Moshe Brawer

The map-maker extraordinary who defined Israel’s borders


The pioneering Israel Prize-winning geographer Moshe Brawer, who played a key role in determining Israel’s border with Jordan, has died aged 101. An international consultant on border issues, his atlases formed the bedrock of Israeli education, and are widely used in schools and universities.

But any cartographer invites political controversy when defining Israel’s borders. Brawer chose a scientific rather than political approach. On the question of agreeing a border between Israel and the Palestinians he was criticised for proposing a population exchange, not unlike that suggested by Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman.

He told Ha-aretz in 2019: “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.”

Brawer generally accepted the official border decided by governments. “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.”

Moshe Brawer was born in Vienna, Austria the son of ultra-Orthodox, Zionist parents. His grandfather, Rabbi Meir Meirson, was one of the leaders of the Vienna Jewish community. His father was the noted geographer and historian, Abraham Jacob Brawer. His mother, Sarah taught French in public schools. The family moved to Jerusalem in 1920, when Brawer was a year old. His mother taught him German when he was four, and at the age of 10 he could recite poems by Goethe. His father taught him geography, geology and Judaism.

He studied mathematics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and went to London in the 1930s as a journalist for the Jewish Chronicle and Hatzofe, the religious Zionist newspaper. He completed his PhD at the London School of Economics under one of the leading geographers of the time Charles Fawcett. His thesis was on the boundaries of Palestine.

Brawer married Rina Arison at London’s Hampstead Synagogue. The poet and publisher Jeremy Robson recalled his decades-long family friendship with the Brawers, and that his mother had made their wedding cake, aptly designed with a map of Israel, which Brawer had never forgotten.

In 1945, he returned to Vienna from Mandatory Palestine to cover events in war-torn Europe for Hatzofeh. Wandering into the only open bookstore proved something of an epiphany for Brawer, He discovered an Austrian atlas printed before the war, which he remembered from his father’s house. “I purchased it in exchange for American cigarettes, and as I leafed through it, the idea came to me of publishing it in Hebrew.”

He signed an agreement with Hugo von Eckelt, the director of the Cartographic Institute, who had personally rescued Jews during the war, to publish a Hebrew edition of the atlas. The enterprise was part funded by Jewish speculators and the sale of property that had belonged to Brawer’s mother, recently returned to the family by the Austrian authorities.

As a journalist Brawer saw the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, and reported from the Rhodes Armistice Talks in 1949, after Israel’s War of Independence, where borders of the State of Israel were demarcated. It meant revisions had to be made in the borders, delaying production until February, 1950, when the first Hebrew-language edition was finally printed in Vienna.

It was not all plain sailing. The fact that the atlas was printed in Austria aroused criticism from competitors but did not prevent it being “snapped up within two months”, according to Brawer.

Brawer founded two of the country’s five university geography departments apart from his authorship of The Atlas of the World, an Israeli textbook which is now in 67 editions. He also compiled 20 other atlases in different languages.

Academic plaudits followed: he became President of the Israel Geographical Association, and Chairman of the State Committee for Naming New Settlements. He was involved in Israel’s peace negotiations relating to maps or expertise on borders.

In 2002 Brawer was awarded the Israel Prize for his contributions to the country’s geography. He admitted, himself, that his studies on the borders of Israel were pioneering.

“I unearthed documents previously unknown about the way Britain and Ottoman Turkey demarcated Israel’s border with Egypt.”

But he was soon to discover that an Israeli cartographer must navigate a political minefield to secure information from Arab and Muslim states. In Brawer’s own words: “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. 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.”

However, these problems were not confined to the Arab world alone. During Limor Livnat’s term as Education Minister from 2001-6, there was a complaint that some communities in the occupied territories were not marked on the maps.

Brawer explained the impossibility of placing an unlimited number of names in one square centimeter of a map. “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”.

Brawer knew the West Bank well and was familiar with almost every Palestinian village in it, having conducted a thorough survey of the area in the 1970s with some 200 geography students from Tel Aviv and Bar-Ilan Universities.

In a letter to Jeremy Robson, Brawer recalled his relationship with the writer Arthur Koestler. They had met in Mandatory Palestine towards the end of 1944 and Brawer introduced him to leading Arab personalities. He also took him to see abandoned Arab townships and villages.

Brawer leaves a legacy of atlases and valuable research publications. He is survived by his wife Rina, four children and eight grandchildren.


Moshe Brawer: born November 3, 1919. Died December 28, 2020

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