Founded in 1998 "to inform the debate over U.S. policy in the Middle East," MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute) claims to be an "independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit" organization. However, while the group is lauded by some observers for revealing various facets of Arab society to broader audiences, its trajectory and direction have been largely dominated by hawkish "pro-Israel" politics, and its work has been repeatedly criticized for being biased and at times purposely misleading.
Among MEMRI's key activities are publishing translations and analyses of news sources from throughout the Greater Middle East. It claims to maintain "the largest archive in the world of translated Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, and Urdu research material." As of 2011, MEMRI provided translations of Middle Eastern sources in Hebrew, English, Chinese, German, Japanese, Spanish, Polish, French, Italian, and Russian. MEMRI maintains offices in various cities, including Washington, D.C., Jerusalem, Tokyo, Shanghai, Berlin, and London.
According to its website, MEMRI's core projects as of October 2011 included: "Democratization in the Arab and Muslim World"; "The Tom Lantos Archives on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial"; "The Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor"; "Global Jihad News"; "Palestinian Media Studies Project"; "South Asia Studies Project"; "9/11 Documentation Project"; "Economic Studies Project"; and the "Cartoon Initiative," which presents translations of cartoons from Arab media, including "reform cartoons," "anti-American cartoons," and "conspiracy cartoons." One representative publication on MEMRI's website from the 9/11 Documentation Project is a collection of translations of cartoons "from Arab media on the 9/11 attacks, beginning from the days immediately after it." Titled "Cartoons on 9/11," the publication includes many conspiracy-minded cartoons alleging that the attacks were an "inside job" as well as several that suggest the attacks were a result of U.S. actions abroad.
MEMRI was founded by Meyrav Wurmser and Yigal Carmon, both of whom have ideological affinities with Israel's conservative Likud Party. Wurmser, the spouse of former Dick Cheney adviser David Wurmser, left her position as executive director in 2002 to join the Hudson Institute. As of 2011, Carmon, who is a former colonel in the Israeli military intelligence, remains MEMRI's president. Steven Stalinksy, a former assistant to the Clinton/Gore campaign who has contributed to numerous neoconservative publications (including the Weekly Standard and the in-house journal of the Middle East Forum), has served as MEMRI's executive director since Wurmser stepped down.
MEMRI's directors and advisory boards are top-heavy with neoconservatives and other supporters of hawkish U.S. and Israeli policies. Current and former board members include Elliott Abrams, Steve Emerson, Bernard Lewis, Elie Wiesel, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, Jose Maria Aznar, Donald Rumsfeld, James Woolsey, John Bolton, John Ashcroft, Ehud Barak, Mort Zuckerman, Michael Mukasey, Norman Podhoretz, William Bennett, Christopher DeMuth (former president of the American Enterprise Institute), Paul Bremer, Herb London (president of the Hudson Institute), Natan Sharanksy, James Q. Wilson, Alan Dershowitz, Richard Holbrooke, Jack Kemp, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Irving Kristol. (As of October 2011, information about MEMRI staff and directors was available online. However, previously, the organization was criticized for not providing access to this information online and for attempting to disguise its political ties.)
According to tax records, in 2001 MEMRI had an operating budget of just under $2 million. By 2009, operating expenses reached just over $5 million, decreasing to $4.5 million in 2010. Aside from salaries, MEMRI's largest operating expense during 2010 was for translation services, for which it paid $1.3 million to its long-standing Jerusalem-based contractor Yesodot Shalom (Foundations for Peace). Additionally, it spent nearly $1 million for the MEMRI TV Project, which monitors Middle East TV broadcasts, and more than $300,000 to maintain its website.
According to a non-exhaustive review of Form 990 tax documents filed by U.S. philanthropic organizations, Right Web estimates that some 45 U.S.-based charitable foundations provided more than $8 million to MEMRI during the period 1999-2009. By far, MEMRI's largest donor among this group has been the Newton D. & Rochelle F. Becker Foundation, which gave nearly $2.5 million during 2004-2009. Other donors have included the Daniel Pipes-led Middle East Forum ($100,000), the Irving I. Moskowitz Foundation ($110,000), the Bradley Foundation ($160,000), the Adelson Family Foundation ($250,000), the Russel Berrie Foundation ($250,000), the Koret Foundation ($375,000), and the Donors Capital Fund ($550,000). (For a complete list of results of Right Web's investigation, see the attached document "MEMRI 501(c)3 Financing, 1999-2009.")
Additionally, in August 2011, the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor announced that it was awarding a $200,000 grant to MEMRI "to conduct a project that documents anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and Holocaust glorification in the Middle East. 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."
