Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Dear Readers,

Please see the link below. It is an article of mine which was published in the Turkish language newspaper Today's Zaman.

Here is a short excerpt:

"Few would deny that Erdoğan has a great amount of political capital with the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza. If he were to work behind the scenes to secure the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, he could easily become a hero in the eyes of Israelis and Palestinians alike."

To go to the article, here is the link.

Israeli divide between İbrahim Tatlıses and Prime Minister Erdoğan by Louis Fishman

Monday, November 29, 2010

Some Intial thoughts on Wikileaks....

November 29, 2010

Yesterday an historian’s worst nightmare or greatest fantasy came true. The deluge of state documents released by Wikileaks has begun to gush over the dam’s walls. No longer will we have to wait thirty, fifty, or hundred years to read them. We now have instant satisfaction. In fact, the excitement is widespread; I do not think one topic has united so many of my facebook friends. The facebook updates as the night progressed became juicier and juicier as we became enthralled by the massive amount of official gossip. Whatever the case, we all have to agree that the US has once again proved its remarkable inability to control data.

A quick review of the Middle East documents has not seemed to produce anything new. Yes, the Mossad wanted to overthrow Ahmadinejad. Is this a surprise to anyone? Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries hastily tried to convince the US to attack the nuclear facilities in Iran. Is this a surprise to anyone? Prime Minister Erdogan is at one time a religious but practical politician and no internal opposition can compete with him in elections due to the weakness of the opposition party and the love of the masses. Surprise? Hardly so.

A quick survey will show that for the most part, what is said in all of these documents have been printed or talked about “here or there.” The world today is different and with so many outlets of information nothing should come as a surprise. Along with this, for those who love conspiracy theories, no real story has been broken. In fact, I actually wonder how long it will take for those mesmerized by such theories to claim that Wikileaks is actually a plot by the US government to cover up the real stories, by diverting our attention to such mundane documents.

During the next few weeks more documents will be emerging and the process of “pay-backs” will begin. For the world politicians, and diplomats involved in these documents this indeed is quite personal. The states involved will now start the painful process of denial or will use the information to clear them of any wrongdoing, or better yet use the information as proof of good-deeds. However, we all have to remember that we only have half the story. We have the story of diplomatic accounts, which even if it should not be belittled, it only show one side of the picture.

I guess the sad part in all of this is our infatuation with crisis. We all waited to find a “smoking gun,” or something that would stir up the world more. Are the new tensions between North and South Korea not enough for us? Do we need more conflicts to erupt in order to fulfill our need for gossip and hearsay? I guess there is no denying that these documents are already creating numerous scandals however the real question is if these are the most provocative documents they have in store for us, if so we all can take a deep breath and get on with our daily lives, and let the historians do their work in thirty years…I guess only time will tell!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Missing Yitzhak Rabin: 15 years since His Assassination

November 5, 2010

This week marks the fifteenth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Israel has changed a great deal since then and I cannot help long for those times. The first years of Oslo were filled with excitement, optimism, and overall change. There clearly was an alternative to war and there was partner to speak with. In fact, the partner had always been there. I am not talking about Yasser Arafat but rather the Palestinian people. They were always there even if Israel did not want to see them.

A long 15 years have passed and when I watch the nightly Israeli news I am overcome by a feeling of déjà-vu. The stumbling blocks of the years before Rabin, then under Prime Minister Shamir, are back in place. Is the peace process today once again falling victim to the question of freezing the building of settlements? Is the Israeli government once again blocking the entrance of moderate Palestinian politicians into Jerusalem’s city limits? 20 years ago the controversy was over the Orient House and Faisal Husseini; today, it is over whether Prime Minister Fayyad can enter and be present at Palestinian ceremonial events.

A few months ago, in late August I wrote about why I was avoiding writing on the peace process, which once again was about to convene. Why waste my ink! Well, two months have passed and I am happy that I did not waste both my ink and my thoughts. What we see is that it is just more games and more stealing time. It is really hard to make sense out of the current Israeli government. How does a Prime Minister not punish a Foreign Minister that does and says as he wishes? How does a Prime Minister cave into a minority settlement movement? How does a whole generation of Israelis let petty politics of miniscule politicians ruin their future?

