he was a small child. But seeing how offended, even tearful, some of the Palestinian kids were at the sight of the map was, for him, eye-opening.

“I can no longer see a map of Israel without the Green Line as something that is ‘apolitical,’” he said.

When he returned as a counselor last summer to Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, a Reform Jewish camp in Wisconsin, London said he noticed for the first time — it was his 12th summer at OSRUI — that the maps around the camp lacked the Green Line. In the dining hall, London had to squint at a large map of Israel to see a faint dashed line demarcating, though not identifying, the Palestinian territories. The maps attached to lesson plans and printed on camp swag lacked the Green Line altogether.

At Camp Moshava Aloh Na’aleh in Pennsylvania — affiliated with the Modern Orthodox youth movement Bnei Akiva — the educational director, Arye Sokol, said the camp uses Israel maps without the Green Line. The largest of these maps is 75 feet long and allows for more physical activities that teach about Israel’s geography.

“Generally, Bnei Akivah tries to stay away from politics as much as we can,” Sokol said. “We do believe ideally that Israel would be all ours. So making a map that suddenly explains the Green Line, it’s a deeper discussion, but for the most part we ignore it because we’re not trying to get into this deeper controversy.”

But a call to the central office in New York of Bnei Akiva, which oversees the movement’s nine summer camps, produced a more politically committed response about the use of maps with no Green Line by all its camp affiliates.

“We use the map of Israel,” said Bini Dachs, the movement’s operations director. “I’m surprised you’re even asking that question.” She then said she couldn’t comment but would pass the question to Bnei Akiva’s director, Rabbi Shaul Feldman. He did not call back.

Rules proscribing the Green Line are not limited to Modern Orthodox camps. At Wisconsin’s Camp Interlaken, which identifies as pluralistic, Israel educator Yoav Yaron said the maps of Israel hanging around don’t have the Green Line.

“The Green Lines don’t appear, because we don’t want to get into politics,” Yaron said.

This exasperates Yonah London and others advocating the use of Green Line maps.

“If the Palestinians had a map that showed all of Israel proper and the West Bank and Gaza as the State of Palestine, the Jewish people would be up in arms and say they want to get rid of us and throw us in the sea,” London said. “Yet we are willing to put up this map [without a Green Line] and say it’s not making any political statement about the Palestinians?”

At Oberlin College this past year, Yonah London found Jews like himself who were struggling to negotiate a deep love and growing frustration with Israel. He joined J Street. And at a conference he listened to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, speak about the need for both peoples to recognize each other on their respective maps.

When Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to revive the Middle East peace negotiations collapsed this past March, J Street launched an initiative called “Our Future, Our Choice,” which in part aims to get Jewish institutions, including camps, synagogues and day schools, to adopt an Israel map with a clear Green Line.

“We had a sense that things diplomatically might not be moving at the moment, but we wanted to ensure that the concept of the two-state solution stayed at the forefront of the Jewish community conversation,” said Rachel Lerner, senior vice president of community relations for J Street.

Over the past few months, a number of Reform rabbis have replaced the map in their synagogues with one designed and provided by J Street. In an email to the Forward, Jacobs stated that he’s “encouraging those who are part of the URJ, across our various sectors, to use a map that delineates the Green Line… to clearly illustrate our commitment to two states.”

At OSRUI, before camp began this summer, Yonah London approached camp director Jerry Kaye and requested that only maps with a Green Line be used.

London said that Kaye “wasn’t exactly sure about the importance of making sure these maps have these lines on them. He said specifically that it should be left up to the staff as a whole to decide what we wanted to do through some democratic process.” In an initial interview, Kaye told the Forward that staff members could use any map they were comfortable using.

“I am not going to legislate that there must be a Green Line or there can’t be a Green Line,” he said. “Rather, I’m saying the Green Line is one iteration of Israel’s evolution and certainly an important one — but there are people with other views.” A few days later, Kaye called to clarify that maps with a Green Line will be hanging around camp this summer, in addition to historical maps of Israel’s development dating back to the Ottoman Empire.

“The Green Line is just a basic idea, not a radical notion,” Rabbi Andrea London said. “It’s not trying to press one solution or another. It’s saying that right now, Palestinians on one side of the Green Line are treated differently than Palestinians on the other side. That’s a fact. Everyone knows that. [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu would tell you that.”

At Ramah, the camping arm of the Conservative Judaism movement, which attracts about 7,500 campers annually, no policy requires staff and educators to use a specific map of Israel. Mitchell Cohen, national director of the National Ramah Commission Inc., said maps with the Green Line are used for the most part, and that Ramah’s official Israel map is currently being redesigned to make the Green Line more prominent.

“I think having the Green Line is very important,” Cohen said. “It doesn’t mean you want to sever the West Bank from Israel proper, it’s just a starting point for a discussion that’s going on now. I would say the vast majority of Ramah leaders believe in the two-state solution, so not having the Green Line is a little bit silly.”

Still, at a few Ramah camps, large maps of Israel without any demarcation of the West Bank and Gaza are prominent, particularly on the big climbing walls that campers love to scale, and which loom over the camp. Cohen said the climbing wall maps have caused a bit of controversy with parents and campers, but the entire camp context paints a more complex picture of the reality.

“What we hope is that people don’t rush to conclusions based on a map or based on a song or slogan, but use our camping experience to have a deeper educational understanding of the situation,” Cohen said.

Outside the Jewish community, the U.S. government, the United Nations and major mapmakers use maps that demarcate Israel proper from the Palestinian territories.

In contrast, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism offers a highly detailed map, with red shading for Area A and B of the West Bank, but without an explicit Green Line. From looking at one of the ministry’s “Go Israel” maps, a tourist could view a trip from Jerusalem to Ramallah, or even to the Jenin refugee camp, as breezily as he could a trip to Tel Aviv.

“This issue can make people uncomfortable, and I think that that’s great,” Lerner said. “I think it’s important to spark a conversation about why we use the maps we do. And what our future looks like.”

Referring to Israel maps with the Green Line, she added, “If we’re uncomfortable with it, and we support a two-state solution, then [let’s discuss] why we’re uncomfortable.”

Contact Yardain Amron at amron@forward.com

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