How a Pioneering Geographer Envisions the Israeli-Palestinian Border

How did Israel ‘lose’ Taba? What happens if the Israeli government insists on including every tiny West Bank settlement on the map? Meet Prof. Moshe Brawer, the centenarian and the atlas

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Moshe Brawer.
Moshe Brawer.Credit: Meged Gozani
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

Moshe Brawer didn’t bother himself with existential questions when he celebrated his 100th birthday this month. The Israel Prize-winning geography professor isn’t preoccupied with what he calls “nonsense like that.” He sharply separates the wheat from the chaff and pushes to one side what’s not relevant to the subject he’s immersed in or the conversation he’s conducting. That tenacity and focus allow him to preserve the reputation he gained in cartography, a profession he’s been engaged in since before Israel’s creation.

For decades, there wasn’t an Israeli pupil whose textbooks didn’t include Brawer’s “Atlas of the World.” He’s currently working on the 2020 edition of the book, which will be the 67th version since its original publication in 1950, and also the last under his editorship. (He’ll soon hand over the reins to a successor, Dr. Haim Srebro.) In addition to the volume with which his name is synonymous, Brawer has also published 20 other atlases, in a number of languages.

His life’s project began in 1945, upon the conclusion of World War II when, as a student, he traveled to Vienna from Mandatory Palestine to cover events in traumatized Europe for the newspaper Hatzofeh, the organ of the Mizrachi national-religious movement, under the auspices of the Mandatory authorities; at that time, as a foreign correspondent from a British colony, Brawer had to wear a British Army uniform. In the Austrian capital, where he had been born and educated, he entered the only bookstore he found open.

“The manager said that the Russian army had robbed all the stores,” Brawer relates, “but that the soldiers weren’t interested in books, so he still had merchandise to sell. An Austrian atlas printed before the war, which I remembered from my father’s house, caught my eye. It had been published in new editions, over a period of a hundred years by the leading cartographic institute in Europe, Hölzel. I purchased it in exchange for American cigarettes, and as I leafed through it, the idea came to me of publishing it in Hebrew.

“I decided to go to the institute and examine the feasibility of the idea,” he continues. “I found it closed. A neighbor said he knew the owner and would let him know I was looking for him. He was surprised that someone in a British uniform who spoke fluent German in a Viennese dialect, was looking for a geographical institute. I gave him the address of the hotel where the British officers and I were staying, and waited. The next day, I was informed that an Austrian was looking for me. It was Hugo von Eckelt, the director of the cartographic institute and a very pleasant person. It later turned out that he had rescued Jews during the war.

“We found ourselves talking for hours. In the meantime, it was getting dark outside, and at the time, public transportation in Vienna only operated until nightfall. How would the Austrian get back to his home, which was on the other side of Vienna? You need good luck in everything, and we had it here, too. The drivers of the ambulance unit of the British army in Vienna were Israeli women, so I was able to arrange for an ambulance driver from Haifa to take him through the American zone of Vienna, enter the French zone and get to his house in the Russian zone, safely.”

Within a few days, Brawer and von Eckelt had signed an agreement for the publication of a Hebrew edition of the atlas. Funding came in part from Jewish speculators who wanted to exchange Austrian schillings for Palestine currency. Money also came from the sale of property that had belonged to Brawer’s mother and had been returned to the family not long before by the Austrian authorities.

In the city where so many of Judaism’s holy books had been published, not one printing house had machinery with Hebrew letters: All were destroyed by the Nazis.

It would be another five years before the atlas was published in Vienna. The greatest obstacle loomed just before the final stage. In the city where so many of Judaism’s holy books had been published, not one printing house had machinery with Hebrew letters: All the local Hebrew and Jewish cultural institutions had been destroyed by order of the Nazis.

“Then we discovered that in the 1930s, a Catholic monastery about 20 kilometers from Vienna had printed the New Testament in Hebrew for missionary purposes,” Brawer recalls. “To our surprise, they had a printing press with all the Hebrew letters in the biblical font. The person in charge was an old monk who could read the letters and was familiar with Hebrew vowels, and the head of the monastery agreed to prepare the names of the cities and countries for our atlas.”

Brawer combined work on the atlas with academic studies in England. The first edition was ready to go to press by 1947. But Israel’s War of Independence delayed the project, as no one could be found to finance the remaining costs of the printing. Then, in the wake of the 1949 armistice agreements, revisions had to be made in the borders appearing in the atlas. The first Hebrew-language edition was finally printed in Vienna in February 1950.

Moshe Brawer, in a British Army uniform.

In the first years of the new state, a ban was imposed on the import of Hebrew books to Israel – a directive was issued to print books there. It was not until shortly before the start of the new, 1950-51 school year that permission was received to bring the atlases in. But then came a new obstacle: criticism, mainly from publishing competitors, because they were printed in Austria, “a Nazi state from which Hitler came.” Despite this, Brawer says, the first edition was “snapped up within two months.” Since 1955, “Atlas of the World” has been printed in Israel.

