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.