The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tel Aviv allowing kids to see Israel’s actual border shouldn’t be controversial

A section of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank. (Nasser Nasser/AP)

When the schoolkids of Tel Aviv return from summer vacation, they are likely to find something utterly unfamiliar taped or tacked to a wall of their classrooms, something that reveals a secret that educators have long hidden from them: A map showing the Green Line, the border between Israel and the occupied territory.

The maps are the idea of Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Chen Arieli, and were produced by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality. The national Education Ministry — under right-wing Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton — issued an angry response when Haaretz reported the story. Only the government’s own map agency is authorized to produce maps, the ministry spokesperson said, and Tel Aviv’s maps are not approved for classroom use. Arieli persisted: The maps will go up, she tweeted.

The political and legal history of the Green Line could fill books. For practical purposes, it marked the area under Israeli sovereignty, rule and law until the June 1967 Six-Day War. After the war, Israel held its newly conquered territories under military occupation — except for East Jerusalem, which it quickly annexed, and the Golan Heights, which it annexed in 1981. Former president Donald Trump’s recognition of the Golan annexation is the exception that proves the rule: Internationally, the Green Line is Israel’s recognized border.

Tel Aviv’s new school maps also show the “border of sovereignty,” which takes in the Golan and East Jerusalem but otherwise matches the Green Line. Together the two lines are essential for understanding Israel’s political, security and foreign policy issues. Yet official maps and textbooks don’t show them.

Hence, Tel Aviv city hall’s move is revolutionary. It un-cancels the borders of the country.

The decision to erase the Green Line was made a few months after the 1967 war. A memo I found in the personal archive of Yigal Allon, then the minister of labor, informed the head of the Survey Department, which was part of Allon’s ministry and had a near-monopoly on mapmaking. Henceforth, Allon wrote, maps would show only the ceasefire lines from the end of the June war.

Presumably, it took time for old maps to crumble and old textbooks to be replaced. But by the 1980s, the only place in Israel where I could find a current map showing the Green Line was on the wall of a foreign diplomat’s office. The location of the line faded from popular consciousness as the generation that grew up before 1967 aged. In 2005, two geography professors published research in which they asked university students to sketch the Green Line on a map. At Hebrew University, the country’s top institution, only 36.4 percent could do so.

The internet put an end to map monopolies. Google Maps does show the pre-1967 line, but as a broken gray line, which I suspect one notices only if one is looking for it.

Just how fuzzy is memory of the line? Take this incident: In 2013, the European Union announced guidelines for joint projects with Israel, specifying that no E.U. funds could be used in occupied territory. At an urgent top-level Israeli meeting, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other cabinet members heard that the rule would have prevented an E.U. loan to the Teva pharmaceutical firm because it has a plant in a well-known Jerusalem industrial park beyond the Green Line. No one present recalled that the park was in fact inside the pre-1967 Israel border.

Yet the line goes on shaping reality. On the Israeli side, the government is elected by the governed. On the West Bank side, the Palestinian population is subject to military occupation, now mixed with limited autonomy. Israeli settlers enjoy the rights of citizens, as if they lived inside Israel, under an “emergency” order that’s 55 years old. A tiff over renewing the order recently brought down the government and forced new elections.

How is an Israeli high school student supposed to understand this without an uncensored map? But the Green Line has become akin to sex in Victorian England: It’s the most important thing in adult life, but don’t talk about it — especially in front of the children.

The day after the story broke, the Education Ministry’s director general sent a letter to Tel Aviv city hall, demanding that the maps be taken down, claiming that they could “point to a particular political stand.” That’s nonsense.

Erasing the line is a political stance. Showing it makes it possible to analyze the spectrum of Israeli political views. The dispute over the map echoes the argument in other countries: Is education supposed to teach kids to think critically, or to think “correctly,” as one group or another defines “correct”?

It’s unclear whether the ministry has the authority or ability to make the city take the maps down. If they stay, some teachers will discuss them, others ignore them. And Tel Aviv is just one city, not the whole country.

Still, the effort offers a spark of hope. I’ll celebrate such sparks wherever I find them — especially if they illuminate the country’s most critical issue for the next generation.