Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam
In an Al Jazeera interview, one of the more moderate ministers in the current government, Dan Meridor, conceded that a notorious phrase widely attributed to Iran’s leaders including Pres. Ahmadinejad, that Iran would wipe Israel from the map, is false. Though Meridor, a senior cabinet member in the Netanyahu ruling coalition, believes that Iranian statements about Israel being a cancer in the region are equally distressing to Israel, he acknowledged that neither of Iran’s current leaders had ever called for destroying Israel. That of course, didn’t prevent him from lapsing back into precisely the same claim not once, but twice later in the interview. It seems that some tropes are so engraved in a nation’s consciousness that a politician can intellectually know they are false, publicly admit it, and then contradict himself.
The interview proved interesting as well for exposing some of the underlying assumptions of Israeli attitudes and policy toward Iran. When asked about the unique dangers that Iran posed to Israel or the Middle East, Meridor claimed that Iran has introduced a dangerous element into the region: religion. Now, there’s no question that Islam is a critical element of the Iranian regime. But was Iran the first to introduce such religious nationalism? What about that notion of Israel being a “Jewish” state? Seems to me that is a clear expression of it as well. Of course, Israelis will argue that the character of religious expression in the Iranian state is fanatical, intolerant and homicidal, while the character of religious expression in Israel is moderate and tolerant. That may be what Israelis would like to believe. But is it true?
One of the primary elements of Israeli national purpose these days is the settlement enterprise. The justification for it is purely religious in nature. God gave us the land and commanded us to settle in it and warned us never to part with it. That’s more or less the gist of the argument. So if the Muslims and Arabs of the Middle East see such a fundamental element of Israeli nationhood underpinned by religious theology, what are they to think?
Further, when Bibi Netanyahu lays out his argument for Israel attacking Iran what language does he use? The Holocaust. Once again, this is discourse that is fundamentally religious in nature. A Jew may argue that the prime minister has no choice because the Jews were exterminated during the Holocaust for their religion. But the plain fact is that Netanyahu has many arguments he could wield in making his case. The fact that he’s offered this one hundreds of times over the years indicates not only that he finds it a powerful one, but that it resonates deeply inside him as a Jew, and he believes it will affect his domestic and international audience in a similar way.
If I were to have to isolate one of the most important parts of my mission in writing this blog it’s to point out to both sides, but especially to Jews and Israelis, that whatever fanatical notions you seek to attribute to the other side, you better look in the mirror first, because it’s more than likely that your co-religionists and fellow citizens have expressed thoughts equally as fundamentalist in nature.
In yesterday’s Times, Steven Erlanger also reveals a certain western awkwardness about the injection of religious rhetoric into political discourse. He says that Ayatollah Khamenei’s statements about Iran’s nuclear intentions are shrouded in a “fog” of theological terms:
Ayatollah Khamenei, who is not only the leader of Iran’s government but also the final authority on Islamic law, often uses religious language when he talks about the nuclear issue, which can jar Western analysts trying to gauge the meaning of such strong statements.
This is a further indication of how clueless secular western journalists can be to the role of religion in regions like the Middle East. The unstated implication of such statements is that because Iran’s leaders are religious fanatics their word may not be trusted, nor can we ever know for sure what they really mean. A further implication is that western secular leaders, when they make political statements, are speaking clearly in a language every reasonable person can understand.
This assumption is riddled with unsupported cultural assumptions. If this were only a case of cultural misunderstanding, that wouldn’t rise to the level of an issue worth being overly concerned about. But the fact is that western misimpressions of the states, cultures and religions of the Middle East has caused round after round of mayhem throughout history. And we may be walking into yet another one.
James Risen, in an article from yesterday’s Times makes the following racist claim:
…Some analysts say that Ayatollah Khamenei’s denial of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite historical concept called taqiyya, or religious dissembling. For centuries an oppressed minority within Islam, Shiites learned to conceal their sectarian identity to survive, and so there is a precedent for lying to protect the Shiite community.
Why is it that some otherwise excellent reporters seem to lose their heads when writing about this subject? Note Risen refuses to tell us who “some analysts” are so we can judge the credibility of this. Further, while I’ve seen neocons, anti-jihadis and other crackpots make this claim about Shiites, I’ve never heard anyone support it with any proof that any Shiite has ever used taqiyya as justification for lying in a political context. Just as Jews may annul vows in a purely religious context on Kol Nidre, I’m sure taqiyya is a similarly religious-based precept having nothing whatsoever to do with politics. This is at best shoddy journalism and at worst outright racism.
Another interesting side issue that arose in the Meridor interview was a reference by the reporter to astatement by Avigdor Lieberman during Cast Lead that Israel should level a crushing blow upon “Hamas” (by which he meant Gaza) that would destroy its will to resist. He likened such a blog to the atom bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan to end WWII. Meridor claims Lieberman never made the statement, and clearly believes the interviewer is making it up. Unfortunately, he is not and Maariv provides the proof.