Now, the Palestinians have time on their side and let us hope that they will also be able to overcome their differences. The divide between the PLO and Hamas seems irreconcilable. While the West Bank culturally and economically is on the upbeat, Gaza remains under an Israeli blockade and culturally blockaded by Hamas. Of course, the former is much more critical; however, the latter also needs to be mentioned. If they are able to overcome these differences, the time would be right for a serious attempt at unilaterally declaring statehood. This has been done in the past however it seems that the world is more than ever ready to accept such a move. This move might even awaken the Israeli left who lays dormant somewhere in the beautiful upper class neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.

Lastly, the huge loss to the Democratic Party in the mid-term elections has left Barack Obama weaker than ever leaving even less hope for change. What more needs to said. So, once again I have painted a bleak picture. While I did not vote for the Labor party in 1992, it seems like no Israeli leader since Yitzhak Rabin has been willing to take the future in his/hers hands and set an ambitious agenda. As long as there is no real peace, with every passing year the memories of this period will become more painful. In other words, only when there really is peace will me and many others be able to leave Rabin’s memory to the past.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Mavi Marmara (Gaza Flotilla) Update

October 21, 2010

A Mavi Marmara Update

Today’s Haaretz has reported that information found on computers which were confiscated during the Mavi Marmara raid “indicates that the flotilla’s organizers received assistance from the highest levels of the Turkish government, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Edogan and other senior government officials.” This claim was denied by Turkish officials but nevertheless it is seriously claim, one that will continue to exacerbate the tensions between the once friendly states. Furthermore, the Israelis will need much more hard evidence than found on the Polish journalist’s laptop to prove such accusations. If true, it will confirm many Israelis’ belief that this was all pre-orchestrated by Prime Minister Erdogan himself, and will stand as a sign that the Turkish government extended much more than latent support, something I claimed at the beginning. We need to recognize that even if Turkey “supported” it or not, it was Israel who performed the botched seizure of the ship and did not foresee the tragic outcome, both in terms of human life and the price Israel has had to pay for this diplomatically. Following the publication of the Haaretz article it was reproduced in the Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet.

Since the incident, Israel and Turkey have not come to any understanding concerning the operation and it remains a diplomatic quagmire for Israel, as both Prime Minister Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul constantly remind Israel that they are waiting for an official apology and for compensation to be made to the families of the victims. This caused President Gul to cancel a planned tete-à-tete meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the UN last September. Most recently, Prime Minister Erdogan has threatened that if Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu participates in a Greek climate summit which will take place tomorrow (22 October 2010) he will cancel. However, according to Hurriyet Daily News the “Israeli prime minister is not on the list of speakers, and Israel is not among the list of confirmed participants.” Therefore, this seems to be more of Erdogan’s season bashing of Israel.

While diplomatically things are cold, it seems that trade between the two countries was not affected at all, with past numbers even pointing to increased trade relations. Furthermore, while Israeli tourism to Turkey came to a screeching halt I have once again started hearing Hebrew on Istanbul’s Istiklal street, showing signs that perhaps time really does heal wounds.

To read the Haaretz and Hurriyet article on Israeli claims of Turkish government involvement see here:

Haaretz: Turkey denies offering assistance to Gaza flotilla organizers

Article which appeared in Hurriyet (Turkish)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Good News for Turkey: Towards the end of the Headscarf Ban

Oct 11, 2010

Every student of my modern Turkey class is shocked when they learn that in Turkish universities and in the government sector, the Islamic headscarf is banned and if a woman chooses to wear one she is barred from university classrooms and from working as a public servant. The irony is obvious: Turkey is a country where the [non-monolithic] Muslim population makes up about 99% of the general population.