Cartographic death notices

Brawer finds it difficult to explain “in a nutshell” the theory behind the compilation of an atlas. One problem an Israeli cartographer confronts is the need to get information from Arab and Muslim states.

“Here on the table I have a great deal of material that I received from the Department of Land and Survey of Jordan, and the same from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The countries that refuse to be in contact with me are Syria and Iran,” Brawer relates. “But I overcome that, too. If I need up-to-date material on the population density in different parts of Iran, or about a new transportation line that was built there, I have a source in Europe that receives the information from there.”

Ricochets from the Mideast conflict arrived from the Israeli side as well. In the period of Limor Livnat’s tenure as education minister (2001-2006), Brawer received a copy of the minister’s directive not to use his atlas, following a complaint lodged by the Yesha Council of settlements to the effect that some communities in the occupied territories were not marked on the maps. “The atlas has a policy hostile to settlements,” the complaint stated.

“I met with Livnat and explained to her that it’s physically impossible to place an unlimited number of names in one square centimeter of a map,” Brawer recalls. “Geographically, if there is an Arab village with a population of 3,000 next to a settlement that has 100 residents, I am compelled to prefer the Arab village. We agreed that if I found that the map allowed another settlement to be inserted, I would insert it, but if, geographically, there was no place for another name, it would stay like that.”

Livnat also objected to the text at the start of the atlas. You listed all the countries and a few basic data about them, and you entered Judea and Samaria below Israel, as though it were a separate political entity. It was claimed that you did not recognize Israel’s rule in the territories. How did you get out of that one?

Brawer: “It was agreed that I would leave the texts about Israel and about Judea and Samaria separate, but would place them all within a black border, so people would know that they belonged together. But then I started to get letters about the black border, which resembled a death notice. People asked me, ‘Did Israel and Judea and Samaria die, and are you announcing their death in the atlas?’ After Livnat stopped serving as education minister, I removed the black border, and today it appears the way it did before her term as minister.”

'The countries that refuse to be in contact with me are Syria and Iran,' Brawer relates. 'But I overcome that, too.'

Editing an atlas is a political act, from demarcating the borders to assigning names. How do you evade politics in that knotty tangle?

“I do not insert elements relating to policy. I follow my scientific approach. Certainly there are people who dispute my professional policy, but as the author, I enter my opinion. In general, I accept the official border that governments decide on, but when there are territorial disputes I have no choice but to accept one of the versions. The formula is not decided arbitrarily, but relies on international institutions, opinions and judgments.

“If, for example, we take the differences over the border between Iraq and Jordan, I prefer the Jordanian version, because they have a more stable and orderly government, while in Iraq there is total chaos. It’s the same with the border between Turkey and Syria, in the 2020 edition. I will probably use the Turkish border, because we don’t know who’s in charge in Syria. But I will add an additional broken line and note that it is the border according to the Syrian government’s version. There are cases in which I provide the versions of both sides, next to each other, such as with the border between Egypt and Sudan.”

What about Israel?

As a rule, Brawer refuses to answer questions about current politics, but replies, “I accept the border of the government. I have marked the Gaza Strip in a different color, without noting whether it is a state or a territory. The borders with our neighboring countries – Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon – are agreed on by everyone, other than disputes at specific places. They were also the borders during the 30 years of the British Mandate. With Syria there is only an armistice border. With the Palestinians, I mark the border of the armistice agreement with Jordan – it is based on a military situation that was created when the fighting ended in 1949, with certain corrections and changes introduced in the agreement. That is the Green Line. There are disputes about brief segments of it, but in practice it exists and constitutes the border between the State of Israel and the West Bank, which is defined officially as territory that Israel rules as an occupier.”

Pioneering research

My meetings with Brawer are held in his study, which is packed with books, maps and certificates of merit, in his pleasant apartment in Ramat Gan. He’s lucid and vital. Every question is answered at length and displays an exact memory for details, dates, names and places. He is well informed about what is happening in the world, reads international papers every day and is knowledgeable about every national conflict.

Moshe Brawer holding the first edition of "The Atlas of the Middle East" in English, 1986.Credit: Israel Sun

“I try to work normally,” he says, “but during the day I have to devote time to my wife and look after the household. When everyone is asleep and the phones stop ringing, I work until about 1 A.M.” His health is good, he says; he takes no medications or vitamins. Until four years ago he swam every morning. “Whenever I feel weak, I go to the computer, sit down to work and forget that I’m not feeling well.” Occasionally he visits Tel Aviv University, which, he says, houses the best library of maps in Israel.

