X Marks the Spot

01.11.15 11:45 AM ET

Why Harper Collins Wiped Israel Off the Map

The publisher said it was just giving its customers what they wanted, but maps have always reflected the biases of those drawing the boundaries.

It might seem like an accusation from a satirical right wing news show, but last week reports emerged that Harper Collins had wiped Israel off the map—literally. It turns out that Israel had been simply omitted from English-language atlases produced by the publishing giant for use by schools in the Middle East. The position of the West Bank was noted, but otherwise Jordan and Syria were shown extending all the way to the Mediterranean.

This was no oversight; the elimination of Israel was a carefully thought-out move. Collins Bartholomew, the subsidiary that produced the atlases, explained that the amendment to the maps was intended to accommodate “local preferences.” The inclusion of Israel, they told The Tablet, would have been “unacceptable” to their customers.

There is already a feeling among many Israelis and pro-Israel parties that the international community, especially the UN, is antagonistic toward the Jewish state. The production by an international publishing conglomerate of a map in which Israel ostensibly no longer exists would only confirm those suspicions. Also, the figurative eradication of one of the most politically charged nations in the world could threaten the real-world existence of the state of Israel.

There is a real possibility that such an atlas, though intended to appease the sensibilities of Israel’s neighbors, might in fact have far-reaching, negative real-world repercussions. A generation raised on the belief that Israel is an illegitimate state would not have to rely merely on the strident language of their political and religious leadership. They would now be able to point to an “objective” source, one that was even produced in the Western world. Harper Collins’s decision may have been good for their bottom line in the short term, but in the long run it would only be detrimental for the stability of the Middle East.

The publisher has, fortunately, seen the error of its ways—after a significant public backlash in the West. It announced this week that all extant copies of the atlas would be destroyed. One hopes, however, that someone has kept a copy for posterity. This is a moment, at the rare intersection of commerce and anti-Semitism, that should not be lost to history or quickly forgotten.

What is revealed by this highly sensitive affair is the ideologically and politically charged nature of map-making, not just here but everywhere. The scale and positioning of the world’s countries in two dimensions has always reflected global power structures and “local preferences.” (Consider the early decision as to which hemisphere got to be north, and therefore “on top” of the map.) The Gail-Peters projection, made famous when it was featured on an episode of the West Wing, demonstrates that the size of countries is commonly misrepresented on maps, so that technologically advanced and economically powerful countries seem larger than they are. Politicizing maps in this way gives a kind of visible reality to the abstract—of course uniquely Western and morally unjustifiable—notion that wealthier countries deserve a larger portion of global resources.

The problem is only exacerbated when it comes to boundary drawing. The minute yet bolded borders between countries, so carefully inscribed on pastel versions of the world, are artificial constructs that elide the cultural and social commonalities between local inhabitants. Certain political boundaries—that between the West Bank and Israel or the Mason-Dixon line, for example—have deep cultural and historical roots. But even in politically charged regions, social networks force a constant cultural exchange between seemingly discrete geographical entities.

On the ground, mercantile exchange forces a flow of people and ideas in and out of major urban centers, trading ideas, anecdotes, and practices and trafficking in politics, culture, and ideology. As Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin has observed: if one were travelling between Rome and Paris and stopped at every town along the way, the local language would only gradually shift from Italian to French. Even language, that seminal feature of national identity, cannot be used to determine cartographic boundaries. The political border posits an artificial cultural divide.

The inability of cartography to adequately represent the terrain it purports to describe is well recognized in the theoretical world, forming the basis for Alfred Korzybski’s famous expression, “The map is not the territory.” The phrase, derived from mathematician Eric Temple Bell, explains the extent to which the representation of reality is not the same as reality. There is a fundamental disconnect between our concepts and the reality they describe.

Physical geography is webbed with social networks, navigated by correspondence, and plotted by travel. It is merely constructed by cartographers. In a way, the Harper Collins atlas recognized this, and produced a map that was tailored to one particular view of how the world is, or at least how (from that particular perspective) it should be. Yet nuanced cartographic theory does not change the fact that maps are, as they always have been, treated by those who consult them—especially, perhaps, school children—as accurate representations of the world. And as such, maps continue to create the world in their own image and in our imaginations, and they continue to have dangerous, and potentially devastating, implications for those who use them.