Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Blurring the Geo-Body: Mental Maps of Israel/Palestine

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Blurring the Geo-Body: Mental Maps of Israel/Palestine

Article excerpt

This article explores how geographical forms of Israel/Palestine are represented in maps sketched by high school students. The results show that they are significantly different from the geopolitical map, demonstrating the unique ways through which these students think about the national territory. The paper probes two sources that feed into the country's geographical image: its ongoing politics of treating boundaries as potential frontiers, and the school curriculum, which conveys a double message regarding borders. This image of a blurred geo-body invites for creative resolutions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This article asks how Israel and Palestine are imagined by their inhabitants. Do Jews and Palestinians perceive of their country as having a geographical body? And if indeed they assume the country has a clear perimeter, what is its shape? These questions are exceptionally interesting when the controversy is over territory. Geographer Robert Sack argued that human territoriality - the attempt to affect actions and interactions by asserting control over a specific geographic area - is not accidental but rather a complex strategy.1 De-territorialization, its flip-side, is part of this strategy. Here I ask how do territorialization and de-territorialization manifest themselves in Israeli and Palestinian imaginations of national boundaries and which forces feed them.

To do so, we look into the mental maps of Israeli high school students. Mental maps, also known as cognitive maps, can be defined as representations of people's perception of an area, or in Fredric Jameson's more Marxist interpretation, as a "representation of the subject's Imaginary relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence."2 The mental maps of the high school students revealed what might be termed as a consistent confusion regarding their country's perimeter.

This confusion echoes earlier work on the simultaneous construction of Israel's borders as barriers as well as potential gateways for expansion. In other words, borders, from the state's inception, have been concurrently sanctified and trivialized.3 This logic influenced the students' imagination of their country.4 While they did outline the state's border, and created a division between "inside" and "outside," a national body versus its surroundings, the body was quite unlike the one found in standard cartographic depictions. Drawing the shape of the state turned out to be a complicated task.

The limits of this study should be spelled out at the outset. First, no comparative case is offered here. A comparison would allow us to assess whether the geographical knowledge of students, as manifested here, differs from that of students elsewhere. Especially illuminating would be a comparison with geographical perceptions of youth in conflict zones. Second, the exercise of mental mapping has its limitations.5 As new navigating technologies have grown popular, standard maps are less available and perhaps no longer act as models for our mental maps. Their role in the lives of the participants should be taken into account. Finally, there are gaps between one's geographical understanding and the ability to draw it; individuals' variations in their drawing skills will inevitably be evident in the sketches.

Despite these reservations, an analysis of the students' mental maps discloses clues regarding the contemporary relations between young citizens and "the national space." The paper begins with a short methodological section, followed by an outline of the major findings, under a subsection called "the ambiguous geo-body." It then moves on to review the literature on borders as embraced and rejected concurrently, and touches briefly on its manifestation in the school curriculum. It ends with a summary and discussion, suggesting that there may be a bright side to the indefinite attitude towards borders in Israel/Palestine.


This paper is based on a study of spatial perceptions conducted between 2009 and 2011 among 400 university, college, and high school students. …

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