Responding to the announcement, one observer quipped: "Finding examples of anti-Semitism is already a robust MEMRI project and one wonders why exactly they needed the cash. … 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.'"
During a presentation at the Secular Islam Summit in St. Petersburg, Florida in March 2007, Wafa Sultan, a Syrian-born apostate Muslim living in the United States who has a reputation for demonizing Islam, said: "I don't believe there is any difference between radical Islam and regular Islam." At the summit, Sultan received an award in recognition of her outspoken criticism of some Muslim practices, which first gained her global fame in early 2006 when she debated Ibrahim Al-Khouli on Al Jazeera's weekly discussion program The Opposite Direction. MEMRI quickly translated the interview, which has had millions of views on YouTube and was reported on by Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal. During the debate, Sultan said: "Only Muslims defend their beliefs by burning down their churches." Al-Khouli responded to Sultan's criticisms by calling her a "heretic."
The Wafa Sultan translation is an example of the role MEMRI has played in publicizing critical views of Islam. Indeed, in a widely noted 2011 report on the so-called "Islamophobia network"—a patchwork of prominent U.S. foundations, opinion makers, and media personalities who spread negative impressions about Islam and Muslims in the United States—the Center for American Progress (CAP) called MEMRI "the Islamophobia network's go-to place for selective translations of Islamist rhetoric abroad." The report notes the organization has received praise from prominent U.S. neoconservatives and Islamophobes like Frank Gaffney, Daniel Pipes, and Robert Spencer, and has received funding from several foundations identified in the report, notably the Bradley foundations, the Russell Berrie Foundation, the Donors Capital Fund, the Becker Foundation, the William Rosenwald Family Fund, and the Fairbook Foundation.
After the 9/11 attacks and the onset of the "war on terror," MEMRI gained public prominence as a source of news and analysis about the Muslim world. Its translations and reports are distributed without charge, according to MEMRI, to "congresspersons, congressional staff, policy makers, journalists, academics, and interested parties." Articles translated by MEMRI, as well as commentary by its own staff, are routinely cited in national media outlets in the United States, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. Analyses by MEMRI staff and officers are frequently published by right-wing and neoconservative media outlets such as the National Review, Fox News, Commentary, and the Weekly Standard. Both critics and supporters of MEMRI note its increasing influence in shaping perceptions of the Middle East.
Some observers credit the group with effectively demonstrating the various forces that exist within Arab society. For instance, a Right Web reader once argued in a letter to the project that MEMRI has "opened my eyes to the conflict within Islam regarding modernity vs. tradition; the reformists' calls for democracy in all the Middle East states; the calls for women to be educated, protected from spousal abuse, and [to] obtain equality before the law; the incisive self-criticism regarding the decline of Arab culture and importance; as well as the ugly anti-Semitic news (of which there is no Western counterpart) and the violence of sharia law."
As the 2011 CAP study discussed above demonstrates, however, many observers see a darker side to MEMRI's work, arguing that the organization "cherry picks" the items it translates in an effort to bolster hardline Israeli policies as well as the militarist advocacy campaigns of neoconservatives and other right-wing backers of Israel. A case in point came in mid-June 2006, when discussions over the fate of Iran's nuclear program were reaching a fever pitch in Washington. MEMRI held an event on Capitol Hill titled "Must See Iran TV II." The event, cosponsored by then-Sens. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Evan Bayh (D-IN), was aimed at spurring fear in Congress of Iran's posture toward the United States and its allies in the Middle East. The MEMRI presentation included translated clips from Iranian television that highlighted "themes associated with Iran's nuclear aspirations, its acquisition of offensive weapons, anti-Americanism, and statements by leading Iranian government officials, including President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad," according to an article in the New York Sun written by MEMRI Executive Director Steven Stalinsky.
In a 2006 op-ed for the Rocky Mountain News, Rima Barakat, a Denver-based Muslim activist, accused MEMRI of producing "unbalanced propaganda [that is] littered with inflammatory articles aimed to incite hate and bigotry toward any person whom MEMRI considers anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist". MEMRI's bias, claimed Barakat, is also apparent in its translations. In once instance, wrote Barakat, "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 had been distorted to 'Jews Have Lost Their Humanity.' Barakat objected, 'Every time I wrote Zionism, MEMRI replaced the word [with] 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.'"
Another critic, former CIA counterintelligence official Vincent Cannistraro, has argued that "they [MEMRI] are selective and act as propagandists for their political point of view, which is the extreme-right of Likud. ... They simply don't present the whole picture."
