Terra Incognita: Why MEMRI matters

In a perfect world, it would be best to have at our fingertips translations of every article that appears in the foreign press.

MEMRI logo311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
MEMRI logo311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A memorable television clip posted online in late July showed an Egyptian actor, Ayman Kandeel, assaulting television host Iman Mubarak. After he beat the slim woman, he said to her “you brought it on yourself.” The terrible misdeed that the woman committed was pranking the ugly actor into thinking he was being interviewed by an Israeli station.
That clip from Al-Nahar TV was followed by another, showing actor Abdel Ghaffer striking one of the male interviewers and, after being informed it was a “candid camera” show, informing the victim “you brought someone who looks like a Jew... I hate the Jews to death.” The clip was translated and posted online by MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, which was founded in 1998. It is not entirely clear how much exposure the original Egyptian program has or how famous the actors are. The clip nevertheless tells us a great deal about Egyptian society.
That a man feels free to slap a woman and send her flying across the stage and then says “you brought it upon yourself,” tells us much about how a society views women. That another actor feels comfortable, after administering a beating, in telling the victim that he “looks like a Jew,” provides an insight into the true view of Jews in Egypt. These are, after all, actors – relatively secular people who usually make up the more liberal progressive vanguard of a country. If this is the progressive view of Israel than one does not want to know what goes on in the rural villages.
In an article originally published at canthink.co.il and later translated by Haaretz, Dr. Assaf David of the Truman Institute for Peace wrote a wide-ranging critique of the work of MEMRI, arguing that its work presents a “one-dimensional choice of anti-Semitic articles, which fits squarely and conveniently with Western interpretations of political Islam.”
His evidence deals primarily with MEMRI’s analysis of Jordan. “While its coverage of Israeli affairs is far from balanced, anti-Semitic articles are not common.” He goes on to show that MEMRI selectively chooses articles which illustrate Islamic fundamentalism, while not sufficiently noting that the “Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s daily had published, from time to time, articles calling for the upholding of international agreements, including the peace treaty with Israel.”
ARGUABLY, IN a perfect world, it would be best to have at our fingertips translations of every article that appears in the foreign press – from Russia, China and the neighboring Arab states. MEMRI obviously sets out to show the more interesting, shocking, things that take place in neighboring countries. This is not relegated to anti-Israel statements. One video showed an overweight chef hosting a friendly cooking show who was constantly being abused by Shi’ite callers and who finally told them that had Saddam Hussein lived he would have dealt with them.
Assaf David and others who complain about MEMRI make a mistake in their reasoning. They assert that to show the anti- Semitic articles and TV segments that issue forth from Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere feeds Western stereotypes of Islam. They once again want us to view the Islamic world through a rosy lens and provide excuses for it that no other part of the world gets.
Take David’s analysis that “anti-Semitic articles are not common.” Let’s say “not common” means that there is not more than one anti-Semitic article a month in a major newspaper. Now let’s say we applied that to Germany, France or the US. If, just once a month, the New York Times published an op-ed or cartoon that was deeply anti-Semitic, would that not point to a disturbing acceptance of hatred in American public life. One doesn’t need incitement everyday to reflect a problem in society. Just a low level of incitement in the mainstream media points to widespread acceptance.
LET’S RETURN to Ayman Kandeel. If, only once a month, a man beat up a woman on an interview show, would that be too much? Let’s say, just once a month, that a man slapped a man for “looking like a Jew” on a major television station. Would that be too much? And let’s point the camera at our own society. How often, in Israel, should a racist article appear in a major newspaper for it to be considered a societal problem. Just because things are not “common” doesn’t make them acceptable.
David claims that what MEMRI does is “tantamount to an Arab newspaper choosing to translate only a particularly nasty anti-Arab editorial... or an op-ed by Isaac Shapiro and Yossi Elitzur, co-authors of the appalling The King’s Torah.” This is a great example of the difference. The King’s Torah was not only roundly condemned by most segments of Israeli society, but its authors were even investigated for “incitement.” In even one case of all the hate-speech that MEMRI translates were the speakers prosecuted in their home countries, or roundly condemned across the political spectrum? Far from it. Kandeel was patted on the back and given a round of applause for being a “good Egyptian.”
The argument that, by showing a Western audience what takes place, even uncommonly, throughout the Arab world, increases Western intolerance for political Islam is particularly deceitful. The logic that follows is that the West must be brainwashed, through selective quoting of “peaceful” articles in order to quell it into a quiet acceptance of hatred and fascism. The scholars and peace-journalist activists who support this theory argue that the West should only be shown the articles that, published “from time to time,” support peace.
The reality is that you can’t make people intolerant just by showing them a translated reality. Surely the press in the American south in the 1950s only rarely published articles that were racist. But that doesn’t mean that by providing those articles a wide audience in the north, people received a selective interpretation of the acceptance of racism.
Where MEMRI does make a mistake is in not providing viewers with a clear indication of how much exposure the translated article or show has. If the show is the equivalent of a public access local station in the US, then it probably is not only not representative, but doesn’t matter. If it is on a major channel and is watched by millions then something more disturbing is happening.
THE LITMUS test should be what percentage of a culture finds the content problematic. If Kandeel is shown beating a woman because she is Israeli and 80 percent of Egyptians find that acceptable, while The King’s Torah is rejected by 80% of the Israeli public, we have a good idea of where each society stands.
Transparency should always be celebrated and those who seek to brush unpleasant facts under the carpet should be condemned. When I was president of my fraternity the guidelines for defining what constituted hazing was “would you mind if the pledges’ [potential members] parents were in the room?” That is a good rendition of proper transparency guidelines.
OF COURSE, even with translations, there will be those who find a way to defend what is taking place.
When the vile abominations of the radicals are brought to light, as with Mahmoud Ahmadinejed, an apologist is always waiting to say it is “mis-translated,” as if there is more than one way to say “the Holocaust is a myth.”
Israeli-Arab author Sayed Kashua relates a recent story of Harvard students visiting his house and hearing his father support the actions of Syria’s Assad. The students didn’t dare question this narrative. That is because Western university students are often educated to “understand” the other, and when the other expresses support for a little mass killing, from time to time, it must be understood.
After the Kandeel video was posted online, Lisa Goldman, a +972 writer, defended his actions on Facebook. “If the Egyptian actor had really been invited onto an Israeli show under false pretenses then he would have had the right to be angry. If his audience believed he willingly accepted an invitation to be interviewed on Israeli TV he would be in big trouble in Egypt with his peers and possible state security. His career could have been destroyed.” What does it say about a country that merely being interviewed by “Jews” can end someone’s career and why would anyone on the left support such a “right to be angry?”
That said, Assaf David’s rejoinder that we should read the more open-minded polemics of our cousins in the Muslim Brotherhood comes with good intentions. But peace and trust require not only verification, as Ronald Reagan quipped, it requires true understanding of the other – not just romantic notions. Otherwise it is the type of peace Neville Chamberlain brought back, rather than the one signed at Westphalia.