In the context of the interview, Lieberman’s statement is important because it shows that Israeli leaders have spoken with bellicosity equal to anything Iran’s leaders have said about Israel. Israel has used homicidal, if not genocidal rhetoric in reference to its Arab neighbors no less than Iran may have. I would actually argue that no matter how troubling or hostile some of Iran’s rhetoric may have been, Iran has repeatedly said that it had no plans to attack Israel pre-emptively. Israel has repeatedly threatened to do precisely that to Iran. So whose rhetoric is worse?
In the interview, Meridor repeats another false claim often made by Israeli leaders and journalists: that the IAEA report released a few months ago says that Iran “has” a military nuclear “plan.” At another point, he says that Iran is “aiming” at building a “nuclear warhead” for its missiles so that they might reach Israel. At another point in the interview he claims the IAEA has said:
Yes, they [the Iranians] are going for nuclear weapons…They are after nuclear weapons. They [the IAEA] described the plan very well.
This is at best a wild overstatement of what the report actually said and at worst a tissue of outright lies. The report said there are indications that Iran may have such a program. After the interviewer points out to Meridor that all of the U.S. intelligence establishment believes that Iran has not made a decision to get a nuclear bomb, the Israeli minister says:
They said, if I remember correctly, that Iran is going after nuclear weapons…A general understanding between us and American, I think, and Europe–England, France, Germany–is, with no doubts whatsoever, that Iran has made a decision to go there…
Er, well no, they didn’t say that nor do any of the countries named believe that. Of such errors are wars made.
Then Meridor surprised even me, by tearing a page right out of Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes and invoking Kulturkampf to explain Iran’s supposed desire to wipe out Israel and the entire western world. The grandiose conspiratorial nature of his thinking reveals just how delusional is the mindset of some of Israel’s key decision-makers:
I think that the standoff between America and Iran, and the Muslim world is a sort of Kulturkampf, a clash of civilizations. And some groups that are not nationally based, but religiously based–call them Al Qaeda or Jihad or Taliban and others–who think that this is a way to stop the west and the domination of those ideas, will have a real boost in a victory of Iran over those westerners that are trying to change the course, the historical course…
With thinking like this coming from one of the more moderate and supposedly sophisticated members of the Israeli governing coalition, you might as well have Anders Breivik making Israel’s strategic decisions. There doesn’t appear that much difference in thinking between Meridor and Breivik regarding the threat posed by the Muslim world.
When the Al Jazeera reporter asked Meridor whether Israel shouldn’t join the NPT protocol and lay its own nuclear program open to the same inspections that Iran allows. The Israeli almost laughably says that Israel’s refusal to join is a “sound and good” policy and “does not bother anyone seriously.” He also states that the question of whether there will be a war in the Middle East is “in the hands of Iran.” This reminds me in a number of ways of the thinking of the bullies, child abusers or wife beaters who tell their victims that the question of whether they will beat them up is solely in the victims’ hands. At the very least, it seems like putting the cart before the horse.
On a related note, the single most comprehensive debunking of the “wipe Israel off the map” claim is this article from the Washington Post [seepost below].
Bob Mann says:
April 16, 2012 at 3:12 AM
The state-run Iranian press reported that Ahmadinejad said that Israel must be wiped off the map. The US press just reported on the translation which was provided the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting News Network. If you check the English version of that website from 10/26/2005, you will see that the state-run Iranian press quotes Ahmadinejad as saying “Israel must be wiped off the map”. Perhaps the Iranians who translated the Persian phrase thought the spirit of the idiom was better captured in English with that verbiage than with the word-by-word literal translation provided by Juan Cole and others. In any case, the translation originated with the Iranian news outlet itself reporting on the speech.
Also, you appear to have once again attributed remarks to Steven Erlanger that were actually written by James Risen. The citation that you introduce in your sixth paragraph is from the “fog” article written by Risen, not Erlanger.
By Glenn Kessler, Associated Press/Washington Post
“Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map.”— President Obama, speech to the U.N. General Assembly, September 21, 2011
“It was only perhaps three weeks ago that the president of Iran once again said that Israel should be eradicated off the face of the Earth. As you recall, it was about in 2005 when he [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] said before that Israel — he would use a nuclear weapon to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.” — Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), September 19, 2011
“Outrageous statements by Ahmadinejad, such as a pledge to wipe Israel off the map, made it easier to keep that coalition together. Germany had been considered the weak sister of the group, but after Ahmadinejad’s comments about Israel, the historical burden of the Holocaust made it difficult for Germany to appear too sympathetic to Iran.” — Glenn Kessler (aka The Fact Checker), “The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), page 188.
