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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Putting Israel Back on the Map: an open letter to Harper Collins

Dear HarperCollins

Cato the Elder famously said in the 2nd century BC, Carthago delenda est: 'Carthage must be destroyed'. Or, as we might say in today's digital speak, 'deleted', airbrushed out of existence.

This is what Collins Bartholomew, one of your imprints, did to a sovereign UN-recognised state in a recently published atlas of the Middle East. It simply left out Israel altogether from its map of the eastern Mediterranean. Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Gaza apparently make up the shoreline. You tell us that the atlas was destined for an English-speaking audience in the Gulf states. Your spokesperson said that to have included Israel would have been 'unacceptable' in that majority Muslim environment and that this amendment to political geography apparently reflected 'local preferences'. 

When I read the story in this week's Tablet I thought it must be some new year hoax. I could scarcely credit it that a responsible cartographer with a world-famous brand could play fast and loose with the map of nations in this way. But I have researched it on the web, and it is so. One news report says that you put this omission down, a trifle disingenuously, to a 'genuine error'. That's hard to square with your own talk of reflecting 'local preferences', so the message is a bit confused to say the least. However, you have now apologised and have promised to remove the bowdlerised atlas from sale. Just so. These books must be destroyed. At once. As Cato might have said, Libri delendi sunt. 

You ought to know better than most people that maps carry enormous political power. Especially when used as educational tools, they influence thinking and shape minds. We are used to the idea that map projections carry political and ideological meanings. They can reinforce the hegemony of the mighty and the powerlessness of the poor and weak. Dr Jane Clements, Director of the Council for Christians and Jews, is quoted in the Tablet: 'maps can be a very powerful tool of de-legitimising "the other"'. The names assigned to territories and locations bear messages about history and status. Like the historian, the map-maker is a person of power because the narrative or the visual image tells the story his or her way. Both history writing and cartography are acts of interpretation. It is a highly responsible role. To write history or draw maps without understanding the delicate interpretative tasks involved is to play straight into the hands of those who have reasons, always sinister, for distorting reality. If they are not to serve propagandist ends, these kinds of collusions must be vigilantly guarded against. 

Your website uses the adjective 'trusted' in relation to your maps. It is worrying that you could ever have permitted an inconvenient truth like the existence of the state of Israel to be edited out of an atlas that was intended to be 'trusted' across the Middle East. It does the complex, conflicted politics of the region a disservice not to acknowledge in a map what is undeniably a painful and difficult reality. It does not contribute to the hard tasks of understanding the truth of the present world order, let alone learning to live peaceably together as peoples of different beliefs, cultures and ideologies. It may well be 'local preference' to pretend that a fact on the ground does not exist. But it does. Israel has been there since 1948. And one of the major tasks awaiting our generation is to help the troubled Middle East towards a better future in which all its peoples flourish. Including Palestine. Including Israel. If your politics were as responsible and green as your admirable policies on the environment, you would never have allowed yourselves to fall into this compromised situation which looks for all the world as though it is driven by fear of your Arab customers. I'm afraid that your apology has come too late to avoid reputational harm.  

For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that I don't carry a card for Zionism. Yes, I passionately believe in the right of the state of Israel to exist, and in the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland, live safely and securely in it and enjoy the democratic privilege of self-determination. I'd rather assumed that as a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp, HarperCollins would share that belief. Perhaps you will be willing to reaffirm it, and help your large audiences across the Middle East understand your position. 

Let's be charitable, and put this mistake down to naïveté rather than malice. After all, it is still Christmas, the season of peace and goodwill.  But please don't do it again. It's unsettling. It damages your integrity when you obscure the facts of geography, history and politics. It's not easy to forgive.  

Yours sincerely,
Michael Sadgrove


  1. Incomprehensible that a (once) respected publisher should adopt this policy and to what avail ? To placate the Gulf tyrannies.

  2. to inflate their pockets and bank accounts!!