Spring 2004


  The Map on the ‘Blue Box’
Leads Prof. Yoram Bar-Gal, a Geographer,
to Explore…Propaganda

Maps play an important role in propaganda as anyone who has seen cartographic representations of the Middle East published by various Arab countries and groups can attest.

        The Jewish side has not been immune to the use of such propaganda.  Next time you pass the “blue box”—the JNF pishke that used to be so ubiquitous in Jewish locations around the world, a symbol of the renaisant state, both in pre-State times and in the early years of the country—just take a look at the map.   

        That’s exactly what Assoc. Prof. Yoram Bar-Gal of the Dept. of Geography, has done.  His investigation, published as part of his book, Propaganda and Zionist Education (University of Rochester Press, 2003), has led to some interesting observations about the use of maps of Israel for propaganda purposes by the Jewish National Fund, both on its own behalf and for the future state.

        The map of the Land of Israel constituted one of the most important means by which the JNF explained its positions, its aims, and its attainments, the geographer stated.  “The people in its information department well knew how to exploit the map medium in the most sophisticated manner to get across their message,” he remarked.  “Under their influence, planning, and guidance, several of the most famous representations of the map of the Land of Israel were created.  In particular, the ‘Blue Box’ and Abraham Braver’s wall map.”

        Bar-Gal pointed to the Blue Box.  The collection box is decorated with a map of Israel without borders, spreading east across the Jordan, north into Lebanon, but south only to Beersheba.  The image of the country appears as white space, empty of settlements, though with the cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa stated on it in non-prominent print.

“It is,” he states, a graphical representation of a political decision by the Jewish National Fund’s headquarters and those who headed the organization.  Look at the contrasting colors—blue and white—and the line of the Jordan River in the center of the white area.

        “It is an easy, convenient cartographic means of grabbing the eye, of transmitting a political message.  Not only were adults exposed to it, but millions of Jewish children, who put in their coins into the box, sometimes in a special ceremony.”

        According to Bar-Gal, the JNF message was not just one of a “Greater” Eretz Israel, but also a delegitimization of privately held property, even if held by Jews, but especially that held by non-Jews, Arab and British.  The white blocs emphasize “Jewish lands” redeemed by the JNF.  A cartographical distortion, generated by the power of color, weakens the view—and so the perceived importance—of land not held by the JNF, even though such tracts comprised much of the country.

        The Blue Box’s map, he pointed out, had its origin in the cover of the JNF journal of November 1928.  The background of the illustration drawn by the organization’s graphic artist contained the classic blue box, with a map of the Land of Israel, running from the Litani River in what is now Lebanon to Beersheba and from the Mediterranean Sea to the desert in what is now Jordan.  When the JNF redesigned the box, it adopted this idea.   The design conveyed the messages the organization wanted to get across.

        The Blue Box may have been the most famous icon containing the pre-State map of Israel, but maps of the Land also found their way into children’s games, stamps, stationery, and lapel stickers.  They were all, Bar-Gal observed, fashioned in line with JNF propaganda policy.

        But even the scientific maps produced by cartographers, he continued, contained propagandistic elements.  The JNF began producing maps of Israel in 1924, two years after the Zionist Federation in London came out with a Hebrew-German-language map for its own needs.  But these did not meet its expectations, and the JNF turned to Israel’s first Jewish geographer, Avraham Braver.  The result was a wall map intended originally for schools that, Bar-Gal noted, still serves as the basis for all wall maps of the Land of Israel.

        The scientific map, nevertheless, reflected both the cartographer’s world view and JNF’s cartographic outlook.  Bar-Gal gave several examples. The number of Arab villages named is relatively small, giving the impression that the land is barely occupied.  This is particularly true in the Galilee and the hills of Judea and Samaria, where there were large Arab populations in the 1930s. 

This distortion, he says critically, is all the more striking compared to the detail and emphasis given to the Jewish settlements in the valleys, which leaves the impression of densely populated Jewish areas.

 If the wall map was for high school students, elementary school children were given the JNF’s ideological/educational message in board games.  “A Trip in the Land of Israel”—one of several names by which the late 1920s game was called—was not the first game to use a map of Israel as a background for adventures, the geography educator explained.  It was, though, a central institutional attempt to turn it into a propaganda tool for children and youth.

The game featured five “Jewish tourists” who “arrive” by ship in Haifa and go to 101 settlement points after putting “money” in a bank.  A player who lands on a flourishing settlement earns money; one who lands on a desolate, abandoned area has to pay.  The tourist who gets to the top of Mt. Hermon first and waves the Jewish flag wins all the money in the bank.

Board games with maps of Israel, he remarked, continued to be produced by private firms after the establishment of the State and even after the Six Day War.  The basic educational techniques and ideas, he concluded, were the same in these cases as the JNF propagandists had laid down forty years earlier.


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