The reasoning behind the ban is that the Turkish republic is an ideologically motivated secular state, in the spirit of French laicism, where in the public sphere no religious symbolism should be professed (an idea I myself have been sympathetic to in the past). However, with the rise of the conservative Islamic leaning AKP government during the last 8 years, the once taboo topic has been brought to question. Imagine a country where the President’s wife is not allowed in the parliament, or the Prime Minister’s daughters are not allowed to attend school in their own country. Of course, the topic is much more complicated than this and for now I will not expand; however, I will say that the overwhelming amount of the Turkish population, whether religious, secular, or between, when asked, really have no problem with the headscarf being worn in classes or in government offices. This conflict has been more about setting new precedents, and the secular establishment’s fear that they are quickly losing ground.

Following the recent Turkish referendum, with more leeway on their side, the government has once again began to raise their voices about the need to lift the ban. Showing responsibility,the opposition parties also have sent strong signals that the time has come to make the change. In fact, last week two universities alone announced that they will officially allow covered women in their classes. I stress “officially” since the truth be known that many universities and professors have been turning a blind-eye to the headscarf ban for some time now.

The soon-lifting of the headscarf ban in the universities is only the beginning. In fact, even if it is a huge step, the total lifting of the ban will not be solved by the Turkish education board (YÖK), or simply goodwill. It will take a unified approach with all the parties working together in order to ensure that the reforms are aimed at not making a political statement but are being done for the Turkish people as a whole; and equally important, to end the discrimination of a large constituency of Turkish women.

Let us not forget that the eventual integration of covered women will not change only the public-servant sector but also the private sector; in other words Turkey’s urban centers will eventually need to integrate covered women into their work force; whether this is at banks, supermarkets, and numerous other companies who see fit to hire only women without the headscarf.

With these reforms, there is no doubt that Turkey as we once knew it will change dramatically. The mirage of the sole “modern republican (uncovered) woman” will dissipate with the emergence of the “modern covered woman” side by side, competing on issues of merit and not one’s worldview or dress. In my opinion, the lifting of the ban could also be used as a jumping board for women to have their voice heard in a country where women are almost obsolete form the political system. Further it could be an opportunity for Turkish lawmakers to rethink anti-discrimination laws in general, offering a solution to the problem of companies which profile their employees based on dress, ethnicity, or gender.

In the end, the test will be whether the current Turkish government (and future ones) will be able to balance between the two camps and not create a situation where secular people feel that they no longer can express themselves freely as they wish. Turkey’s large secular population also has legitimate claims that need to be taken seriously. With alcohol being taxed at such rates that only middle and upper classes can drink, with the mosque call to prayer reaching volumes that were once unheard of, and with polygamy existing among circles close to the government (to name a few examples), the current government needs to draw clear lines and ensure that all will benefit from Turkey’s new face; importantly, the fact that the AKP has taken this long to begin to lift the headscarf ban shows that at least on this front they have demonstrated a great amount of sensitivity and have worked hard not to divide the country in two. Let us hope they continue to work in this spirit.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Death of a Transgender Sex-Worker

October 3, 2010

Last week, a beautiful soul was taken when Irem’s life was cut short after a man fatally stabbed her 12 times. Unfortunately, in Turkey, violence against transgender women has become somewhat the norm. This year alone, almost 20 such prostitutes have been murdered in cold blood, sometimes by their customers and other times they are targeted on the streets. Furthermore, according to KAOS (Ankara’s LGBT’s organization) they also have been subjected to excessive harassment and violence by the Turkish police.

The saga of Irem was splashed over the online Turkish edition of Hurriyet last week, beginning with the headline: “A Transvestite Killed by 12 Stab wounds in Bursa.” According to the report, Irem Okan, formerly known by her male name Mesut Şaban Okan, was 28 years old. Within a short period following the discovery of her body the police arrested a suspect, a 22 year old young man named Emrah, after he received treatment for wounds to his hand at a local hospital, and who upon his arrest admitted to killing Irem. According to the suspect, the two had been seeing each for some time and that night “I drank a beer and had sex with her, then she also wanted to have sex with me (as the active partner). I did not agree. A fight broke out between us. While cursing [her], I totally lost it…I remember stabbing two places. After that I don’t know what happened. I had cut my hand. While running away, I took a laptop, cell phones, and some other pieces of jewelry…”

