In a reminder that Persian rhetoric is not always easy for English-speakers to interpret, a senior Israeli official has acknowledged that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, never actually said that Israel “must be wiped off the map.”
Those words were attributed to Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005, in English translations of his speech to a “World Without Zionism” conference that October. As my colleague Ethan Bronner reported the next year, one problem was translating a metaphorical turn of phrase in Persian that has no exact English equivalent — there was, for instance, no mention of a map — and there was a heated debate about whether the original statement was a threat or a prediction.
Last week, Teymoor Nabili of Al Jazeera suggested during an interview with Dan Meridor, Israel’s minister of intelligence and atomic energy, that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s rhetorical flourish had been misinterpreted. “This idea that Iran wants to wipe Israel out,” Mr. Nabili said, “now that’s a common trope that is put about by a lot of people in Israel, a lot of people in the United States, but as we know Ahmadinejad didn’t say that he plans to exterminate Israel, nor did he say that Iran’s policy is to exterminate Israel.”
In response, Mr. Meridor said that Mr. Ahmadinejad and Iran’s ruling cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had said repeatedly “that Israel is an unnatural creature, it will not survive. They didn’t say, ‘We’ll wipe it out,’ you’re right, but, ‘It will not survive.’ ”
Mr. Meridor also pointed out that Iran’s leaders have continued to deny Israel’s right to exist and used highly inflammatory terms to describe the state. After Ayatollah Khamenei compared Israel to a cancerous tumor in February — adding, it “should be cut off” — Mr. Meridor noted those remarks were echoed by the president just last month. “Israel is unnatural, it will not exist, it’s on the verge of collapse,” Mr. Meridor said. “When you hear this from these people, you need to take it seriously.”
As the Guardian columnist Jonathan Steele explained in 2006, a more direct translation of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks would be: “this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time,” echoing a statement once made by the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In an English translation three days after the speech in 2005, the Middle East Media Research Institute, or Memri — which was founded by a former Israeli intelligence officer — rendered the sentence in a similar way: “Imam [Khomeini] said: ‘This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.’”
In an interview with The Lede on Tuesday, Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American writer whose father was an ambassador under the Shah, pointed out that Mr. Ahmadinejad had slightly misquoted Ayatollah Khomeini, using the Persian word for “page” instead of a similar-sounding word for “scene or stage.”
Mr. Majd, who once did a cameo as Mr. Ahmadinejad’s translator at the United Nations, also noted that in the original speech, the Iranian president had argued that while the end of Israeli rule over Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam, might seem impossible to imagine, the end of the Shah’s rule and the collapse of the Soviet Union both proved that change on that scale was possible.
The author, who recently spent time in Tehran, suggested that Mr. Ahmadinejad has perhaps made so little effort to explain that he was misquoted because he relishes his image as a sworn enemy of Israel, and would not want to be seen as stepping back from even threatening remarks he did not make.
Still, over the years, the original misinterpretation of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks has been so often repeated that it has become a kind of shorthand. “In my conversations with Americans,” Mr. Majd said, very often they respond to the name Ahmadinejad by saying, “He wants to eliminate Israel.”
Mr. Majd added that reformers inside Iran call Mr. Ahmadinejad’s posturing “very damaging,” and blame his repeated — and quite accurately translated — statements denying the Holocaust, “for inflaming this Iranophobia that exists in the West.”
Although there is general agreement now among translators and scholars that Mr. Ahmadinejad did not commit his country to the project of destroying the state of Israel in that 2005 speech, the phrase that was wrongly attributed to him then remains so firmly rooted in the popular imagination that it is frequently used as evidence of Iran’s genocidal intentions.
During a visit to the White House last month, on the eve of the Jewish festival of Purim, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel presented President Obama with a copy of the Book of Esther, which recounts the tale of a Persian leader who wanted to annihilate the Jews. “Then, too, they wanted to wipe us out,” Mr. Netanyahu told the president. (Editor’s note: another distortion)
In January, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, told a New York Times Magazine writer: “The Iranians are, after all, a nation whose leaders have set themselves a strategic goal of wiping Israel off the map.” (Editor’s note: another misrepresentation of facts)
Last year, after President Obama told the United Nations General Assemblythat Israel, “looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map,” Glenn Kessler, the editor of The Washington Post’s Fact-Checker blog, criticized everyone “who has blithely repeated the phrase,” including himself.
In his post, Mr. Kessler reported that the picture gets murkier when those words from 2005 are set against other Iranian propaganda:
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.
As Mr. Kessler noted, Mr. Teitelbaum’s report, “written from a pro-Israel perspective,” includes several images of similar statements on banners in Iran. One of them, described as a screen grab taken from an Iranian satellite channel in 2003, during the rule of Iran’s reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, showed a banner on a missile at a military parade in Tehran that seemed to echo Ayatollah Khomeini’s words. According to the translation provided by the author, that banner read: “Israel must be uprooted and wiped off [the pages of] history.”
(Editor’s note: The Semantics will never stop nor the propaganda by the Israelis in the hope of building world wide support for its likely attack on Iran)