Hard times for MEMRI

I received an email the other day from MEMRI, the translation and "media research" outfit founded by former Israeli intelligence officer Yigal Carmon. It was appealing for money.

Considering all the critical things I have said about MEMRI over the years (hereherehereherehere, and here), I have no idea why they thought I might be willing to help out with their finances, but it seems that MEMRI has fallen on hard times.

According to the email (also posted on a Yahoo message board), "MEMRI has been hard hit by the current economic crisis. We need your help now more than ever."

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post last year, Carmon also spoke of financial problems and waning support. "The economic meltdown is a tragedy for us," he said:

"Some of our supporters, such as Elie Wiesel, who is on our board, can no longer help us. Others who continue to give are giving less. We are desperately in need of help. While I'm deeply grateful for all the financial support we received in the past, and I understand the difficulties imposed by the current financial crisis, I have to say that it will be disastrous if we can't finance our projects. We already have projects that we cannot implement for lack of resources."

MEMRI has been well funded in the past, largely by anonymous donors. Its income increased steadily from $1.7m in 2002 to a peak of $4.9m in 2008. As a non-profit organisation it is also subsidised by US taxpayers.

However, in the last couple of years it has been running at a deficit – $755,000 in 2008 and $502,000 in 2009. To cover this overspend it has been eating into its assets which by last year had dropped to $925,000 from $2.1m just a couple of years earlier.

Despite its claims to be an independent research institute, MEMRI clearly has an agenda – of a rightwing Zionist kind – but even in those terms one might question whether donors are getting value for money.

The email appealing for funds makes some grandiose claims about the value of its research to the US authorities (including the military) and it says that leading media outlets, both print and television, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, CNN, and others are "all requesting MEMRI research every day".

MEMRI made a similar claim a few years ago, saying that "Al Jazeera TV consults us frequently". This was rather puzzling since the broadcaster had no obvious need for the translations from Arabic to English that MEMRI provides, and it came as news to Al-Jazeera whose spokesman said: "We monitor all kinds of publications and media. I doubt very much that we would use this as a source of information because we can go directly to the Arabic sources."

The reality is that as propaganda operations go, and for all the money it spends, MEMRI is not particularly effective. It does have a following among the American right and Zionist organisations, providing confirmation for their views of the Middle East, but beyond that its impact is much more limited. Its selectivity, and its penchant for taking things out of context, reduces its usefulness as a source for serious research as opposed to polemics.

In short, for those who don't already buy into its agenda and/or know enough about the Middle East to be aware of its agenda, MEMRI has a credibility problem.

In his interview with the Jerusalem Post, Carmon himself conceded that MEMRI's impact has been less than he expected. "I thought we would go a lot further in a decade than we have done," he told the paper.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 November 2010.