Perhaps, what caught me most however about this story was Irem’s mother’s reaction. Like any mother, she was absolutely devastated. At the funeral, she called for the perpetrator to receive a harsh sentence and said “how could they kill my baby (yavrum)…how will I be able to endure such pain.” Following the funeral, at a vigil held in front of her house, she also passed on a message of frustration, anger, and sadness: “My boy was always excluded from society because of his sexual preference. He wanted to study but they would not accept him. There was no place for him in this great big world…” At the end of this blog entry I have attached links to see photos of Irem’s mother, a modestly covered woman, at the vigil being comforted by Irem’s friends from the LGBT community. Also, there is a link to see Irem’s photos.

Öykü Evren Gökkuşağı, the head of the LGBT organization in Bursa, believes that these murders should be recognized as a “hate crime” and that the Turkish parliament should take the initiative to halt the violence. Evren had been friends with Irem for 15 years, a said that Irem dreamed to become a chef, something that could not be realized however since she was a ‘transvestite.’

The tragedy in this is clear and there is not much to say other than Turkey needs to take measures to protect these transgender women. However, with the current Minister of Family and Women Affairs Selma Aliye Kavaf declaring homosexuality is a sickness it seems that we should not expect too much from the Turkish government to work to end the senseless killings. Also, let us hope the courts prosecute the perpetrator to the fullest extent. It needs to be pointed out that the fact that the suspect stressed that he was propositioned by Irem to have intercourse with him as the passive partner could be sign of a early defense; meaning he will claim that in essence Irem provoked him, a known tactic used by rapists and others to get lighter sentences.

Links in English

Links in Turkish including a photo galleries:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Referendum and FIBA Basketball Championship

September 21, 2010

Well, at last I am back in Turkey and quite ready after the long summer to sit down and write. I came back two days after the referendum and already on the plane I was able to catch Tuesday’s morning Turkish papers covered with news, with some of them having a full page advertisement of Prime Minister Erdogan personally thanking the electorate for overwhelmingly voting “Yes” to the government’s plan to move forward on an extensive constitutional reform package.

I was not surprised that 58% of the Turkish electorate voted “Yes.” The strength of the vote shows that about 15% of the Turkish electorate did not see the referendum as a vote of confidence on Erdogan’s performance but actually were voting over the issue of constitutional reform; obviously, while popular support for the government is strong it does not stand at 58% and if elections were held today it is hard to believe that more than 40-45% would vote for the AKP as in the past election. Nevertheless, even if they have not gained support –they certainly have not last any support. In that sense, the referendum was a good litmus test for the AKP. Likewise, it seems that Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s performance also needs to be congratulated; he has managed to give the opposition new life and by conjuring up 42%for the “No” vote it seems that in the next elections the CHP can easily increase their vote to 25-27% of the electorate. So for now, all eyes will be focusing on the upcoming national elections in Turkey which will take place next summer.

The FIBA World Championship and Erdogan….

While much has been written on the referendum, what actually caught my attention was Prime Minister Erdogan’s taking center stage at the FIBA World Basketball Championships which were held in Istanbul during late August and September. Turkey turned out with an impressive second, following the US team, with the final game between the two teams being played on the day of the referendum. Well, Prime Minister Erdogan, with knowledge of his strong victory showed up as the final match, and to the surprise of some was heckled by irate spectators. According to Hurriyet Daily News, one of the spectators was even arrested after the police went over the video footage to see who this group of mongers were, only to be released by a court order.

Missed the Cheerleading Show?

The other event which also caught my attention was the issue of the cheerleaders at the championship games –or the lack of. Never really a fan myself of cheerleading or cheerleaders, they become the center of a huge controversy during these games with FIBA slapping Turkey a fine for canceling some of the cheerleading halftime shows. Apparently, during one match between Turkey and Russia, they were pulled allegedly due to Prime Minister Erdogan’s distaste of the promiscuously dressed squad. As the cheerleading is considered an integral part of the half-time program the Turkish Basketball Federation was fined 3,200 Swiss Francs. In fact, even Iran during the game with the US allowed the cheerleaders to take stage, as long as they dressed in more appropriate clothing. This move was praised by FIBA who claimed that in such ways cultural differences can be overcome.

