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. More important, closer readings of the phrase suggested that the original statement was less of a threat than 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 after Ayatollah Khamenei compared Israel to a cancerous tumor in February — adding, it “should be cut off” — his remarks were echoed last month by the president. “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.”
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.
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.”
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 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.
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, who recently spent time in Tehran, added 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.
Mr. Majd also said that reformers inside Iran blamed Mr. Ahmadinejad’s posturing, and his repeated and accurately translated statements denying the Holocaust, “for inflaming this Iranophobia that exists in the West.”