I got an email from a reader, M.L., complaining about my reference to MEMRI at the end of this post, and suggesting that if I don’t like what MEMRI does I should just “show one case where their translations are wrong”. I’m going to answer that here rather than by email, because that strawman argument – that MEMRI is a legitimate news source so long as its translations are technically correct – crops up time after time, and by publishing a response here I can just link to it when I need it.
The first thing I should say is that I am personally in no position at all to comment on whether MEMRI provides accurate translations, because I don’t know Arabic. (And yes, I do appreciate that it is quite a deficiency for a blogger on Israeli-Palestinian issues to be able to cite news reports from English, French, Italian, Hebrew and Russian media, while being unable to present a single story direct from Palestinian or other Arabic sources. You work with the languages you have, not with the languages you would like to have, as someone said once, kind of). Some people who do know Arabic have found some of MEMRI’s translations to be questionable: Juan Cole wondered about the way MEMRI translated wilayah in bin Laden’s October 2004 video message in such a way as to suggest that bin Laden wanted Americans to vote Democrat, and Brian Whitaker raises here the fact that MEMRI mistranslated then misleadingly edited an interview with the Mufti of Jerusalem to make it sound as if the Mufti’s comments about the Temple Mount Jews threatening the al-Aqsa Mosque were a reference to Jewish people in general. But, as I said, I don’t have the linguistic tools to make a personal judgement about it, and even if I did I’m not sure that I would waste a lot of time picking fault with MEMRI’s translations anyway.
Because the primary criticism that is levelled at MEMRI is nothing to do with the quality of its translations, but with the fact that it deliberately selects the most extreme articles and opinions from Middle Eastern news media, and presents them as being representative of the Arab and Muslim world in general. I’m not sure how important it is to emphasize that the individual articles cited by MEMRI are true (i.e. accurate translations), if the purpose of translating them is to use them collectively to make a point that is not true.
Here’s a comparison. There is a North American white supremacist group that maintains an online database (I’m not going to link to it) of “Jewish criminals”. And that’s all there is in it: names, dates and details of the conviction of any criminal the organization is aware of who happens to be Jewish. Now, that white supremacist group could defend its actions on exactly the same grounds as MEMRI, by pointing out that the individual entries in the database are all accurate, and that it is simply bringing the facts to the attention of the public. But if you look at that database – page after page of “Jewish criminal…. Jewish criminal… Jewish criminal..” - you know perfectly well that there is nothing innocent about its creation. The information in that database might all technically be true, but its purpose in listing names and convictions without comment or context is simply to suggest and then hammer home the false argument that Jews are criminals, and criminals are Jews. If you’re OK with that, then go ahead and be OK with MEMRI’s “Muslims are fanatics and fanatics are Muslims”. But if it’s offensive to slander Jewish people like that – and for me it is – I’m not sure why that modus operandi becomes acceptable when the targets are Muslim or Arab.
The second criticism I would make of MEMRI, and really this arises out of the first, is that it decontextualizes the articles it translates. In the United States, most people have very little personal knowledge of the Muslim world. They do not have the tools to judge for themselves whether a person or article cited by MEMRI is an influential voice among Arabs or Muslims, or whether MEMRI is in fact presenting as typical of the Middle East the views of people who in their societies are basically irrelevant. By way of comparison: what if I saw a news story headlined Christian Leader Proclaims “Death to Homosexuals”? If I read the whole story and discover that the Christian leader in question is the Archbishop of Canterbury, then I have reason to be alarmed. If, on the other hand, I find that the article is about Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps (again, I won't link), I’m simply going to roll my eyes, wonder rhetorically how long one person can drag out his 15 minutes of fame, and perhaps regret the fact that in reading that news story I have wasted 30 seconds of my life that I’ll never get back. I have the contextual tools to read that article and know whether it matters. I can’t do that with MEMRI’s articles, the overwhelming majority of U.S. readers can’t do it either, and MEMRI doesn’t go out of its way to help us out.
The final criticism I would make of MEMRI is that, basically, that operation reeks of disinformation. MEMRI is run by a former officer of Israeli military intelligence. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a former intelligence officer – some of us are really nice people :-) - but you can’t help but wonder in some cases what does “former” really mean.
Bear this in mind: Israeli military intelligence has a psyops unit that specializes in planting false stories in the Arab press, in order to stoke up fear of Arabs and Muslims:
The unit's activities have been controversial for years. In October 1999, Aluf Benn revealed in Haaretz that members of the unit used the Israeli media to emphasize reports initiated by the unit that it managed to place in the Arab press. He reported that the news reports focused on Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in terror activity.
Psychological warfare officers were in touch with Israeli journalists covering the Arab world, gave them translated articles from Arab papers (which were planted by the IDF) and pressed the Israeli reporters to publish the same news here.
That was meant to strengthen the perception of the Iranian threat in Israeli public opinion...
-- IDF reviving psychological warfare unit; Ha'aretz, 25 January 2005
And Ran HaCohen spotted in the Hebrew edition of Ha’aretz (omitted from the English version, confirming once again that Ha'aretz might just be a piece of crap) another probable example of the unit’s work, this time directed against Egypt:
Recent reports about Egyptian intentions to develop nuclear weaponry WERE APPARENTLY THE RESULT OF ISRAELI PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE AND do not match intelligence information in Jerusalem, according to a senior Israeli official…
-- Looking Behind Ha'aretz's Liberal Image, Anti-War.com, 30 Sept 2002.
So, in Israel there is a military intelligence unit that plants inflammatory stories in the Arab media in order to demonize Arabs and Muslims, and here in the U.S. we have an organisation run by a former Israeli military intelligence operative that happens to specialize in “finding” and publicizing inflammatory stories in the Arab media in order to demonize Arabs and Muslims. How convenient is that? How very lucky they are to have found each other.
Do any of MEMRI’s articles derive ultimately from IDF disinformation? If so, how many? And which ones? The whole point is of course that you wouldn’t be able to tell. But the knowledge that planting news stories for political purposes isn’t just a Bush Administration tool for the folks at home and in Iraq, but is also a phenomenon practiced by the IDF to incite us against Arabs and Muslims, makes you wonder about MEMRI’s claimed independence and its reliability as a news source. And that’s the final reason why I really don’t care how proficient MEMRI translators are: if MEMRI picks up phony articles deliberately planted as disinformation in the Arab media, why would it matter to me how well that disinformation has been translated?.
(Hat tip to Jews Sans Frontieres for the Brian Whitaker links).