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In Israel, the language in which you read dictates what you know

The fact that a newspaper has both a Hebrew and an English edition doesn’t mean readers are getting the same story. Translations are selective and emphasize different aspects of the same story – and the implications for reader knowledge is great. 

By Sol Salbe

The image you have of Israel depends on what you read. That’s fairly obvious: the most conservative Palestinian media is still more supportive of the Palestinian cause than the most liberal Israel media. And there is a huge range of opinion within each sector.

But with the popularity in recent years of English-language versions of Hebrew newspapers, most people may not realize that they may be getting rather different content and perspective, depending on the language in which they read – even regarding the same item within the same media source. Having monitored the Israeli media in both languages on a full-time basis for 13 years, I have become used to this, but the differences between the two accounts of a recent court sentencing in the English and Hebrew editions of Haaretz even had me stunned.

The English version appeared to be straightforward. There was nothing remarkable about the  headline: “Jewish teen sentenced to 8 years in jail for killing Arab in Jerusalem.” The length of a sentence for a teenage killer wouldn’t be out of place in most Western countries.

The first paragraph also seemed dry and factual: “The Jerusalem District Court on Thursday sentenced a Jewish teen to eight years in jail for the killing of East Jerusalem resident Hussam Rawidi. The young man stabbed Rawidi with a barber’s razor blade. He was convicted under a plea bargain.” The rest of the article was very much along similar lines. Most readers would consider it quite mundane.

But the same article looked very different in Hebrew.

The headline was totally different: “5,000  shekels compensation to the family of an Arab stabbed to death by a Jew.” There was no reference to the compensation in the English article (which amounts to roughly $1,250). The Hebrew Haaretz explained the significance of the compensation in the first paragraph:

The Jerusalem District Court sentenced A., a 17.5 year old, to eight years in prison for killing Hussam Rawidi on ethnic grounds. The killing of Rawidi, a resident of East Jerusalem, took place about a year and a half ago. The judge awarded meager compensation to the victim’s family – 5000 shekels, ‘payable in five equal and consecutive payments from August 1, 2012,’ according to the verdict.

From the Hebrew headline, however, the Israeli courts appear to be on the lenient side in sentencing and a bit on the stingy side in awarding compensation. Further down the article, reporter Nir Hasson did set straight any Hebrew readers who thought this was indeed the case.

Perusal of similar cases suggest that in the past much heavier sentences were meted out to the killer. In 2009, Arik Karp  [an Israeli Jew – eds] was murdered on a Tel Aviv beach by Arab youth [Israeli citizens – eds]. His assailants also were convicted of manslaughter, but they were sentenced to 26 years in prison and they were required to compensate the victim’s family to the sum of 300,000  shekels.

The victim’s father, Hussein Rawidi, expressed his unhappiness at the court ruling. ‘The assailant’s eight years inside are meaningless compared to what he actually did,’ he told Haaretz. At the end of his sentence he’ll be able to walk out to continue his life  but I am going to suffer for the rest of my life. But that’s the way the courts operate, I cannot do anything about it. He murdered my son just because he’s an Arab. Everyone said that it was a racially motivated murder, but the prosecution thought differently and reduced the charge from murder to manslaughter,’ added the father.

The Secretary-General of Peace Now, Yariv Oppenheimer, who had attempted to assist the victim’s family, also responded to the sentence and said that ‘had the attacker been an Arab and the victim Jewish, the attacker would have long ago been sentenced to life imprisonment.  But in the Israeli legal system an Arab’s life is not worth more than 5000 shekels. The prosecution ought  to appeal the sentence.’

The State Prosecution counter-argued that there were considerable differences between the killing of Karp and the killing of Rawidi. According to the prosecution, ‘The evidence suggests that, unlike the killing of Karp, the killing of Rawidi lasted a few seconds and it was impossible to prove that, A. did have the intention to kill, or that he even could have anticipated that raising the knife would have resulted in death. The knife, the prosecution explained, is mostly made out of plastic and it is difficult to say that the only consequence of its use would have been Rawidi’s death.’

