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Hebrew map drawn on the security barrier in Gilo, an Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem.

New book explores maps as tools of political power

Maps are more than two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional terrain. They are also powerful political tools to control territory, as Cornell sociologist and science studies scholar Christine Leuenberger explains in her new book, “The Politics of Maps: Cartographic Constructions of Israel/Palestine,” co-written with Izhak Schnell of Tel Aviv University.

As the co-authors write, historically “maps were the purview of a trained cadre of experts and surveyors that were in the service of the powerful ... . Maps helped create nations, boundaries, spatial imaginations, and national identities.”

An activist uses a map to explain the geopolitics of Jerusalem.

But things changed at the end of the 20th century with the advent of the internet, map-making software and GPS capabilities. Suddenly, map-making was in the hands of the people. Leuenberger and Schnell use Israel/Palestine as an example of the “rich story about the interlinkages between maps and politics” in places where territories and boundaries, as well as nationhood, are contested.

“I first came to Israel/Palestine as a Fulbright fellow expecting to only stay for one semester, but I fell in love with the region and the people and become drawn into its cultures and politics,” said Leuenberger, senior lecturer in the Department of Science and Technology Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. “For a sociologist and science studies scholar interested in the politics of science, Israel/Palestine is ground zero for how knowledge is political.”

Supported by a National Science Foundation Scholar’s grant, Leuenberger made numerous research trips to the region. The book took Leuenberger and Schnell nine years to complete. As she notes, “In such contested spaces, working with local academics – whether from Israel or the Palestinian territories – has been crucial in order to do justice to local perspectives and political complexities.”

The book’s nine chapters examine how maps helped make the Israeli state in 1948, and how in the early 1990s, Palestinians surveyed and mapped territories allocated to a future state of Palestine. In both cases, maps had geopolitical functions to help build envisioned nation-states. Yet they also became weapons in “map wars” that are being waged by various stakeholders over how to cartographically demarcate contested territories. The authors contend that such “map wars” in Israel/Palestine exemplify processes underway in other states across the globe, which are also engaged in disputes over the territorial integrity of nation-states.

The authors also explore borders and their significance in Israel/Palestine. “The mapping of Israel’s borders are where top-down mappings by colonial powers or clueless politicians intersect with complex regional realities,” they write. They add that the Green Line that marks the 1949 internationally recognized armistice line between Israel and the West Bank “exemplifies how a thoughtless delineation of the boundary by a bad map reader with a thick pencil can reverberate across time and space for decades.”

Leuenberger and Schnell conclude the book with an examination of Palestinian map-making. They emphasize that for Palestinians, surveying and mapping territory is “crucial for establishing the legitimacy and functionality of a future state.” The maps used for the book are part of the Leuenberger Israel/Palestine Map Collection available through Cornell University Library.

The story of maps, and of often ill-defined borders drawn by colonial powers or political officials without cartographic expertise, reveal the dangers of top-down mappings that do not attend to sociocultural, ethnic and political realities on the ground, said Leuenberger.

This is particularly relevant in light of the latest map that claims to bring peace to Israel/Palestine: the Vision for Peace Conceptual Map proposed by the Trump administration in 2020, she said.

“It fails to attend to the complex history and sociology of two peoples in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan Valley.”

Linda B. Glaser is the news and media relations manager for the College of Arts & Sciences.

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