Beware of Ellipses:

I recently came across the following quote on the Internet, attributed to Ariel Sharon in 1988: "You don't simply bundle people onto trucks and drive them away. I prefer to advocate a more positive policy... to create, in effect, a condition that in a positive way will induce people to leave." The quotation is used, consistently, to suggest that Israel is continuing Sharon's policy of encouraging Palestinians to leave the West Bank and Gaza through "positive" action, by which the quoters mean making the Palestinians' life so miserable that they will want to leave.

Courtesy of Lexis-Nexis, I was able to track down the original source, at article in the Times of London in August 1988. Here is what that sources states:

He [Sharon] said: 'You don't simply bundle people on to trucks and drive them away.' Rather, he added, 'I prefer to advocate a positive policy, like enhancing the levels of technical education in the (occupied) areas to create, in effect, a condition that in a positive way will induce people to leave."

Let's first note that there are two potential problems with this quote even in its original context. Sharon was undoubtedly speaking in Hebrew, and this is an English translation, which may or may not capture the nuances of what he said, and for that matter may or may not be accurate. Second, while the author makes it look like this is one continuous quotation, it's not clear that it is; the two sentences may have been spoken well apart, changing the meaning substantially.

But let's take the London Times story at face value. What Sharon is saying is that if we make life better for the Palestinians, by, for example, increasing their levels of technical education, they will be induced to seek better opportunities abroad, and will thus leave voluntarily. "Positive," then, was meant to connote action that helps the Palestinians while at the same time serving Israelis interests by encouraging Palestinians to seek greener pastures elsewhere. One may still very reasonably object to this sentiment, but it's a far cry from the truncated version peddled on anti-Israel websites, which intentionally leaves out Sharon's one example of "positive" action, enhancing technical education, and instead makes it seem like Sharon was promoting far a more ominous form of "positive" action. [Update: Note that in the original Hebrew, this would likely have been clear even without the example, because Sharon assumedly used a Hebrew word meaning something like "favorable" or "beneficial", without the ambiguity of the English word "positive."]

I've learned over the years not to trust quotations that contain an ellipsis. (Some websites get around this skepticism by eliminating the ellipsis, and pretending they are reprinting a direct quote from Sharon.) It's not that such quotations never accurately reflect the original; I use ellipses myself. Rather, it's that such quotations are too easily manipulated, and to the extent they are used to prove something profound, the reader must simply be skeptical until he gets his hands on the entire original quotation. (Some leading scholars have even been known to ellipsis-out a "not", changing the meaning of a quotation to its exact opposite).

The Sharon example provides a perfect case where one should be presumptively skeptical--websites are using a 20 year old quotation, with a controversial figure saying something that seems completely outrageous, to prove a political point.

UPDATE: BTW, some websites even use the Sharon quote to claim that Sharon favored forcible transfer of the Palestinian population, when in context it's clear that he was arguing against such policies.