Border Pedagogy in Israel

By Miles, William F. S. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Border Pedagogy in Israel


Miles, William F. S., The Middle East Journal


Sense of geographical place is an essential element in students' understanding of their own place in the world. For a country such as Israel, with numerous neighbors with which it has had contentious relations, the idea of place and especially the conception of "borders" takes on an even greater importance. This article examines in detail the teaching of borders in the Israeli secondary school curriculum by examining the maps and language used to describe the country's physical (and mental) borders.

Nothing concentrates the mind on border proximity like incoming rocket fire from across a nearby boundary. Precisely at the moment that I sat down to gather my thoughts to begin this article, warning sirens sounded; less than a minute later, four missiles exploded within the municipal bounds of the city in which lay my host university.1 The rockets were launched in Gaza, 25 miles to the west. Two days earlier, I had been visiting the separation fence in the Occupied West Bank, whose territorial limits lie only ten miles away, to the northeast. Conventional Israeli wisdom has it that only a continued Israel Defense Forces (IDF) presence in the West Bank prevents the kind of firing that has emanated from Gaza since Israel's evacuation from there in 2005. In contrast, Hamas - the governing authority in Gaza - denies the legitimacy of the State of Israel and, ipso facto, its declared boundaries. Between trips to the shelter, I wondered how permanent residents of this and other "border communities"2 inside Israel mentally process the nearness of their country's territorial limits.

Boundaries, by their very nature, are supposed to impart a sense of closure, of finality, of limits. However, more than six decades after the founding of Israel, and more than a decade since the Oslo Agreements established the framework of an independent Palestinian state in (parts of) the West Bank and Gaza, there remains considerable uncertainty over the actual territorial limits of Israel's boundaries. Far from being able to take Israel's borders for granted, they are the subject of disputation, negotiation, and conflict - this within the Israeli body politic itself, not to mention between Israel and her neighbors. Flux, uncertainty, and impermanence characterize what is supposed to be a subject of fixity, certainty, and finality - where the sovereignty of one state ends, and another begins.3 Within this context, how does one impart to the young citizens of the state - a state constituted of multiple ethnic and religious communities - consensual knowledge about the lines of delimitation of their country?

This article focuses on recent changes in the Israeli secondary school curriculum with respect to the teaching of borders, particularly for matriculation examination [bagrut] purposes. Although history and Bible studies also tangentially undertake border pedagogy, it is within the teaching of geography that contemporary treatment of boundary issues is most extensive. The major finding is that the new curriculum, in its much more extended treatment of Israel's borders [gevulot] than previously had been the case, blurs the boundary between geography and politics. It thereby reflects an unprecedented politicization of pedagogy within a system that heretofore had expressly banned politics within the geography curriculum. Whether this heralds a broader opening of pedagogical questions that had previously been taboo within the Israeli school system remains to be seen. I also examine recent changes in the standard atlas consulted by educators in Israel: these also reflect a more expansive view of the world, and relativize Israel's place within it.

Conceptually, this study lies within the broader framework of critical and comparative analysis of school textbooks.4 Within the context of Israel, Elie Podeh has conducted the most extensive investigation of Israeli history textbooks, particularly as relates to treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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