Down the MEMRI Hole


Borrowing a page from the Scientology harassment manual, the Middle East Research Organization (MEMRI) has sent a legal nastygram to profblogger Juan Cole threatening a (trumped-up sounding) libel suit him and his employer, the University of Michigan, on the basis of some criticisms leveled against the group in this column. Follow-up posts at Cole's blog. I make no judgement about the veracity of the bill of particulars against MEMRI, but it's a little ironic to see a group that trumpets a quote from Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) praising their "enormously effective work, on behalf of truth, civilization, open press of all types" would stoop to this kind of cheap attempt to squelch criticism through intimidation.

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  1. Julian,
    Juan pretty much hits the nail on the head wrt to MEMRI. Their translations are accurate most of the time and sometimes they miss some interesting nuances (though in fairness, their Arabic is better than mine). The cherry picking is very true. Go to MEMRI, try to find a single moderate article and tell me if you really believe that not a single moderate voice can ever be found in a Middle Eastern paper.

    Sure there is vile stuff written by the MidEast press, but I could make the Republicans look bad by selecting out choice articles. I could do the same with liberals and libertarians as well. MEMRI is trying to bully Juan for pointing out the revealing clothes the emperor is wearing.

    The irony is that most people would ignore the article or shrug it off without a suit. Now, people are going to pay attention and start to notice the selection bias.

    I love comeuppance for trying to silence people.

  2. MEMRI is correct that Cole has made statements about them that are completely false. It doesn’t seem likely that they have a libel case, though, since Cole’s remarks were probably just made out of ignorance rather than out of deliberate malice.

  3. Obviously MEMRI is selective and has a point of view. They’re trying to influence both elite and general public opinion. Maybe they’re part of Shin Bet’s “white propaganda” effort.

    Obivously, Colonel Carmon and his legal goons (if he has any they apparently don’t know the difference between libel and slander and the legal requirements for them) and his public relations flunkies are all boneheads. “Hey, some pointy-headed history professor has an unfavourable opinion about us. Let’s threaten him and the University of Michigan with a lawsuit! That’ll shut him up.”

    Obviously, Professor Cole sympathizes with the oppressed of the world and is in favor of international niceness. He does seem rather humorless, though, likes science fiction and is definitely stuck on himself and his achievements. He even lists himself as his own webmaster.

    There won’t be a comeuppance. Not enough people pay attention to such things and those who do already have formed their opinions.

    The cartoons section in MEMRI is pretty amusing, though.

    QFMC cos. V

  4. Dan,
    The falsehoods I see are the $60 million and the “MEMRI is one of a number of public relations campaigns essentially on behalf of the far right-wing Likud Party” statement. The first one is a ballpark estimate and Juan did reach for that. The second statement is as false as saying “The Nation is one of a number of public relations campaigns essentially on behalf of the Democratic Party.” Not technically true, but accurate.

    Methinks MEMRI is less upset about these minor falsehoods than the truthful bits.

  5. Their proclivity for making errant statements forces me to thoroughly verify the claims of MEMRI. Their most recent nonsense was the translation they made of bin Laden’s pre-election message. They claimed that he was threatening individual US states if they voted for Bush. This was an obvious incorrect translation of an Arab word for “states”. The debate here is weather this was just poor scholarship on the part of MEMRI or intended deception. They certainly have been guilty of both.

  6. I’m not sure what Dan’s referring to. The $60 mil figure may well be wrong (I don’t know where Cole got it), but a mistake about someone’s funding level is rather obviously not grounds for a libel suit. The cherry-picking thing is transparently correct. And on a reasonable reading of “essentially on behalf of…” it’s a matter of interpretation more than fact, but seems fairly accurate–as Mo suggests, as accurate as a comparable statement about the Prospect or the Nation about the Dems. So I count one potentially verifiably false claim that would be laughed out of any court in the country as the basis for a lawsuit.

  7. Mo wrote: “Go to MEMRI, try to find a single moderate article and tell me if you really believe that not a single moderate voice can ever be found in a Middle Eastern paper.”

    I just went to MEMRI. Two of the five articles featured on their homepage are by “Arab progressives”. As I recall, they used to have a section called “Liberal voices” featuring more moderate, self-critical articles in the Arab press.

  8. Rick,
    I was under the impression that the “American states” thing was settled the other way. I know nuttin’ about Arabic vocabulary, but the rap was that he used the term to denote a vassal state or tributary that was obviously meant to be different from an independent nation state.
    Are you saying that’s wrong?

