I just checked my campus mail and found a letter
in it from Colonel Yigal Carmon, late of Israeli military intelligence, now
an official at the Middle East Media Research Organization, or MEMRI. He threatened
me with a lawsuit over blog comments I made at Informed
Comment. This technique of the SLAPP,
or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, has already been pioneered
by polluting industries against environmental activists, and now the pro-Likud
lobby in the U.S. has apparently decided to try it out against people like me.
I urge all readers to send messages of protest to email@example.com.
Please be polite, and simply urge MEMRI, which has a major Web presence, to
withdraw the lawsuit threat and to respect the spirit of the free sharing of
ideas that makes the Internet possible.
Here is the letter:
November 8, 2004
Professor Juan Cole
University of Michigan History Department
1029 Tisch Hall
435 S. State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1003
Dear Professor Cole,
I write in response to your article "Osama
Threatening Red States?" published on November 3, 2004 on Antiwar.com. The
article included several statements about MEMRI which go beyond what could be
considered legitimate criticism, and which in fact qualify as slander and libel.
While we respect your right to argue the veracity of our translations, you certainly
may not fabricate information about our organization. You make several claims
that are patently false:
Trying to paint MEMRI in a conspiratorial manner by portraying us as a rich,
sinister group, you write that "MEMRI is funded to the tune of $60 million a
year." This is completely false.
You also write that MEMRI is an "anti-Arab propaganda machine" that "cherry-picks
the vast Arabic press." If you have any level of familiarity with MEMRI, you
should be aware of our Reform Project, which is one of the most important of
MEMRI's projects, and which receives much of our energy and resources. The Reform
Project (www.memri.org/reform.html) is devoted solely to finding and amplifying
the progressive voices in the Arab world. It is especially disappointing that
these charges do not come from an overzealous journalist, but from a member
of the academic community, from whom one should be able to expect at least the
minimum amount of research and corroboration.
In addition, you write that "MEMRI is one of a number of public relations
campaigns essentially on behalf of the far right-wing Likud Party in Israel."
This, too, is completely false. MEMRI is totally unaffiliated with any government,
and receives no government funding. While I was formerly an Israeli official
(and retired more than a decade ago), I have never been affiliated with the
Likud Party, or any other party.
As such, we demand that you retract the false statements you have made about
MEMRI. If you will not do so, 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.
Col. Carmon's letter makes three charges: 1) that I alleged that MEMRI receives
$60 million a year for its operations; 2) that I alleged that MEMRI cherry-picks
the vast Arab press for articles that make the Arabs look bad; 3) that I said
that MEMRI was affiliated with the Likud Party.
This is how I would reply:
1) I am glad to publish the annual funding of MEMRI, and its sources, as provided
by Col. Carmon, if he will tell us what the figure is, which he has not. As
a historian, I have no desire to have anything but the facts in evidence. MEMRI
obviously a well-funded operation, as any familiarity with its scope and activities
would make clear. In the meantime, I am glad to acknowledge that the figure
I gave has been disputed by Col. Carmon. I think he 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.
2) I continue to maintain that MEMRI is selective and biased against the Arab
press, and that it highlights pieces that cast Arabs, especially committed Muslims,
in a negative light. That it also rewards secular Arabs for being secularists
is entirely beside the point (and this is the function of the "reform" site).
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.
3) 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
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.
Col. Carmon was not a formal member of the Likud party while serving in Israeli
military intelligence because active-duty military are not usually involved
in civilian political parties! Since he retired to the U.S., he did not have
the occasion to join the Likud, but there seems little question that if he were
living in Israel he would vote for Likud rather than Labor, given his public
So, the charge that I claimed an "affiliation" of MEMRI with Likud, isn't
true in the first place, and there is nothing to retract. That issue almost
certainly generated the entire letter. MEMRI is a 501 (c) 3 organization, which
is tax-exempt in U.S. law, and therefore cannot engage in (much) directly political
activity without endangering its exemption. I don't think MEMRI does so directly
intervene in politics as to make its 501 (c) 3 status questionable. But it is
obvious that 501 (c) 3 is widely abused by right-wing think tanks.
discussion on MEMRI on the Web can be found here.
I've said all I am going to say to Col. Carmon just now. Israeli military
intelligence is used to being able to censor the Israeli press and intimidate
journalists, and it is a bit shocking that Carmon should imagine that such intimidation
would work in a free society.
I will add another criticism of MEMRI, which is that it systematically violates
the intellectual property of Arab writers by appropriating their content without
paying for it, storing it on their servers, and then claiming copyright in the
work as translated! This is a shameful way of proceeding. Where the source articles
are published in a country that is signatory to the major international copyright
agreements, it may be illegal. All sites dealing in other languages do quote
or translate from time to time, which falls under fair use. But MEMRI has a
much more systematic set of appropriations going.
MEMRI has begun taking out blog ads. Since it can hardly go about threatening
bloggers with lawsuits without violating the essential spirit of open discourse
on the Web, it has forfeited any claim on our eyeballs. I urge all bloggers
to decline advertisements from MEMRI until such time as Col. Carmon withdraws
his outrageous threat.