Mosher Brawer was born in Vienna on November 3, 1919, the first child of educated ultra-Orthodox parents, and is a graduate of the city’s university. His maternal grandfather was Rabbi Meir Meirson, one of the leaders of the Vienna Jewish community. He moved with his family to Jerusalem when he was a year old.

“I was born into university life,” he relates. “My parents educated and taught me from a young age. When I was 4, my mother began teaching me German, and for years she read me German literature. I was 10 when I started to recite poems by Goethe. My father taught me geography, geology and Judaism. We read Jewish literature, the Talmud, and every Shabbat we learned the weekly Torah portion with Rashi’s commentary and others. While the children outside played soccer, I read the Book of the Kuzari, by Judah Halevi. From an early age, my father took me on geographical tours.”

Brawer’s mother, Sarah, studied language and philology and taught French in public schools. His father was the geographer and historian Abraham Jacob Brawer, who was known for his research and for the many textbooks he wrote, which were the only ones in their subjects at the time in Hebrew. The elder Brawer wrote many op-eds for Haaretz, in which he expressed unusual conciliatory views regarding issues of religion and politics.

Moshe, the son, married Rina Arison, the sister of Ted Arison, who owned Carnival Cruise Lines and a controlling interest in Bank Hapoalim, and the aunt of businesswoman Shari Arison, reputedly Israel’s wealthiest woman. Rina, who is 90, and Moshe have three daughters and eight grandchildren. She is ill with Alzheimer’s, about which her husband says with sorrow and resignation, “We have the best physicians in our family, and I also asked friends in London who excel in medicine. All of them said that nothing can be done.”

His younger sister, Hulda Liberanome, who also turned 90 this year, was Haaretz’s correspondent in Italy and the Vatican for 50 years. The middle sister, Yehudit, died of a disease many years ago. Brother and sister follow a largely secular way of life; Brawer says that he ceased to be religiously observant in the wake of the sights he encountered in World War II.

He enrolled for undergraduate studies in geography and geology both in Vienna and in London, but on each occasion World War II disrupted his plans and he had to return to Israel, where no such university department existed at the time. Instead, he studied mathematics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He finally obtained a Ph.D. in geography from the University of London; his thesis dealt with the boundaries of Palestine.

'My studies on the borders of Israel were pioneering, no one had done it before me.'

In the 1960s, he established departments of geography in Tel Aviv University and in Bar-Ilan University, and headed both, each for several years. He taught generations of geographers and cartographers, was a member of the Education Ministry committee that set the geography curriculum for the country’s schools, and served on the editorial board of the Encyclopedia Hebraica. In 2002, Brawer was awarded the Israel Prize, the country’s greatest civilian honor, for his research in geography. The judges noted, “He is the most important scientist in the realm of compiling geographical atlases, and generations of pupils are educated by their lights.”

Were you surprised to receive the Israel Prize?

“I wasn’t surprised. My studies on the borders of Israel were pioneering, no one had done it before me. I unearthed documents that were previously unknown about the way that Britain and [Ottoman] Turkey demarcated the Land of Israel’s border with Egypt.”

Population exchange

The documents in question, which were appended to his doctoral thesis, submitted in 1956, refer to the discussions that were held at the beginning of the last century on the demarcation of the border – which exists to this day – between Israel and Egypt. As an expert on borders, Brawer served as an adviser in a number of diplomatic negotiations conducted by Israel’s governments. In one such negotiation, from which Brawer was absent, Israel lost Taba to Egypt.

“Menachem Begin thought that a border is a legal concept, not a geographical one,” Brawer explains, “so he did not consult with border experts. The border was set in 1906 by Britain, which ruled in Egypt, and Turkey, which ruled in Palestine. In 1913, the British moved the border unilaterally to incorporate Taba into Egyptian territory. At Camp David [in 1978], the Egyptians got Israel to sign off on the new map.”

It was only after the delegation returned to Israel and approached Brawer that the “mistake” was discovered, and it was decided to withdraw, as agreed, from all of Sinai, with the exception of Taba. The dispute was submitted to international arbitration, and Brawer was coopted to the expert team that was dispatched to the talks. The arbitrators decided that Israel must honor its signature and therefore withdraw from the Taba area, adjacent to Eilat.

During the peace negotiations with Jordan, in the period of the Yitzhak Rabin government, Brawer put forward the blueprint for leaving two enclaves just east of the border – Tzofar, south of the Dead Sea, and Naharayim, in the Jordan Valley – in Israel’s hands for 25 years, thus enabling Israeli farmers to continue working the land. (The Israeli lease of the enclaves ended earlier this month, and Jordan reclaimed them.)

Meeting at Camp David, September 1978. From left: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Credit: Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

In contacts with Syria, which did not bear fruit under Rabin, and continued under Shimon Peres, Brawer drew up a document pointing to the differences between the international border and the de facto border that had existed since the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel expressed readiness in principle to withdraw to the former, Syria demanded the latter according to the 1967 lines, along with control over half of Lake Kinneret.