Erdogan hands a 28,000,000 Turkish Lira check to Winning Team

If it seems Prime Minister had not taken center stage enough, hold on tight. Perhaps due to the fact that Erdogan was completely ecstatic due to his remarkable victory on September 12, to show his (and the Turkish people’s I suppose) gratitude to the Turkish Basketball team for coming in second place he awarded them with a check for 28,0000,000 Turkish liras (approx: $19,000,000) straight from the State’s treasury. Now it seems that in many countries such an act would be unheard of and considered to say the least as “bad administration,” without even pointing to blatant corruption, or misuse of state funds. Well in Turkey also this did not go over well with Ankara Lawyer Sedat Vural, who has demanded from a local court a stay of execution claiming that the inflated amount violates “the principle of equality in the Constitution.” Wow, one could only imagine how the Turkish team would have been awarded if they actually had received first place!

In any case, I guess that the 3,200 Swiss franc fine for the cancellation of the cheerleading event can be split among the players and coaches who will receive 1,000,000 US dollars a piece for their fine performance if the courts don’t stop this.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Upcoming Referendum and the Peace Negotiations

September 8, 2010

Dear Readers,

This summer has gone by fast and now it is almost finally over. Unfortunately, I have not been able to submit a blog during the last month; not only due to family obligations which has taken me on a four-week trip with my daughter to Istanbul, New York, California, and as of tomorrow Minnesota. But also due to a really hot Istanbul summer where it was quite difficult to sit down and write (not to mention the ongoing saga of renovations done on my house, which were supposed to last 4 days but dragged on for 3 weeks). Despite this, exciting times have been brewing in Turkey and Israel. Happily as of September 15 I will be back in Istanbul trying to catch up!

All Eyes on Turkey

For Turkey, as many of you know, on September 12 they will go to the ballot box to vote on a referendum focusing on constitutional reform. It seems that the results will be close with many predicting that the ruling AKP party will be able to convince the majority of Turkish citizens to vote “Yes.” However, one cannot dismiss the Opposition, who are trying to convince the electorate that the reforms are nothing more than the AKP trying to phase out one more bastion of the secular state: the judiciary and to vote “No.” Undoubtedly, if the “Yes” votes surpasses the “NO” votes the AKP will have won one of their greatest victories yet; however, this comes at a price. The referendum regardless of the outcome will continue to polarize the Turkish electorate. If the “No” vote surpasses the “Yes” votes then this will be truly a vote of no confidence for the Prime Minster Erdogan. This is actually the root of the problem with the referendum campaign turning into more-or-less a vote of confidence with few people studying the complicated wording of the text and with both Erdogan and opposition leader Kilicdaroglu tied into a duel which has little to do with constitutional reform. A slim “Yes” victory is all the AKP needs to move forward, however if this happens the opposition can still claim some sort of victory, questioning if a mere slim majority is enough to implement such major changes. However, if the “No” vote comes through this will be a major political defeat for Erdogan and will be the first major sign that the 2011 parliamentary elections will be up for grabs. Lastly, the Kurdish Peace and Democrat Party has called for a general boycott so we also will be able to see how many of their supporters heed to their leaders call. In general, the Kurdish vote is one the Prime Minister Erdogan is relying on to bolster a strong majority.