  9. Mo also wrote: “Sure there is vile stuff written by the MidEast press, but I could make the Republicans look bad by selecting out choice articles.”

    Sure, but you probably wouldn’t find any Republican-friendly publications with an article comparable to the one from a Saudi newspaper featured by MEMRI a couple of years ago which described how Jews kill children and use their blood for Passover sweets.

    Fabiud Cunctator wrote: “The cartoons section in MEMRI is pretty amusing, though.”

    Yeah, it’s always funny to see Jews portrayed as bloodthirsty monsters. Julius Streicher was a laff riot, too.

  10. KotW,
    I stand corrected. I haven’t gone there for a while, but I found their moderate voices were almost universally secularists (that was the entire ‘Liberal Voices’ section). Which is pretty disingenious. It would be like using Andrew Sullivan and other Log Cabin Republicans as a sole reference point for moderate Republicans. I have no problem with secularists, I am one, but it gives the impression that secularists are the only moderates. There are religious moderates as well, though they don’t get as much press because they don’t fit the message.

  11. The perhaps even more important story here is whether the translation in question had an effect on the election. Links to blogospheric coverage of the translation here.

  12. Barton,

    I’d echo Jimbeaux’s question. I don’t speak Arabic either, but I read up on this a bit, and my conclusion was that MEMRI was right on the word bin Laden used for “states.” Of course, all it proves is that OBL is ignorant about American politics, if he thinks states can have their own foreign policy. But do you have a cite for your assertion that MEMRI was wrong?

  13. KotW: “Sure, but you probably wouldn’t find any Republican-friendly publications with an article comparable to the one from a Saudi newspaper featured by MEMRI a couple of years ago which described how Jews kill children and use their blood for Passover sweets.”

    You haven’t been to in the last few years have you?

  14. Jimbeaux,

    I don’t speak Arabic either (outside of the few words that a friend that I play chess with teaches me), but it’s my understanding that MEMRI’s error was that bin Laden was speaking of “states” in the Ottomon Empire manner-nations in the American orbit of influence, rather than the 50 US states. He was referring to other countries.

  15. King,
    Read some of the stuff from Bob Jones U or the white supremacist groups? It’s pretty vile too. Heck, Ann “Invade them and convert them to Christianity” Coulter is pretty mainstream. Look I’m not saying that some of the stuff printed out there isn’t vile, but for a group the claims:

    “The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) explores the Middle East through the region’s media. MEMRI bridges the language gap which exists between the West and the Middle East, providing timely translations of Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East.”

    I don’t want to equate our political fringes with those in the MidEast, they are a lot more hateful. But their mission and their behavior doesn’t match up. I couldn’t pull together Falwell, Jones, Coulter and Sullivan and claim to be analyzing trends in the Republican Party without being a complete farce.

    Have you ever looked at Middle Eastern political cartoons that aren’t on MEMRI? I would say that those unrelated to Israel/Jews and the US make up a decent percentage. According to MEMRI they don’t exist.

  16. MEMRI performs a GREAT service. Without them, we wouldn’t get to read the vile the government sanctioned media and imans are spouting. THE MSM certainly won’t report it. Sure, it might be cherry picking, but don’t even think to compare this to cherry-picking the language of Republicans or Democracts. That’s just stupid.

  17. I do speak Arabic and wilaya can be used either way. Just like state could be used both ways in the US, and often is. Wilaya is pretty vague in this context for quite a few reasons. One, states don’t have their own foreign policies, so it could mean “states” like UK and Poland. It could mean states if OBL has an understanding of our electoral system (doubtful). Or it could be a broad threat. Do you really think OBL would give up on the best targets because those parts of the country voted for Kerry?

  18. “the vile the government sanctioned media and imans are spouting”

    Whatever vile you are talking about is not more vile than what comes out of Ann Coulter, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and the other darlings of the Republican Party.

  19. Fine Mike, then let them claim they are translating the cherry-picked vile articles, mention the paper and the relative importance (ie. al-Ahram, state paper, Egypt, high profile) and leave at that. They are being dishonest to say they are on top of trends in the region if they pick the same trend with the same amount of focus.

  20. yet another Steve,

    I first heard about this MEMRI error from an Oriental studies professor in a detailed explanation on a talk radio program. Then I came across Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, being of the same opinion in the 12/05 issue of American Conservative (pg.25)

    On this link, only the title is cited: “MEMRI Forgets”. But it’s just a few lines anyway.

    I don’t think that bin Laden has ever demonstrated an ignorance of American politics such that he might think that states can have their own foreign policy.

