Obama, Nuclear Proliferation and the Politics of Mistranslation

The right wing blogosphere is buzzing with rumors (denied by the White House, according to Ben Smith of Politico)  that the Obama administration has refused visas to employees of the Nuclear Research Center-Negev (NRCN) in Dimona, Israel.

Roger Simon, blogging at Pajamas Media, claims to be quoting an article published in the Israeli daily Maariv:

…. workers at the Dimona reactor who submitted VISA requests to visit the United States for ongoing university education in Physics, Chemistry and Nuclear Engineering — have all been rejected, specifically because of their association with the Dimona reactor. This is a new policy decision of the Obama administration, since there never used to be an issue with the reactor’s workers from study in the USA, and till recently, they received VISAs and studied in the USA.

Simon goes on to infer that, according to the Maariv article, “Israeli defense officials are stating these workers have no criminal records in the U.S. or Israel and have been singled out purely because of their place of employment.”

Nestled in Simon’s (or an uncredited source’s) “exclusive Pajamas Media translation” is the revelation that the English version  Simon is quoting  what he admits “is from a Google translation that I’ve tried to fix up a little bit.”

A little bit?  Let’s play “Simon Says” and compare his (or his source’s) efforts to what Maariv writer Uri Binder actually wrote:

Simon says:

NRG/Maariv reports today that workers at the Dimona reactor who submitted VISA requests to visit the United States for ongoing University education in Physics, Chemistry and Nuclear Engineering — have all been rejected, specifically because of their association with the Dimona reactor. This is a new policy decision of the Obama administration, since there never used to be an issue with the reactor’s workers from study in the USA, and till recently, they received VISAs and studied in the USA.

Israeli Defense Officials have stated that these reactor researches have no criminal background in Israel or in the USA, and yet they are being singled out purely because of their place of employment at the reactor.

In point of fact, the  Maariv article in the original Hebrew (English translation courtesy of and copyright by Israel News Today, used by permission here and for subsequent block quotes) opens:

The Americans are toughening their behavior toward the Nuclear Research Center Negev (NRCN) in Dimona. NRCN workers say that while the Americans are behaving in a conciliatory and non-aggressive way regarding the Iranian nuclear program, President Obama’s people have chosen to behave in a humiliating manner toward a country that is friendly toward them.

NRCN officials said yesterday that Obama’s government has imposed restrictions and toughened its behavior toward them, as has never happened before in relations between the two countries. For decades, NRCN employees have traveled to universities in the United States for advanced professional training in physics, chemistry and nuclear engineering. In order to study at those universities, the NRCN researchers had to request entry visas for the United States, as any Israeli citizen must. Yet recently, several of them encountered humiliating treatment and were refused visas, while their only crime has been that they are NRCN employees. According to security officials, the people in question are researchers with clean records who have never been in any trouble with the law either in Israel or in the United States, so the new manner in which they are being treated constitutes a severe offense against them and their families.

So, at the outset it is obvious that:

1.  Binder’s Maariv article is part of a larger discourse of grievance emanating from Israel  about Iran, and what appears (to Israelis) to be President Obama’s harsh treatment of Israel in sharp contrast to his conciliatory and gentle treatment of Iran.  (Iranians don’t quite see it that way.)

2.  Simon asserts not only that all Dimona workers who  have requested visas to study in the US have been turned down, but also that they have been refused visas explicitly because they worked at the Dimona nuclear facility.  In Blau’s original article in Maariv,  he doesn’t elaborate on what the alleged “humiliating treatment,” consisted of,  nor does he provide any hint as to the number of Dimona employees who requested study visas, how many received them and how many had their visa requests denied.  (Do consular officials routinely provide a reason why a visa has been denied?)

The original Hebrew is kamah mey’hem, which translates as “a few” or “some” of them.  Toward the end of the article, Professor Ze’ev Alfasi, the director of the nuclear engineering department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is quoted as saying, “Some of the people did not receive visas to the United States because they are employees of the Nuclear Research Center.” Some, not all.  (How Professor Alfasi is privy to US State Dept. deliberations concerning visa issuance is not clear.)

