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The company that rubbed out Israel

16 January 2015

SOMETIMES it is the small news story which does not attract much comment which worries away in the back of one's mind. For me, it was the news that the HarperCollins publishing house had omitted Israel from the atlases it produces for English-speaking schools in the Gulf.

A spokesman for the company explained, with breathtaking insouciance, that leaving Israel off the map reflected "local preferences".

The atlas shows Syria and Lebanon, Gaza and Jordan; but, as far as a Gulf-based user is concerned, Israel does not exist. Publicity material claimed that the atlas offered "in-depth coverage of the region and its issues, including its challenges and its economic development".

After some sharp remarks from the chair of the Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference Department of International Affairs, and the director of the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), it was reported that HarperCollins had reconsidered, and the atlases had been withdrawn.

But what a crazy situation for a respected publishing house to get into. And what a message it sends to those who are busy wiping out borders in other parts of the Middle East. The implication is that Western companies can also wipe out borders, even those recognised by the UN, if they can make a fast buck by pandering to "local preferences". Perhaps Vladimir Putin would like to hire HarperCollins to produce an atlas displaying his ambitions for the regions he appears to believe fall naturally into Russia's sphere of influence. I am sure the Kurds would like one showing Kurdistan as an independent nation; and, of course, we could court popularity with Spain by omitting "(UK)" from beside Gibraltar on maps of the Iberian peninsula.

Maps reflect facts, not wishes. I have no sympathy whatsoever with the Israeli bombing of Gaza last year. I deplore the continued appropriation of Palestinian lands by Israeli settlers.

But I can almost make sense of Israeli paranoia when a Western publisher colludes with popular Arab sentiment in casually wiping Israel off the map. As the CCJ's director, Jane Clements, said, "Maps can be a very powerful tool in terms of de-legitimising 'the other'."

There is a nasty expression for Israel, used in some Arab communities: "the Jewish entity". Not a nation, nor a recognised state, but an upstart intruder, which should not be there.

The truly shocking thing about the story has been that apparently only the RC Bishops and the CCJ have taken the trouble to make a fuss about it.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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