The references to the compensation, the comparative sentencing with the other manslaughter case, the father’s comment and everything else just cited above were missing from the English edition. But readers would not have been able to make an informed assessment of the story with only the partial information in the English version. [Whether anyone would actually accept that the life of an Arab is only worth one-sixtieth of that of a Jew because he was killed faster is of course a different matter.]

Some may argue that the international edition has different priorities: that it is fair and reasonable to give less space for such items for international readers. But even though the English item was shorter it still contained other details which were less important.

Politically selective translations are one major difference between the two languages in Haaretz. Two quick examples from the past two weeks: On July 10, Haaretz carried a story headed “Police: human rights activists are as dangerous as the vandals who defaced Yad Vashem [the Holocaust museum].” The sub-headline stated, “Four activists were arrested when they protested racist graffiti sprayed in the Palestinian village of Susya. The judge criticized the police behavior and said that they were arrested without justification.” It took the English Haaretz three days to mention this incident, and the Yad Vashem allusion was buried among other aspects in a compilation article. The judge’s criticism of the police for the unwarranted arrest was omitted.

In another case Haaretz reported on July 15 on a new regulation enacted by the Tel Aviv municipality under which “demonstrations, rallies, ceremonies, solidarity events, charity events, holiday events and all other activities that express an idea, opinion, value, belief or worldview” are conditional on municipality approval. This is an important story reflecting badly on Tel Aviv’s vaunted reputation as the heartland of liberal-democratic Israel. As of July 16, it had not appeared in English, even though the  material has already been made available in English elsewhere.

Then there’s the choice of which items get translated at all. Invariably opinion pieces from outside the mainstream are not translated, can cite the numerous articles which I have translated in recent months as proof of that pattern, this is really a matter for a separate article.

Sol Salbe is an Israeli-Australian journalist and translator based in Melbourne. He has spent the last 13 years as a full-time monitor of the Israeli media looking particularly at the differences between Hebrew and English-language coverage of events. His specialises in translating and disseminating articles, and segments of articles, which have not been made available in English.


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    1. aristeides

      I’d like to know how the author attributes the motive for the editorial decisions in such cases.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Michael Dorfman

      yep. and what if you read only Russian, like more than 500.000 israelis do? there where the wild things are.

      Reply to Comment
    3. I used to look at english Haaretz several times a week, but found the level of reporting and writing somewhat low. I’ve wondered, sometimes, what the Hebrew Haaretz is like. Are the differences a result of funding–less pages, translators, etc for the English?
      If I were in a country with a unique language where a large portion of the people thought the world can’t be trusted, the information purging would probably seem a natural thing to do. The insularity of Israel is hard to fathom for an American living at what is probably the decline of quasi empire.

      Reply to Comment
    4. AYLA

      So interesting; thank you! I always wonder about the differences. A Hebrew-language Ha’aretz reader told me that in her observations over the years, the English version is more to the left. This is fascinating; thank you, Sol.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Karen

      I left Haaretz 7 years ago, but I don’t think that the decisions made by the editorial staff today are vastly different to what they were back then. As night editor and the person responsible for selecting the stories, I can say that there are numerous considerations that go into choosing what gets translated and what doesn’t – decisions that the Hebrew editors don’t have to face.

      The English edition is much smaller – just 12 pages during the week, a fraction of the size of the Hebrew edition with all its various supplements. The translators often have to work from unedited copy, and therefore the structure of a story may not follow the structure of the story that finally appears in Hebrew once it’s gone through the editors there.

      Communications between the sides wasn’t always seamless, and so the Hebrew editors might decide to change a story entirely and may not always inform the English side. Ledes get switched, stories held and headlines switched – and the English might never be told.

      Before the website went behind a paywall, they would carry all of the stories from the daily print edition. And yes – the papers have different audiences to think about. The same goes for the websites. Given that it is a business trying to make money, that is a reasonable factor to take into account when deciding on which stories you focus your very limited staff resources. The English side has a much smaller staff, but the same deadlines to meet.