3.  Simon’s translation claims that (unnamed) “Defense officials” have attributed the rejection of the visa applications to  the applicants working for NRCN.   In Binder’s article, “security officials” attest to the fact that the applicants have never run afoul of the law either in Israel or the US.  It is not clear whether it is these (unnamed) officials or Binder himself who believe(s) that this, in and of itself, automatically entitles the individuals in question, and their families, to US entry visas.

4.  Also interesting is that Simon’s headline refers to the victims of visa denial as “scientists,” whereas in Binder’s article, they are merely “workers.”  (Perhaps they are technicians at the level of Mordechai Vanunu?)   Nowhere in the Maariv piece is the word “scientist” used.

Most remarkably, Simon , the right wing blogosphere, and the hysterical rantings of the Republican Jewish Coalition, as well as the few progressives to have caught this story (Paul WoodwardJuan Cole), seem to  have  missed the significance of the larger and far more germane issue raised in Binder’s article.  Dimona workers are objecting:  the US  apparently has  not been providing some of the dual use (civilian and military) nuclear technological equipment to Israel that it wants. Exactly how long this has been the case is not clear, although Binder tries to exculpate the Bush administration.  This has forced Israel to procure this technology from (gasp!) France.

According to officials who are familiar with the details, attempts to purchase certain components from the Americans have also encountered difficulties, with some of the items under a de facto embargo. To put it mildly, officials at the nuclear center are not pleased with the tougher treatment, which did not take place during President Bush’s term.

According to Professor Alfasi,“The United States is not selling anything nuclear to the Nuclear Research Center, and that includes everything. For example, radiation detectors for nuclear research are purchased in France because the Americans do not sell to people of the Nuclear Research Center.”

Even more offensive and outrageous to Israelis is that “The Americans have asked for a detailed report on the purpose of some of the items that they wish to buy from the United States.”   Professor Alfasi complains:   “The Americans want to know what every item of equipment is used for.”

The Maariv article ends, as it began, with Iran.   Alfasi says peevishly, “I don’t know whether they [the US] will sell to Iran what they’ve been refusing to sell to us.”  According to Binder, “Officials of the Nuclear Research Center refused to comment.”

The Maariv article concludes rather oddly with what appears to be a stinging indictment of “the upper echelons of the security establishment” who apparently are not as upset by the US’s alleged perfidy as anonymous retiree thinks they ought to be:

A retired employee of the Nuclear Research Center said yesterday, “I don’t understand it. Why are the upper echelons of the security establishment silent when our best friend is working against us so blatantly and behaving leniently toward the makers of nuclear terror? The whole world is seeing the circus that the Iranian regime has created for the United States.”

Is it possible that  President Obama really is serious about curbing nuclear proliferation–for Iran, for the US, and, unthinkably, even for Israel.  Israelis love non-proliferation as long as  his target is Iran, but get awfully upset if the POTUS–or anyone in his administration–dares to challenge the Israeli presumption that its own nuclear programs, and the people who work for them,  are exempt from American and international scrutiny. The “top echelons” of the Israeli may be the first to have gotten the message, or they may be allowing their underlings to grab the headlines and speak for them.

Even more to the point, what is Obama’s message to France, who, as a nuclear  state which is party to the NPT, has pledged to provide nuclear technology only to non-nuclear states which have signed the  NPT? Israel has never signed the NPT, either as a non-nuclear or nuclear state.  Obama may have finally noticed that the NPT actually bars support for Israel’s nuclear program.    The French have been turning a blind eye to the NPT when it comes to Israel, apparently providing anything the US won’t.  France, after all,   was the source of Israel’s nuclear infrastructure back in the 1950s and 60’s.  France often claims (with a wink) to have been duped by the Israelis into providing their nuclear know-how.

What about now?

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. Fascinating. Can it be that an American president is actually rubbing Israel’s nose in the dirt, instead of vice versa? Oh, happy days!

    There’s nothing to be done with the French, at least not while Sarkozy is president, n’est-ce pas?

  2. It is fortunate that the United States of America is still a free country and that Obama and his co-horts will eventually have to stand for election. The Jewish community,which voted overwhelmingly for Obama giving him his second biggest majority, is waking up. Just like Americans all over the nation they are slowly finding out that Obama as President is hurting our beloved country.