  21. Ironic, and no doubt an example of GMTA, but I also thought of Scientology’s litigation engine vis-a-vis Middle Eastern politics when I read what CAIR has been doing to David Frum and others, in order to silence them:

  22. Well, I don’t think it was read as an exhortation for individual US states to change their foreign policy. One of the interpretations (again, assuming he’s talking about federal provinces and not nation states) was that it was a warning not to vote for the wrong guy.

  23. Mr. King,

    Perhaps I need to spell everything out.

    The cartoons at MEMRI are amusing precisely for two reasons.

    One because the ones that are anti-jewish show just how backward and blinkered the creators of them are. After 5,000 years, can’t Arabs come up with anything better than the rapacious, hook-nosed Jew?

    No, because it isn’t really about actual bad actions by the Jews, occupation of the holy sites, oppression of Palestinian Arabs, etc. It’s about the Jews as Jews and the feelings of victimization and insecurity of many, many Arabs. So, just like other backward societies before them, Arab states blame their problems on the Jews. “Citizen, you don’t like what’s happening in your country of Poland, Russia, Germany, Egypt, Jordan, etc., etc. etc.? It’s not really your fault, or the government’s – it’s the Jews!”

    What makes it worse is that the despised, weakling, nearly wiped-out Jews now have not only the power to destroy any Arab army, or to conquer any Arab state but to utterly annihilate millions or even Mecca with “the bomb”.

    The other reason is due to MEMRI’s over-reaching. Sharon sitting on a pile of skulls and holding Arafat in a cage or Sharon smoking a cigar while bathing in a bath of blood is not definitively anti-jewish. Change Sharon to McKinley and Arafat to Aguinaldo or Sharon to Johnson and Arafat to a Viet Cong and what do you get? Just because it’s anti-Israel or anti-Sharon doesn’t make it anti-Jew. MEMRI would do better to simply publish the bad stuff, there’s plenty of it out there, and not try to be balanced.

    As for Streicher, “… it was to the task of educating and poisoning the people with hate, and of producing murderers, that Streicher set himself. For 25 years he continued unrelentingly the perversion of the people and youth of Germany. He went on and on, as he saw the results of his work bearing fruit.” And he was deservedly executed for it. (One doesn’t see Jews blowing themselves up at Frankfurt bus stops as revenge against the Krauts. Hmm …) If I can laugh at him and his ilk, their pathetic propaganda, and the morons who believe their crap it’s because after 5,000 years the Jews are still here and their oppressors gone. Where are the Pharoahs, Babylon, Rome, the medieval kingdoms and empires, the Third Reich? All gone, but still the Jews live on.

    I apologize for the long post, but ole King really pissed me off. I don’t really care for people who cry “Nazi!” everytime someone says something they don’t like.

    QFMC cos. V

  24. FM, I wasn’t crying “Nazi!” I was comparing the vile anti-semitic propaganda displayed in some of these cartoons to that of the Nazis, and I think the comparison stands.

    I thought you’re earlier post seemed to be trivializing the venom in these cartoons and the effect it must have on those subjected to it on a regular basis. It wasn’t clear what you found “amusing”.

    That said, I don’t disagree with the points you made in your last post about anti-Jewish feeling in the Arab world and about MEMRI overreaching – so there’s no point in arguing.

  25. Off topic, but Iraq the Model has an interesting commentary on Juan Cole (see November 21 commentary):

    I guess Juan Cole could always threaten to sue the guys at Iraq the Model. But considering those guys’ positions, I can’t imagine that lawsuits scare them.

  26. It is amusing to read these comments here. While the legal contretemps may have some validity, I find it more interesting to see that most of the commenters here have either never read MEMRI or have never read Juan Cole. Memri picks out articles that refer to Israel or Jews, and covers many articles from either side of the debate. Cole’s site is strictly a propaganda site, which exclusively exhibits material that shows Israel and/or America in a negative light. I used to blog roll both of them, to show both sides of the divide. To portray a hate-filled bastard like Juan Cole as a “professor”, while claiming that MEMRI is a propaganda organ is laughable. Just show me one time where Cole shows that any Jew or American was right, and his beloved Arabs were wrong, about anything substantive, and I will blogroll him again.

  27. I think suing Cole is going a little far, but my reaction when I read his piece was that it was sufficiently untrue to classify as dishonest. I am, for some reason, on MEMRI’s mailing list, and a considerable fraction of the pieces they send are moderate pieces by people in the Arab world critical of radical Islam–which is directly inconsistent with what Cole wrote.

    That doesn’t mean that MEMRI is reliable, of course–I don’t know enough to judge that. But it does mean that Cole isn’t.