Several observers have argued that MEMRI's political bias affects the accuracy of its translations. The Guardian's Brian Whitaker took MEMRI's president to task for mistranslating a question that included an implied criticism of Israel. The question was, "How do you deal with the Jews who are besieging Al Aqsa and are scattered around it?" But MEMRI translated this as: "How do you feel about the Jews?"
In another case, MEMRI reinterpreted and circulated a 2004 speech by Osama bin Laden in which, according to MEMRI, he threatened to attack individual U.S. states if they voted for George W. Bush. At the end of the speech, bin Laden says, "In conclusion, I tell you in truth, that your security is not in the hands of Kerry, nor Bush, nor al-Qaida. No. Your security is in your own hands. And every state [wilayah] that doesn't play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security." MEMRI argued that bin Laden's use of the word wilayah signified U.S. states, like New Jersey or New Hampshire. But Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor, Arabic speaker, and noted blogger, had a different interpretation: "Bin Laden says that such a 'state' should not trifle with Muslims' security. He cannot possibly mean that he thinks Rhode Island is in a position to do so. Nor can he be referring to which way a state votes, since he begins by saying that the security of Americans is not in the hands of Bush or Kerry. He has already dismissed them as equivalent and irrelevant, in and of themselves." After observing that MEMRI is closely aligned with the policies of Israel's Likud Party and opining that it "cleverly cherry-picks the vast Arabic press," Cole added: "I am not suggesting that the MEMRI report was an attempt on behalf of the Likud Party to intervene in the U.S. election. I suspect they just didn't think through the issue and depended on a surface reference to modern standard Arabic."
A few weeks after Cole posted his article about the bin Laden translation, MEMRI's Yigal Carmon wrote a letter to Cole threatening to sue him if he didn't "retract the false statements" Cole had allegedly made in his piece. "If you will not do so," wrote Carmon, "we will be forced to pursue legal action against you personally and against the University of Michigan, which the article identifies you as an employee of. We hope this will not be necessary." Carmon took issue with Cole's assertion that MEMRI received $60 million a year and with what he interpreted as Cole's suggestions that MEMRI was affiliated with the Likud Party and presented a biased picture of the Middle East.
Cole responded publicly, urging Carmon to reveal MEMRI's budget and its funders: "I think [Carmon] would find that in democratic countries, in any case, a dispute over an organization's level of funding would be laughed out of court as a basis for a libel action. In fact, I am giggling as I write this." Regarding Carmon's charge that he unfairly accused the group of cherry-picking the news, he wrote: "On more than one occasion I have seen, say, a bigoted Arabic article translated by MEMRI and when I went to the source on the web, found that it was on the same op-ed page with other, moderate articles arguing for tolerance. These latter were not translated." As for Carmon's last complaint, Cole said: "I did not allege that MEMRI or Col. Carmon are 'affiliated' with the Likud Party. What I said was that MEMRI functions as a PR campaign for Likud Party goals. Col. Carmon and Meyrav Wurmser, who run MEMRI, were both die-hard opponents of the Oslo peace process, and so ipso facto were identified with the Likud rejectionists on that central issue."
About MEMRI's Founders
Yigal Carmon served in the IDF Intelligence Branch from 1968 to 1988. In that capacity, the Romanian-born Carmon, served as acting head of the civil administration in the West Bank from 1977 to 1982. He served as counterterrorism adviser to premiers Shamir and Menachem Begin (the latter a founder of the Likud Party) from 1988 to 1993. In 1991 and 1992, Carmon was a senior member of the Israeli delegation to peace negotiations with Syria in Madrid and Washington.
Meyrav Wurmser, an Israeli-born analyst of Mideast affairs, received her doctorate from George Washington University in Washington, DC, where she wrote on Vladimir Jabotinsky, the notorious leader of the Revisionist Zionist Movement whose followers have included Dalck Feith, a Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist whose son, Douglas Feith, was a controversial adviser under Paul Wolfowitz in the Donald Rumsfeld Pentagon. Wurmser, who has taught at Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Naval Academy, has played a role in several neoconservative and Likud-aligned policy initiatives. For example, she was participant in the study group that led to the publication of the 1996 report, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," which was published by the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, a Jerusalem- and DC-based think tank. The report, which urged Israel to break off then-ongoing peace initiatives, contained six pages of recommendations for Likud Party leader and then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "to work closely with Turkey and Jordan to contain, destabilize, and roll back" regional threats, help overthrow Saddam Hussein, and to strike "Syrian military targets in Lebanon" and possibly in Syria. Other study participants included Richard Perle, David Wurmser, and Douglas Feith.