Who Is (Not) Responsible for Gaza Flooding, “The Jews” or “Israel”? AFP Takes Liberties With Quotation

Al Yahud. It is Arabic for “the Jews,” and a term heard all too often, in the harshest of contexts, across the Arab Middle East. On television, clerics quote passages from religious literature stating that “judgement day will not come before the Muslims fight al Yahud and kill them,” and accusing them of slaying prophets. Scholars lament that Hitler didn’t finish off al Yahud. Politicians say al Yahud use Christian blood to make Passover crackers. Negative feelings about Qataris? Call them Yahud, as did one Syrian television host.

These statements, and countless others like them, were not made in reference to Israel or Israelis. They refer to Jews from over 1000 years ago, to European Jews in the 1940s, to observant Jews, and to, well, Qataris.

So when people in the Middle East say al Yahud, they often mean al Yahud, The Jews — across time, around the world, and undercover.

It is true, too, that it is not uncommon for Palestinians to say al Yahud when specifically describing actions by Israel or Israelis. What is going through the mind of speakers in these cases is anyone’s guess. Do they use the term euphemistically, as way to refer to Israel while avoiding the implicit recognition that comes from saying the name of the country? Do they use it to refer to Israelis, but not Arab Israelis? Are they thinking of a slur they heard on Hamas television? Do they see no difference between Jews inside and outside Israel’s borders? Are they saying exactly what they mean?
Are they not so sure themselves?

The answer, one might guess, is a little of each, depending on the speaker and the circumstances. Ultimately, with respect to “al Yahud” or any other term, the only person who knows how a speaker conceptualizes his subject is the speaker himself.

That’s why journalists should not be in the habit of altering direct quotes with euphemisms of their own. And that’s why Agence France Presse, already entangled in a journalistic scandal by producing an inaccurate video claiming Israel flooded Gaza , doubly botched its story. Although a Palestinian man in the video clearly says “al Yahud” while blaming those across the border for the flooding, AFP’s voice-over translation mentions only “Israel.”

Perhaps AFP is seeking to soften the words of the Palestinian. Or perhaps its journalists believe they know what the man really meant. But regardless of the wire service’s motivations, it is bad journalism. Here is how The New York Times addresses quotations in a document about journalistic ethics.

Quotations. Readers should be able to assume that every word between quotation marks is what the speaker or writer said. The Times does not “clean up” quotations. If a subject’s grammar or taste is unsuitable, quotation marks should be removed and the awkward passage paraphrased.

All though that refers to printed material, the same assumption must apply to quotes in a broadcast. As the Los Angeles Times states in its ethics statement, “We do not manufacture, embroider or distort quotes, either in print or in the video and audio clips posted on our website.”

AFP is guilty of quote embroidery — not of the type that adds sex appeal to a statement, but of the more boring variety, that covers up what’s likely to be regarded as an ugly blemish. If the softening of a quote might seem like a subtle distortion, it is important remember that there is a reason so many journalistic ethical guidelines promise not to play with quotations: because those who do risk losing the public’s trust. And this week, we learned not to trust AFP about events in Gaza, and not to trust the its translations, either.

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