Israel and Palestine: Back to the Table

For Israel and the Palestine, a new round of negotiations has begun, rather than wasting my ink as I have done in the past, I prefer to wait and see what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas have in store. There are some signs that this round indeed will produce some type of interim-peace agreement. However, we have seen the script before and if we are basing it on passed negotiations this too is bound to fail. So I prefer to wait and see how it progresses in the next couple of weeks, or as we say in Hebrew until ahrei hahagim (after the long period of holidays between of Rosh Shanah to Sukkot when it is almost impossible to get anything done). For now, to all my Muslim and Jewish readers I wish you a Happy Eid/Bayram and a Happy New Year (with them falling on the same day this year)!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Berivan is Free at Last

July 30, 2010

After almost a month I am back writing my blog with a special update and some good news. The girl Berivan, who was sentenced to over seven years for throwing rocks at Turkish police has been set free due to a softening of terror laws. Since covering the incident in one of my previous blog entries I have been following her plight and was obviously thrilled to hear of release.

I am attaching a New York Times article which does a good job at explaining the changes in the law, covering Berivan’s story, and comments on the tensions in Turkey’s Southeast. The change in the law is indeed a step in the right direction however as Amnesty International has reported it is still not sufficient.

Happily, Berivan is free; her story was crucial in getting the word out and giving a face to the hundreds of children held in Turkish jails. As we see from the last article, tensions in the Southeast remain high and just within days of the introduction of the new measures more children have been arrested following clashes with the Turkish police.



My former blog entry:


New York Times article a (I thank my friend Burak for bringing this article to my attention)


Amnesty International annoucement as covered in the new service Bianet:


Bianet article on new arrest of children:


Friday, July 2, 2010

One Demonstration Two Prides Two Cities: PART TWO: Istanbul

PART TWO: Istanbul

Almost three weeks after the Mavi Marmara incident, I returned to Turkey. For a moment I thought I might use my American passport to enter. Who knows, with the relations how they were I was afraid one side –either Israel or Turkey- might opt out for a radical measure and suspend relations between the two countries. In that case, I might have to exit and reenter on my American passport. However, after seeing about 300 hundred people in line waiting for a visa, which Americans need and Israelis don’t need, I decided to skip the whole visa process and entered on my Israeli passport.

Happily, I immediately noticed things had calmed down. Walking down the streets in Istanbul, the only tension one could feel were the leftovers from the wave of demonstrations which flooded the city following the incident; by this I mean anti-Israeli graffiti and a Palestinian flag hanging above the Pangalti Metro stop. Unlike Israel, Turkey is a huge country and their media almost immediately finds a new story to latch onto; so much so that in the last few days there have been no new stories on Israel in the local papers. Once the dust settled more and more people also began to criticize the Turkish government’s role in the incident and questioned how such radical groups were able to attract so many people quickly to the demonstrations and set the daily agenda.

I arrived right before the annual Gay Pride week, something I have watched grow over the past few years. I first came across it as I was studying French at the French institute in Taksim back in 2008. During the last few years, I have attended lectures featuring Turkish parliament members from the secular CHP and the Kurdish DTP (now BDP). Although the LGBT community appears to have thrived under the conservative Muslim AKP government, they have received little or no recognition from the ruling government. This is surprising since in 2002 a pact between liberals and the AKP was formed; both fighting to break the secular institutions monolithic type of Turkish nationalism which is homophobic and leaves little room for the expression of multiple identities. Therefore the CHP should be commended for participating along with the Kurdish BDP.

Ten years ago such a “public event” would have been unheard of in Istanbul. I remember one friend who marched for LGBT rights about eight years ago at a May 1 Demonstration wrapped in a kefiyyeh just in case his parents might spot him. While the fear of “coming out” on television (as there is quite a bit of media coverage) and its repercussions are still quite threatening to some, this year the Pride March had an impressive turnout with about 3000 people (more or less). Numerous groups participated from transgendered sex-workers, university students, lesbian and gay sub-groups, groups representing different parts of Turkey as well as allied groups who tie the progression of LGBT rights to human rights in general.

The annual Istanbul Pride parade in a sense reminds me of the Tel Aviv pride twenty years ago: quite political and mostly attracting activists among the LGBT community and allies. Organized by Istanbul LAMDA, it is clearly leftist in orientation, which in the end presents it with its greatest challenge. If they were to open their doors to wider communities they might lose the heart of their radical movement but gain a new generation of activists, and with proper organization and leadership they could easily double their numbers.

