A few days ago, Robert Mackey devoted a long post on his New York Times (NYT) blog The Lede to the old and often rehashed controversy about how best to translate a phrase used by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a speech for a “conference” anticipating a “World Without Zionism” back in October 2005. Mackey was apparently thrilled that Israeli minister Dan Meridor acknowledged in a recent Al Jazeera interview that in this specific speech, Ahmadinejad had not issued a straightforward statement about Iran’s intentions to “wipe out” Israel.
Since Meridor also pointed out that, irrespective of the precise translation of this specific phrase, Iranian officials have made plenty of vicious statements about their hopes and intentions to see Israel’s demise, it’s a bit puzzling what exactly prompted Mackey to rehash the old controversy about the most accurate translation of the 2005 speech. It seems that the message Mackey wanted to get across is summed up in this paragraph:
“Although there is general agreement now among translators and scholars that Mr. Ahmadinejad did not commit his country to the project of destroying the state of Israel in that 2005 speech, the phrase that was wrongly attributed to him then remains so firmly rooted in the popular imagination that it is frequently used as evidence of Iran’s genocidal intentions.”
The spin here is of course that if it wasn’t for this one mistranslated expression from a speech back in 2005, there would be precious little “evidence of Iran’s genocidal intentions,” and there isn’t really any reason to think that the Iranian regime is committed to destroying the state of Israel. It’s apparently just one big misunderstanding as far as Robert Mackey of The Lede is concerned.
But historian and acclaimed author Daniel Jonah Goldhagen – who has written a book about genocide and “eliminationism” – is arguably a bit better qualified on this subject. In a recent commentary on the controversy about the accusations of German Nobel laureate Günter Grass against Israel, Goldhagen wrote:
“Israel has been existentially threatened for its entire existence and continues to be so today, both by states that wish merely to defeat it or to have it relinquish the West Bank (Gaza it already gave back), and by states, often supported by their publics, that wish to destroy it and eliminate or exterminate its Jews. Why does Grass fail to mention that Iranian leaders, and not just Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have routinely threatened to destroy Israel and kill Jews, and occasionally even hinted that it could be done with nuclear weapons? As the ‘moderate’ former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani explained already in 2001, ‘the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything.’ Why does Grass fail to mention that the Iranian leaders speak of Israel using Nazi-like language and metaphors, of cancer and pestilence which must be utterly eradicated? Do I have to say that such speech has been shown to be the rhetorical prelude to genocide?”
To quote just one news item from earlier this year that illustrates Goldhagen’s point:
“‘The Zionist regime is a cancerous tumor and it will be removed,’ Teheran''s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Friday. Khamenei addressed thousands of worshipers attending a Tehran University prayer service marking the Fajr celebration. […]
Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, said that Iran has helped Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas in their fights against Israel. The crowd met the statement by chanting ‘Death to Israel.’”
There are of course plenty of similar Iranian statements. A few years ago, Jeffrey Goldberg responded to efforts like Mackey’s by compiling a list of relevant statements by Ahmadinejad; the ADL also offers a list of Ahmadinejad quotes; Elihu D. Richter and Alex Barnea have compiled a timeline of statements by Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders from 2000-2008; and Wikipedia has a relevant entry that also includes Ahmadinejad’s statements on the occasion of Israel’s 60-year-anniversary in 2008:
“‘Those who think they can revive the stinking corpse of the usurping and fake Israeli regime by throwing a birthday party are seriously mistaken. Today the reason for the Zionist regime’s existence is questioned, and this regime is on its way to annihilation.’
Ahmadinejad also stated that Israel ‘has reached the end like a dead rat after being slapped by the Lebanese.’ Later, he said: ‘The Zionist regime is dying,’ and ‘The criminals imagine that by holding celebrations (...) they can save the Zionist regime from death.’ Ahmadinejad also stated that ‘They should know that regional nations hate this fake and criminal regime and if the smallest and briefest chance is given to regional nations they will destroy (it).’”
To the Mackey-minded, that probably sounds like a polite call for regime change – if it’s not a mistranslation, anyway. Needless to say, if any Western or Israeli politician talked about the Iranian regime in this way, it would be a totally different matter…
By now, the callous attempts to downplay the viciousness of Iranian threats against Israel have often been countered with evidence showing that the Iranian rhetoric not only echoes the way the Nazis talked about the Jews, but also fits well-researched findings by genocide scholars who “have identified hate language and incitement—notably the use of dehumanizing medical metaphors—as predictors, promoters, and catalysts of genocidal agendas in Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and the Sudan.”
Perhaps NYT Lede editor Robert Mackey would claim that he is unaware of this research; indeed, the fact that he has written a lengthy post trying to argue that it’s only due to one mistranslated phrase from a 2005 speech that Iran is accused of genocidal intentions could be taken as ample evidence that his feelings about the subject are much deeper than his knowledge.
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