  28. Yes, MEMRI does publish pieced by “good” Arabs – that is, those whose vision is completely in line with that of the American right. However, the completely neglect moderate pieces by pious Muslims or Arab nationalists, who argue for moderation from a pov that would have some credibility with people in that part of the world.

    Anyway, if you get SLAPPED, SLAPP back. If Mr. Cole decides to give these pricks a taste of their own medicine, the discovery process should be a lot of fun. The Colonel’s line about the $60 million figure should be quoted in logic textbooks when discussing “Begging the Question.”

  29. The decisive word on the MEMRI “states” tranaslation, from Mickey Kaus ( a few days before the election

    You Spoke Too Soon, MEMRI! A bit of evidence that supports MEMRI’s “state by state” translation of Osama bin Laden’s latest video, from a 2001 the description of a 1996 interview he gave to, yes, Robert Fisk:

    Intelligent – and eloquent in Arabic – bin Laden undoubtedly is. But his understanding of foreign affairs is decidedly eccentric. At one point, he even suggested to me that individual US states might secede from the Union because of Washington’s support for Israel. [Emphasis added]

    In other words, it may not be that bin Laden’s so in touch with American politics that he’s reading RealCLearPolitics and counting up electoral votes. He may be so out of touch that he hasn’t learned about the Civil War. … This suggests that while MEMRI’s translation may be accurate, the focus of both MEMRI and the NY Post on the current presidential election may be misplaced. Bin Laden may not be offering protection to a state that votes against Bush. He may not be talking about the election at all. He may be looking past the election and attempting to offer protection to states that secede, or follow their own foreign policies. … P.S.: Note that this interpretation would both fit the translation and explain why bin Laden seemingly lumps Kerry and Bush together. He’s not trying to get votes for either man. … [Thanks to alert reader P.C.] 10:57 P.M.

  30. For the record: Carmon should immediately retract his litigation threat. It’s an outrageous attempt to muzzle free speech.

    It would be decent if Cole apologized for threatening to sue Martin Kramer, but let’s not hold our breath.

    The real issue here is MEMRI’s reliability and credibility and whether Cole’s “cherrypicking” charge invalidates MEMRI. They probably do. Emphasis on the word “probably” because I do not read Arabic.

    But so what? Cole conveniently ignores the fact that all of these newspapers are government-controlled, or at the very least, severely censored. Is Cole seriously saying that the Arab world isn’t infected by paranoia about Jews?

    Arabs and Arab states have legitimate criticisms of Israel and Israelis, but that’s a different issue. I haven’t read MEMRI in a while, but I know that state controlled television in Lebanon and Egypt puts on soap-operas that repeat the blood libel. Why is it so impossible for the Juan Cole’s to admit that there is a huge civilizational problem in the Arab world that goes well beyond legitimate criticism of Israeli government actions? This blind spot belies Cole’s stance as a disinterested purveyor of truth.

    My suggestion is that Cole get a life, the first step of which would be to start a competing translation service, which doesn’t “cherrypick” articles from the Arabic press, but which reflects them fairly, from his point of view.

    Again, I’m not holding my breath. I think that Cole and his ilk prefer to languish in a pool of self-pity, blaming the evil Zionists for their plight.

  31. Let me set aside a few fallacies propagated here

    1) Memri publishes the voices of moderates in the Arab world ALL THE TIME…. There are literally dozens and dozens of these articles.
    You can find articles even recently of Egyptians and others stating that the Arab world is broken.

    2) “An organ for the right wing Likud”…. who would that be Eitan, and the rest who were just kicked out of the government by Sharon??
    Carmon and the others who run the site are leftists who supported Oslo? SO MUCH FOR THAT THEORY EH? at least it sounds good though.

    3) Memri is the ONLY freekin organization in the world trying to bring the truth out about the Police State thriving hate propaganda of the Arab and Muslim world… so THERE IS PLENNNNNNTY TO REPORT ON…. Who else is showing what regularly appears on tv in the Territories, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Al Manar etc…..??….
    ………………………………………………………………………………………… take your time… and get back to me on this one.

  32. ‘The Colonel’s line about the $60 million figure should be quoted in logic textbooks when discussing “Begging the Question.”‘

    Cole’s outrageous demand that ‘the colonel’ prove Cole’s guesswork inaccurate might also be cited in the chapter addressing “Ad Ignorantium” fallacies.

  33. Over at Martin Kramer’s site,, you can read a letter from Juan Cole to Kramer and to Daniel Pipes in which Cole threatens to sue them.

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