Brawer had no input in the Oslo Accords, in 1991, but in 2000, ahead of the Camp David summit convened by U.S. President Bill Clinton, two advisers to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat visited him in his office at Tel Aviv University. He tried to persuade them that it would not be worth the Palestinians’ while to insist that Israel return completely to the Green Line or to seal it hermetically, because parts of the Palestinian areas would become desolate frontier regions. Instead, he suggested that a revised and open border should be set between the future Palestinian political entity and Israel. “They were not persuaded,” he says.

How would you suggest arriving at a diplomatic agreement on a border between Israel and the Palestinians?

“It’s actually a variation on the proposal made by the late Prof. Elisha Efrat, who was one of Israel’s most important geographers. He thought it would be worth considering a population exchange involving certain Arab communities – to suggest to them moving to settlements whose residents preferred returning to Israel rather than living in an Arab state [Palestine]. I think the Green Line should be changed and that if a Palestinian state is established, under an agreement, a number of Arab locales in Israel that are close to the Green Line should be transferred to the Palestinian state – Umm al-Fahm and its environs, for example. Part of the Arab population in Israel along the Green Line would become citizens of the Palestinian state, and areas in the West Bank with a small Arab population would be annexed to Israel.

“There is no doubt that the main objectors to this plan would be the residents of Umm al-Fahm, who have it good in Israel and would not want to be annexed to the Palestinian state. Accordingly, I’d say that this is a realistic approach that has to be examined from a geographical perspective. When a Palestinian state is established, it must cover an area with the highest possible continuity of the Arab population. If so, Israel will be a Jewish state with a high percentage of Jews: Presently 75 percent of the population is Jewish [74.3 percent, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics in December 2018], and this would thus rise to 85 percent. The Arab population of Galilee, which is an enclave within a Jewish population, will remain in the Jewish state.”

You are effectively talking about a forced exchange of populations and the revocation of citizenship.

“After World War II in Europe, the principle of maximum population in a contiguous area was applied. Areas where a German minority lived became part of Germany, and today the border between France and Germany and in other places is an ethnic border. The Polish minority in Ukraine was transferred to Poland. Before World War II, almost 40 percent of Poland’s population were not Poles, but Ukrainians, Germans and others. Today Poland is populated almost 100 percent by Poles.

“I try to see things from a geographical viewpoint,” Brawer continues, “while also looking at the way other places resolved problems of borders and of two peoples optimally. Three peoples live in Switzerland and get along very well, in Belgium there are two peoples that do have problems, but still get along quite well. Certainly there is no violence. We find the same situation elsewhere as well. There are many countries that experienced tense relations between them for lengthy periods, but then reached an agreement. It can be done.”

Holy battle

Brawer knows the West Bank well. In fact, he is familiar with almost every Palestinian village in it, having been in charge of a thorough survey that was conducted there. About 200 geography students from both Tel Aviv and Bar-Ilan universities took part in the project, undertaken in the 1970s to map and scrutinize the villages. The findings are available to the public in files housed in the geography department at Tel Aviv University, with each file containing information about one village.

Despite his proposal for a population exchange, whose spirit recalls the plan put forward by Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, Brawer is not oblivious to Palestinian history in the region. That is attested to by the furor that arose at the beginning of the decade in the government’s names committee, a public body that operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office. The committee is composed of about 20 experts who decide the official names of the country’s cities, towns and villages, which are binding on the state’s institutions and appear in official publications and maps issued by Israel.

The committee recommended that on official state maps in Arabic, Jerusalem appear under its Arabic name, Al-Quds (“the holy one”), as it has been rendered in Arabic literature since the 13th century. The government, led by Minister Yisrael Katz, demanded that the city’s name appear in Arabic as a transliteration of the word “Yerushalayim” (the city’s name in Hebrew) and not by its Arabic name. Outraged, Brawer resigned as head of the committee. His sister relates that envoys of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried in vain to persuade him to rejoin. As part of the government’s initiative to erase the city’s Arab history and affiliation, new signs today do not use the name Al-Quds.

“In the [ultra-Orthodox] neighborhood of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem, pashkavilim (street posters) don’t use the name ‘Jerusalem,’” Brawer notes. “They use the Hebrew abbreviation for ‘holy city.’ What is the holy city in Arabic? Al-Quds. What’s wrong with ‘Al-Quds’? The government doesn’t agree to using the Arabic name Yafa [Jaffa], but insists on Yafo, and instead of Wadi Ara they insist on Nahal Iron. I am not pleased with what has been happening in Israeli politics lately. If they were to ask for my opinion, I would say gently that it’s not wise to behave like this.”

Are you worried about the future here?

“I prefer not to answer that – you’ll understand on your own.”

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