      But space is certainly one of the biggest issues – with just four pages of news, compared to an average of 18 in Hebrew, and with the added disadvantage of English being ‘wordier’ than Hebrew, stories have to be squeezed or skipped completely. On the few occasions that a translation differed enormously from the Hebrew version due to very obvious political leanings of the translator, that member of staff was berated by the editor.

      This article is very well-written and an interesting read, but as someone who was there, on the night desk, for some six years, it doesn’t reflect the decision process that the team went through on a nightly basis.

      Of course, that was now a while ago, and things have probably changed, and will continue to following the merger of the Hebrew internet and print desks. But I do not think that it is fair to imply that there is some sort of political agenda behind which stories appear in English or how they are structured.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Thank you Karen. I was not aware of the space differences nor independent nature of the English version staff. My memory of the articles fits what you are saying. The New York Times has much more space per piece, and that clearly alters final journal appearance.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Noam W.

      Good piece. This is obvious to anybody who reads in both languages – but important to let others know.
      Basically, Haaretz in English downplays news stories that do not reflect well on Israel. Though, to their credit, I believe all of the editorials, including the Amira Hass, Gideon Levi, and Akiva Eldar are made available in English, usually by next day at the latest.

      Reply to Comment
    8. @noam – Interesting. Do you have proof of that, or is it just a gut feeling? (the downplaying part)

      Reply to Comment
    9. Woody

      Great job Sol. It’s hard to tell what the motives are. Perhaps, the English versions are kept clean for the established liberal Zionist crowd, while at the same time delivering horrific news in a dead-pan style in order to provide fodder for the international Left?

      Reply to Comment
    10. I’ve been working as a copy-editor at the English-language Haaretz paper (not the website, just print) and I what Karen says above still holds. I have never picked up a trace of “hasbara” influence over the choice of stories or editing or anything. They publish news and opinion from Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Akiva Eldar, plus op-eds from Yitzhak Laor, Oudeh Basharat, Salman Massalha, and there is a hands-off policy over the content and style of the op-eds. Any op-ed writer who wants to see his piece and make changes before it goes to print has that right; some of them use it, some don’t. Sol, I identify completely with your political paranoia, but sometimes we’re wrong, and this time, I’m afraid you’re wrong.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Yshai

      i may add, that the articles in English are often intended only to paying readers – though not all of them. I have though a strong feeling, that articles showing Israel in bad light are never free for non-paying readers.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Iftach

      Thank you Sol. Good job! I wanted to write this article myself. Every time i read something good in the Hebrew haaretz, i switch to the English version to find the article and send links to the people on my list. Sometimes the article is simply not there, even after two days of waiting, and if it is there, some pieces are missing or got softened. The missing pieces, in most cases, are about “stuff you’re not supposed to tell the goyim”.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Maor

      Don’t know about language, but for those who bother reading only 972mag: there was a terror attack yesterday against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. At least seven Israelis died. Just thought you might want to know. Carry on.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Jake Singer

      This seems to be more out of shame and embarrassment by the English translating staff. Imagine yourself an Israeli, having to face their English colleagues in the western media with Israel institutional racism.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Meir Gush Etzion

      So, Internationals who see Haaretz as a “Sane” voice should appreciate that they are getting the watered down version..and that the Hebrew version takes even a more critical view. And this is what is crucial, our ability to look at ourselves in the mirror in our own language.

      Reply to Comment
    16. annie

      very interesting. haaretz aside, i find lots of stuff in the hebrew press that’s never published in english. sometimes i google trnslate stories from the hebrew press and generally they include links to other stories which i then follow. i find out all kinds of stuff like the recent convictions of bedouin idf trackers/drug trafficers.

      maybe i’m crazy but if i were connected to a crime like that, where the convicted made 10% of a multi million dollar business, i might consider revenge..or something. it’s a massive crime involving bedouins in the sinai. if i were a detective and a big crime took place in the sinai involving border guards it might even occur to me they were connected. whoever was accustomed to making that other 90% of profit..hmm.

      anyway. you can learn a lot reading the hebrew press.

      Reply to Comment