Middle East studies in the News
Damaging Israeli Misquote Finally Corrected [incl. Rashid Khalidi]
It was a hot day in summer – or so they say – when Moshe Yaalon delivered a harsh, unyielding verdict on the fate of a thwarted nation.
"The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people," the Israeli officer said – or is said to have said.
The year was 2002, near the height of a violent Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation now known as the Second Intifada. At the time, Yaalon was the Israel Defence Forces' chief of staff – in other words, the country's top soldier.
To some ears, his stark assessment of Palestinian fortunes served to reinforce the worst suspicions of Israel's critics, depicting Israelis as heartless aggressors and Palestinians as hapless victims.
The statement, or some approximation of it, crossed oceans, countries and continents, appearing in print or repeated over the airwaves around the world. It was published in some of the globe's most distinguished publications, including the Star.
There's just one problem.
Yaalon did not say what he is supposed to have said.
Certainly, Yaalon did not speak these words during a 2002 interview with Ari Shavit, a reporter with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in whose pages the now-notorious remark is widely supposed to have originally appeared.
In fact, it seems Yaalon, who now serves as his country's minister of strategic affairs, never uttered the words at all. "I can confirm that he has never said the quote ever," Yaalon's spokesman, Alon Ofek-Arnon, told the Star in an email.
Like a stubborn bug in a massive communications machine, Yaalon's never-uttered utterance has lived long and travelled far. The chronicle of its progress could serve as a case study in a seldom-examined aspect of popular culture in the electronic age – the self-replicating propagation of erroneous information.
Only now, seven years after the incendiary statement was originally supposed to have been made, is the record finally being corrected.
In recent weeks, publications including The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe have all carried retractions or clarifications, either disavowing the comment outright or conceding it should not have been attributed to Yaalon.
The Star carries a similar correction in its pages today, in reference to a 2004 article by columnist Haroon Siddiqui.
"The statement attributed to (Yaalon) was not just in the blogosphere but was widely quoted in mainstream, respected publications," explained Siddiqui. "There had been no correction or clarification sought or given that I was aware of. So I had no reason to think it was not a valid quote."
Siddiqui is far from alone.
"It only takes one mistake, one falsehood, and others pick up on it," said Gilead Ini, senior research analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a media watchdog that has lately been tracking down publications that have printed the comment.
The watchdog learned of the problem in January, after Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi repeated the quotation in an op-ed piece for The New York Times, attributing it to Yaalon.
That finally set the wheels of editorial clarification in motion.
The Times printed an "editor's note" later that month in which it referred to the statement as "an unverified quotation" that should not have been published.
In March, the Chicago Tribune printed a correction about the now-infamous remark, which had been included in an op-ed article that appeared more than five years earlier.
It is not clear just how, when or why this particular misquotation sprang to what has been a long, if not entirely happy, life.
Ini believes the error originated with Henry Siegman, a pundit and academic formerly associated with the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank.
In a piece for The New York Review of Books in December 2003, Siegman referred to Yaalon as "the official who had formerly talked of how war would 'sear deep' into Palestinian consciousness that they are a defeated people."
In that instance, the only words that appeared in quotation marks were "sear deep."
But in August 2007, in an article for the London Review of Books, Siegman repeated the passage almost word for word and, this time, he placed the entire phrase in quotation marks, once again attributing it to Yaalon.
This past February, Time magazine printed a version of the quote similar to Siegman's – "It will be seared deep into the consciousness of Palestinians that they are a defeated people" – and credited Yaalon for the remark. According to Ini, the magazine has agreed to publish a correction.
Many writers, including the Star's Siddiqui, have repeated a somewhat different version of the same quotation, almost always crediting it to Yaalon.
In the 2002 Haaretz interview, in which he is supposed to have uttered the offending words, Yaalon actually seems to have been trying to make a very different point.
Attempting to define what would constitute an Israeli victory in the Palestinian conflict, he said the following:
"I defined it from the beginning of the confrontation – the very deep internalization by the Palestinians that terrorism and violence will not defeat us, will not make us fold."
Robert Thompson, an expert on media and popular culture at Syracuse University, agrees it is important for publications such as the Star to correct the record in this and similar cases.
But such corrections, he said, go only so far.
"It doesn't mean the argument collapses," Thompson said. "The quote, for many people, was used to shore up something they feel very strongly about. It takes on a life of its own. It's almost irrelevant whether it was ever said."
Even so, the Star regrets the error.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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