Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Last Friday, the Guardian published the following letter:
"John Pilger claims that "Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never threatened to 'wipe Israel off the map'".
There have been competing translations of his words, but it is important to note that, while a collection of western academics and journalists have busied themselves with the task of "informing" everyone of the "falsity" of the claim, Ahmadinejad himself has been relishing the enhanced status he enjoys in Iran and certain quarters of the Muslim world as a result of the widespread belief that he did, indeed, threaten to wipe Israel off the map. Moreover, within Iran, banners featuring the English translation that Mr Pilger disputes have been photographed draped over government buildings, as well as over Shahab-3 missiles featured in official military parades.
It seems that President Ahmadinejad is successful at satisfying two distinct audiences: those at home who believe they have a leader brave enough to call for the destruction of Israel; and those in the west who have an ideological objection to recognising that Iran has threatened Israel, no matter what the evidence to the contrary."
Director, Just Journalism
My response was published in this morning's paper:
"Adel Darwish of the pro-Israeli lobby group Just Journalism says (Letters, August 8) that "a collection of western academics and journalists have busied themselves with the task of 'informing' everyone of the 'falsity' of the claim" that Iran's president threatened to attack and destroy Israel. This is a funny way of saying that people who actually speak Farsi have offered a correct translation of Ahmadinejad's words.
Darwish neglects to mention that as soon as the mistranslation of Ahmadinejad's words began to circulate, Ayatollah Khamenei (who has ultimate authority in Iran) stated unequivocally that "the Islamic Republic has never threatened and will never threaten any country". Darwish also refrains from explaining why we should believe that a regime which has done everything to preserve itself over the past three decades should suddenly commit collective suicide by attacking Israel. All in all, it's quite a story."
(I've added some links in the above two letters here, for background).
The Guardian editors amended my letter so that it described Just Journalism as "pro-Israeli", where my own choice of words in the original letter was "pro-Israeli state". The distinction is material. As I've written here in another context, its important not to conflate the government and the people when talking about a given country. So for example, it is no more "pro-Britain" to support the policies of Gordon Brown's government than it is "anti-Britain" to criticise them, as though criticism of the government's actions constituted some sort of racism against the British.
The "pro Israel / anti Israel" dichotomy is essentially a propaganda tool which apologists for the Israeli government use to avoid reasoned discussion of the factual record (unsurprisingly, since the facts hardly support their political positions). As Noam Chomsky has said many times "those who call themselves "supporters of Israel" are in reality supporters of its moral degeneration".
I should have made it clear to the Guardian editors that, whatever other changes they made, I wanted to insist on the correct terminology in this instance. The amendment they've made means that the propaganda terminology has been reinforced in the public discourse, and I certainly didn't want to be responsible for that. I'm pleased that the letter was published, but still, a lesson learnt here.