What Maps Tell Us, Outside the Lines

In my Introduction to Sociology course, the one I took as a first year student at UC Santa Cruz, the professor said over and over “the map is not the territory. The map is not the territory.” Our job, as budding sociologists was first to understand this difference

His words stick with me, and I occasionally repeat them to my own students. The map is not the territory. But, maps are powerful and maps are political and maps are charged with history and power and contestation. In a sense, the stories they hide are more interesting than the shapes they reveal. One need think only of the Mercator Projection or any number of scholarly books or museum exhibitions about maps and their power. Maps, while only representations, are particularly charged representations. Maps not only represent space, but they orient us in space and time, which means that they represent physical properties as much as they do conceptual, cultural, and political ones.

Maps shape both how we see the world and how we think about it.

Which brings us to taglit birthright Israel. Some recent research took me to the organization’s homepage, where I saw this image:

taglit birthright israel ho
Note the map on the far right of the page (because of the way the page is sized, it may not come up when you migrate to it, but, if you’re using a mac, press “command -” and it will reduce the size of the page and it will come into view). Anyone with a passing interest in Israel and politics will immediately recognize the sweep of the Mediterranean coastline and the absence of any other border markings of any kind.

Educationally, the map is both disingenuous and disorienting, as it elides the complex and contested politics that literally shape the region. It is a region that has been defined by both maps and map-making, from the end of the end of the Ottoman Empire, through the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the UN Partition Plan of 1947, to today’s debates over where one nation-state ends and where its neighbor begins. Frankly, there are few borders less scrutinized and less contested than the one between Israel and the West Bank. To omit that border, in particular, is to suggest that Israel somehow rises above the politics of drawing lines on maps.

The Taglit-Birthright Israel home page contains lots of important information with photos and FAQ’s an the like, so that visitors can find their way through the program’s application process. But it, too, is an educational site, as it engages potential applicants with images, text, and maps that represent Israel. these representations have consequences and they bear powerful political implications. By mapping Israel in this way, the map distorts more than it illuminates, and it disfigures the histories and contemporary lives of all people living in the region.

Taglit Birthright claims that it does not have a “political” point to make. But the map suggests otherwise. The map may not be the territory, but maps matter and their most important messages are not spatial but ideological.

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