    In the meantime the best policy for America is to vote the Obama Regimes supporters in Congress out. A good rule of thumb is vote against anyone who supported the Obama Health Care bill.

  3. Based on what Morton? Neither party is worth a crap. What we have is structural failure. Morton, I don’t know if you looked at demographics or the Obama opposition but as it stands now old people run this country. Old people vote and old people are selfish.

    The baby boomers and their younger forebears have voted for many years to be fooled. They’ve relied blindly on the kindness of strangers. What they’ve voted for is tax cuts and spending increases. This is a bi-partisan policy.

    Are baby boomers gonna vote to cut their Social Security? No. Are they gonna vote to raise their taxes, No. Morton, you’ve idiotically taken a side in a Professional Wresting match. Don’t you know this is a choreographed event?

    Both parties are only about running up the deficit. The Baby boomers haven’t built a damned thing in this country. Their poorer, harder working parent built the highways, schools and suburbs that fueled the cushy life the Baby boomers enjoyed.

    The baby boomers, like some anachronistic fool in bell bottoms are full of free love, free of consequences, free of responsibility.

    The healthcare bill sucks. It again pushes responsibility on the poor, on their children who’ve been left few jobs, an economy with zero integrity, a country where if you’re not a good German and dare to raise a cross word you will be shunned for disrupting the decorum.

    These idiot baby boomers saw the worst racism, the great integrity it takes to confront the societal, social shibboleths that allow us to continue in our unabashed folly.

    Both parties believe in deficit spending and tax cuts. Cutting taxes AND failure to cut spending are to parts of the same coin. The baby boomers are gonna try to keep the system unreformed till they die. They’ve squandered the hard work of their parents and have ruined the country for their children.

    And for you Morton to buy into this stupid rouse shows where you come from. Perhaps you’ve checked your brain long ago. Perhaps the sophistic arguments of the pundits has swayed you. There isn’t a serious economic argument on TV.

    We speak of free markets but seldom will an economist on TV tell you about professional or utilities which bear little resemblance to the “free-market.” See in a free market the customer is always right. But in the professional market you (one) aren’t smart enough to know if you were given good service, you’re buying advice after all. Finally in utilities markets the customer is POWERLESS. Are you gonna boycott, water, gas, electricity? No, you’re gonna pay what you must.

    These three markets are very different, yet too often politicos want to conflate these different markets. Worse still there are two markets that are more complex that any of the 3 markets I’ve identified.

    Healthcare and retail banking services are more complex. These markets combine the inelastic, essential demand of utilities with the limits of professional markets. In professional markets if you don’t know who is the client or principal and who is the agent you have serious issues. But, who does the doctor in the hospital work for? The county? the insurance company? the patient? You have lawyers, accountants and doctors all working, but perhaps not for you.

    When these get blurred the principal isn’t protected. These complex markets are another that we can’t really boycott. We can’t really shop stroke/heart/renal/oncology services as we might a TV. This would demand that the EMT offers you a perfect diagnosis and that you know the rates for services.

    Don’t demonize the feckless, healthcare bill Obama signed. Demonize the bulk of politicians who pander to your ignorance, who offer sophistic rebuttals and arguments. What politician is gonna stand up to the banks? What politician is gonna cut spending AND raise taxes as is prudent and responsible?

    No, we will be pandered too, only the low hanging fruit will get plucked. We will continue to CUT TAXES (as Obama has done) and continue to increase spending. We will continue to subsidize the Pentagon without question. We will continue to fund Medicare without question. And your arguments abet this whole scenario.

  4. It’s a question of entitlement: Israel is entitled to everything that the US has. Full stop. Always has been so entitled. Full stop. Anyone who so much as suggests that Israel might actually be a foreign country is an anti-semite. Obviously.

    When Mr. Gleit, above, says that “Obama as President is hurting our beloved country” which beloved country is he talking about?

  5. The Democrats will still win the next election, no problem. The alternative to Obama is right-wing, anti-environmental(the Dem’s aren’t any better, but perception is what rules)religious war mongers who want to nuke now ask questions later.

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