Google didn't erase Palestine from the maps... we all did

Friday is a good time for silly season debates, so here’s another of those stories. There was apparently a hot rumor running around the web which claimed that Google Maps had intentionally erased Palestine from the face of the Earth. According to the conventional wisdom, this was no doubt because of the Jews who control Hollywood, the banks, cable news, Google. In no time at all an online petition arose, demanding that they restore Palestine to its rightful place. In their own defense, Google claims they couldn’t have erased Palestine because it was never there in the first place. (NY Times)

A hashtag, #PalestineIsHere, was born. But as far as Google Maps is concerned, it actually had not been.

“There has never been a ‘Palestine’ label on Google Maps, however we discovered a bug that removed the labels for ‘West Bank’ and ‘Gaza Strip,’ ” the company said in a statement. “We’re working quickly to bring these labels back to the area.” It is unclear if that bug played a role in spurring the online outrage.

Elizabeth Davidoff, a spokeswoman, said in an email that the company had also never used the label “Palestinian territories” on its maps. The bug affecting the words “Gaza Strip” and “West Bank” persisted on Wednesday, but when Google Maps functions properly both areas are labeled and separated from Israel by a dotted line to signify that their borders are not internationally recognized.

If you make the suggestion that “Palestine never existed” you’re going to have a fight on your hands – quite possibly a physical one. But that’s only if you’re dealing with partisan political actors. If you’re speaking to cartographers you’ll get a thoughtful and fascinating discussion which once again revolves around the question of when you were to ask. Is there a “Palestine” today? Was there ever? We’ve got a lot of paperwork, both modern and very, very ancient to answer the question.

Check out this interactive timeline of maps (from Time Maps) which shows that specific region. You’ll need to click through the time bar below the map to see the various documents from across the ages. Israel first appears around the 1,000 BC mark as part of “Syria and Israel.” By 500BC it’s gone, though 300 years later there’s “Judea.” By 200AD the area south of Syria is marked “Palestine.” (Which similarly disappears 300 years later.) Both of them vanish from then until the early 1900s and then the modern(ish) map suddenly shows Israel with no mention of Palestine. Prior to that the entire region was just referred to as “Syria” for centuries.

But that’s not how it’s always been taught, depending where you live. I’ve collected a few maps and atlases over the course of my life and one of them is the 1943 Goode’s School Atlas published by Rand McNally which was used in schools across America. That year should be significant to those who have been paying attention, and here’s what that part of the world looked like in the eyes of American students learning geography. (Pardon the photo quality but I just took this shot with my cell phone camera.)


In case the resolution is a bit small for you, here’s a close up of the area in question.


Yep. Until Isreal was carved out in the modern era with its starting borders, many maps did indeed refer to the entire region as “Palestine” and the region just to the east was “Transjordan.” (It was a British protectorate established in 1921.) The people living there were commonly called Palestinians. So who is right? It all depends who you asked, who drew the maps and how much they actually cared. So did Google “erase” anything? Apparently a few names were dropped out, intentionally or not, but Palestine wasn’t one of them. To find that tag you need to go back a bit further than Google has been around.