On Thursday, the U.S. State Department announced a $200,000 grant to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a Middle East media watchdog closely aligned with U.S. neoconservatives and Israel’s hawkish security establishment and rightist Likud Party. The grant was awarded “to conduct a project that documents anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and Holocaust glorification in the Middle East.” The announcement continues:
This grant will enable MEMRI to expand its efforts to monitor the media, translate materials into ten languages, analyze trends in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and glorification, and increase distribution of materials through its website and other outlets.
Finding examples of anti-Semitism is already a robust MEMRI project and one wonders why exactly they needed the cash: According to publicly available tax filings, MEMRI had nearly $5 million in revenue in 2007 and more than $4.5 million in revenue in 2008.
What’s more troubling, MEMRI has faced accusations of mistranslating items and cherry-picking incendiary sources to portray regional media and attitudes in an overly-negative fashion. One of the most common issues has been with MEMRI’s mistranslations which appear to show anti-Semitism on thin evidence. In 2007, CNN correspondent Atika Shubert checked MEMRI’s translations of a Palestinian children’s program against those provided by the cable news channel’s own interpreters:
Media watchdog MEMRI translates one caller as saying – quote – ‘We will annihilate the Jews.’ But, according to several Arabic speakers used by CNN, the caller actually says ‘The Jews are killing us.’ MEMRI told us it stood by its translation.
In other instances, MEMRI has been accused of twisting translations to portray criticisms of Israel and its driving ideology, Zionism, as anti-Semitic. In 2006, Rima Barakat, a Palestinian- and Muslim-American activist and one-time Republican candidate for the Colorado state assembly, wrote in the Rocky Mountain News:
Halim Barakat (no relation), a professor at Georgetown University, published an article in Al-Hayat Daily of London titled “The wild beast that Zionism created: Self-destruction.” By the time MEMRI “translated” it, the title was distorted to “Jews have lost their humanity.” Barakat objected, “Every time I wrote Zionism, MEMRI replaced the word by Jew or Judaism. They want to give the impression that I’m not criticizing Israeli policy, but that what I’m saying is anti-Semitic.” It seems obvious that MEMRI is adamant on stigmatizing anyone who criticizes Israel and/or Zionism as being anti Jewish.
In a 2002 article, then-Middle East editor of the British Guardian newspaper Brian Whitaker criticized MEMRI for inaccuracies that reflected an agenda:
As far as relations between the west and the Arab world are concerned, language is a barrier that perpetuates ignorance and can easily foster misunderstanding.
All it takes is a small but active group of Israelis to exploit that barrier for their own ends and start changing western perceptions of Arabs for the worse.
The organization was founded as a U.S. tax-exempt non-profit in 1998 by now-Hudson Institute Mideast policy chief Meyrav Wurmser, an Israeli-American, and current MEMRI president, Israeli Yigal Carmon, a 20-year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces (where he spent five years running Israel’s occupation of the West Bank) and top adviser to two Likud governments. An early archived version of the “about page” of MEMRI’s website lists five staff members, three of whom (including Carmon) have backgrounds in Israeli military intelligence. The same page lists one of MEMRI’s missions as “emphasiz(ing) the continuing relevance of Zionism to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel” — though the line has since disappeared from the website.
In addition to providing journalists and the public with translations, the media watchdog has attracted the attention of burgeoning (and closely linked) European and American anti-Muslim movements. MEMRI was cited 16 times in the so-called manifesto of anti-Muslim right-wing Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, showing up even more when MEMRITV was included.
MEMRI’s board of directors and board of advisers read as a veritable who’s who of right-wing supporters of Israel — including many neoconservative figues and their close allies — such as Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, Steve Emerson, Norman Podhoretz and Alan Dershowitz. (HT: Jim Lobe and Philip Weiss.)