“The Islamic Republic’s proposal to help resolve the Palestinian issue and heal this old wound is a clear and logical initiative based on political concepts accepted by world public opinion, which has already been presented in detail. We do not suggest launching a classic war by the armies of Muslim countries, or throwing immigrant Jews into the sea, or mediation by the UN and other international organizations. We propose holding a referendum with [the participation of] the Palestinian nation. The Palestinian nation, like any other nation, has the right to determine their own destiny and elect the governing system of the country.” — Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, October 2, 2011
Almost unnoticed, Iran this week joined the United States and Israel as one of the few countries in the world to oppose the statehood bid at the United Nations by the Palestinians. As the Tehran Times noted, the Iranian supreme leader “condemned any measure which would lead to the recognition of the Israeli regime and would ignore the legal right of the Palestinian people to their homeland.”
In other words, Iran continues to oppose the two-state solution. But does this mean that Iran wants to destroy Israel — “wipe it off the map” — as is commonly cited? This is certainly the conventional wisdom, as seen in the statements above. But a colleague at The Washington Post, spotting the Bachmann and Obama statements during the U.N. festivities last month, suggested that this widely cited statement by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was actually a mistranslation.
The firestorm started when Nazila Fathi, then the Tehran correspondent of The New York Times, reported a story almost six years ago that was headlined: “Wipe Israel ‘off the map’ Iranian says.” The article attributed newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks to a report by the ISNA press agency.
The article sparked outrage around the globe, with then-President George W. Bush and other world leaders condemning Ahmadinejad’s statement. The original New York Times article noted that Ahmadinejad said he was quoting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, but that aspect was largely overlooked.
Then, specialists such as Juan Cole of the University of Michigan and Arash Norouzi of the Mossadegh Project [Wiped off the map: The rumor of the century January 2007] pointed out that the original statement in Persian did not say that Israel should be wiped from the map, but instead that it would collapse.
Cole said this week that in the 1980s Khomeini gave a speech in which he said in Persian “Een rezhim-i eshghalgar-i Quds bayad az sahneh-i ruzgar mahv shaved.” This means, “This occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the arena of time.” But then anonymous wire service translators rendered Khomeini as saying that Israel “must be wiped off the face of the map,” which Cole and Nourouzi say is inaccurate.
Ahmadinejad slightly misquoted Khomeini, substituting “safheh-i ruzgar,” or “page of time” for “sahneh-i ruzgar” or “arena of time.” But in any case, the old translation was dug up and used again by the Iranian news agency, Cole says. In fact, that’s how it was presented for years on Ahmadinejad’s English-language Web site, as the Times noted in a somewhat defensive article on the translation debate.
But the story doesn’t end there. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that Iranian government entities began to erect billboards and signs with the “wipe off” phrase in English. Joshua Teitelbaum of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs compiled an interesting collection of photographs of these banners, such as one on the building that houses reserve military forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. “Israel should be wiped out of the face of the world,” the sign reads in English.
Teitelbaum’s report, while written from a pro-Israel perspective, includes a number of threatening statements about Israel that are similar in tone to Ahmadinejad’s controversial statement.
In 2000, Khamenei stated, “Iran’s position, which was first expressed by the Imam [Khomeini] and stated several times by those responsible, is that the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted from the region.” He went on to say in the same speech that “Palestinian refugees should return and Muslims, Christians and Jews could choose a government for themselves, excluding immigrant Jews.”
Sadjadpour, who has closely studied the statements of Khamenei, said that the supreme leader has spoken more on the question of Israel than any other issue, which is remarkable given that Iran shares no border with Israel and that the Jewish state has virtually no impact on the daily lives of Iranians. Sadjadpour said Khamenei has been consistent, stating repeatedly that the goal is not the military destruction of the Jewish state but “the defeat of Zionist ideology and the dissolution of Israel through a ‘popular referendum.’”
Of course, an Israeli might conclude that such an outcome would be the destruction of the Jewish state in any case.
The Pinocchio Test
Some might question why Ahmadinejad’s precise words are important. Clearly, the Iranian government has unrelenting opposition to the state of Israel, so much so that it even rejects Palestinian efforts at statehood if that would result in Israel remaining in the Middle East. Indeed, Tehran has armed and funded Hamas, Hezbollah and other militant groups opposed to Israel. At the same time, the words allegedly uttered by Ahmadinejad have been used to suggest a change toward a more militaristic posture by Iran toward Israel.
In fact, Ahmadinejad is not the power broker in Iran; it is Khamenei. Khamenei, in fact, has been consistent in speaking of his hatred of Israel, but without a military context, as he demonstrated once again this week. Moreover, the fact that Ahmadinejad was merely quoting Khomeini suggests that even less weight should have been given to his words, especially since there is a dispute over the precise meaning in English.
“Wipe off the map,” in other words, has become easy shorthand for expressing revulsion at Iran’s anti-Israeli foreign policy. Certainly attention needs to be focused on that — and Iranian behavior in the region. But we’re going to award a Pinocchio to everyone — including ourselves — who has blithely repeated the phrase without putting it into context.