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Retailer embroiled in 'global' debate

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000


Yasser Arafat has yet to declare a Palestinian state, but "Palestine" exists -- at least on globes being sold at Sam's Club stores this holiday season.

In the past two weeks, Jewish shoppers from Florida and elsewhere have bombarded the chain with calls and e-mails urging that the globes be yanked from the shelves.

"We're getting a lot of questions from members of the Jewish community and we're continuing to look into their concerns with our supplier," says spokesman Melissa Berryhill.

The controversy is yet another reflection of the bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over land that each side claims as its own. Yet it also shows that on such a highly charged issue, things aren't always what they appear to be, especially in the realm of instantaneous cyberspace communications.

The globes themselves are fairly attractive, standing about 2 feet high and made of semi-precious stones inlaid in a mosaic pattern approximating that of countries, continents and oceans.

Some place names are printed in white letters; others in a reddish color that doesn't show up as well against the globe's dark background.

The flap arose when a Sam's Club shopper -- perhaps here in Florida -- looked at the globe and didn't see Israel. But the same person did see "Palestine" printed prominently in white, and thus began an Internet chain letter that quickly made its way around the United States.

"In Sam's Club they are selling the new World Atlas globes and they do not have Israel on it," the e-mail said. "In (its) place they put Palestine. If this is seen by you, please tell the manager of the store to return them."

Within a short time, Sam's Club had gotten dozens of e-mails from irate Jewish customers, especially in Florida and New York. As many pointed out, Israel is a bona fide country. Palestine is not. Why then was Palestine on the globe and not Israel?

As it turns out, Israel was there -- it was just hard to see because its name was printed in a darker color.

Sam's Club, a subsidiary of retailing giant Wal-Mart, is still trying to determine why its Chinese supplier put "Palestine" on the globes in the first place. Although the chain has no plans to pull them from the shelves, "every comment like this from our members helps us get better," says Berryhill, the spokeswoman. "We're aware of the sensitivity and we will take it into consideration as we review our offerings for next year."

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish-American group, was "extremely disturbed" by initial reports that Israel had been replaced by Palestine, says Ken Jacobson, assistant national director. But the organization tempered its reaction after someone took a picture of the globe showing Israel was there all the time.

"There is no Palestinian state even though that is exactly what is being negotiated and talked about and seen by more and more Israelis as inevitable," Jacobson says. "At least (the globe) has Israel. It still is not accurate but it's not as bad as we originally thought."

Needless to say, Arab-Americans are delighted that a major retailer is selling globes that show Palestine.

"We use the term "Palestinian' on a daily basis," says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic relations. "There are Palestinian people who live in what's been called Palestine for millennia, and this is not exactly something that happened yesterday. The term "Palestinian' is a legitimate description of an area and a people."

Many Israeli and American Jews contend that "Palestine" is actually the Jews' ancient biblical homeland. Palestinians says the land is theirs, and contend it has been illegally occupied by Israel since the 1948 Middle East War.

Such is the rancor between the two sides that maps in Palestinian textbooks and those sold in Arab countries don't show Israel, even though it is a member of the United Nations while Palestine is not.

Sam's Club is hardly the first company to be caught up in one of the world's most acrimonious territorial disputes. Last summer, Jews blasted CNN after its Web site removed Jerusalem from the Israel category on its weather page. CNN relented and put the city back under Israel, but with a footnote that reads as follows:

"The status of Jerusalem, the seat of Israeli government, is the most contentious issue in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Palestinian and Arab leaders consider part of Jerusalem the capital of the prospective Palestinian state."

As for those globes that have caused such a stir, there still seem to be plenty in stock. The reason could have less to do with politics than price -- although Sam's is a discount store, they sell for $249.99 each.

- Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

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