Nevertheless, for Turkey and its civil organizations, Istanbul Pride is a true show of force and optimism. While the Turkish society overall is quite conservative they to are coming to terms with the fact that the LGBT as an active community is here to stay. No longer can government ministers, such as Aliye Kavaf (minister of Woman and Family affairs), who stated that “homosexuality is a disease that needs to be treated”, hide from the slogans thrown at her by thousands of protestors. The fact that she has not had to resign is in itself a disgrace to the current government. Furthermore, the march signifies more than anything that Turkey has changed a lot during the last decade and that the Turkish society is indeed in the midst of a quite dynamic phase.

Link to photos


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

One Demonstration Two Prides Two Cities: Tel Aviv Istanbul (Part One: Tel Aviv)

PART ONE: Tel Aviv (See Photo links at end of post)

From my former posts and the news most people can pretty much figure out that I was caught in a whirlwind of events. Unfortunately, like so many people in the Middle East daily events which we see on the nightly news have a way of influencing our daily and personal lives. From my pasts posts also some of you will also remember that I made a conscious decision to not sit idle in self-exile but to bring myself back to the state I was in before graduate school; one of activism and speaking out.

During the last month I participated in three events which I will present also in pictures in links you can see at the bottom of this post. Following the incident of the Israeli raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara I found myself caught in the middle. After leaving Turkey, I arrived to Israel and like so many leftists knew there was going to be a demonstration on the first Saturday following the event which occurred on Monday morning (May 31). First of all Saturday June 5th was the anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, marking the subsequent 43 year occupation of the Palestinian territories. No longer one needs to look in the newspapers to find out when and where a demonstration is; already a few days before the demonstration I found out on facebook that Peace Now, Meretz, the Israeli Leftist Hadash party, and other leftists groups were holding a demonstration entitled “this government is sinking all us –meaning- bringing us all down.

In total about 6000 people demonstrated with the greatest turn out being the Jewish and Palestinian members of Hadash (the Communist party). However, even if the Zionist left Meretz party and Peace Now produced a small group, they turned out in greater numbers than the last demonstration I participated against the Gaza Raid in December 2008. Of course, with the Labor party completely abandoning the Left, the days of demonstrators reaching 50,000-100,000 are over. Importantly, the demonstration was widely broadcasted on Turkish television showing that there is an opposition in Israel and de facto challenged the radical voices in Turkey who try (and somewhat successfully) to convince the Turkish population that the Israeli state is one only of killers and a war mongering people, with their rhetoric basically gushing out anti-Semitic slogans. Furthermore, for me the demonstration was a sign that if the Israeli left does some real soul searching they might even have a chance to rebound from the massive defeat of the last elections.

The next demonstration I went to was more of a party than a demonstration. The annual LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) Pride parade in Tel Aviv has turned into a massive show of force where serious topics are mixed with a love and pride, attracting this year around 100,000 gay and straight participants/protestors. Starting off with politicians and members of the community, we were reminded that even in Tel Aviv where we live in an open liberal paradise we cannot forget that last year’s armed attack on a gay youth organization, killing two members and injuring over 15, still remains unresolved. This tragic event was relatively uncovered in the foreign press once it was clear that it was not a “terrorist attack” but done apparently as an “inside job” – by an Israeli Jew. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Tel_Aviv_gay_centre_shooting_spree) And as Israelis are so trained to do, at the official opening of Pride we all stood a moment of silence for those killed and injured in the attack, and honored one of the victim’s mother who presented a moving speech of what it was like losing her son and her role in the LGBT parent support group.

The main parade this year had to compete with two other “alternative” parades which focused more on protest figuring that we cannot be “free” as long as we are oppressing Palestinians. However, these small alternative parades also joined the official opening, which was followed by the exiting of thousands of people to the beginning point on Bograshov Street. From there the floats took off and thousands upon thousands more joined in for what would become one of the most festive events I have witnessed in Israel outside of Independence Day celebrations. The march ended at the beach where a huge party lasting until the beginning of Shabbat (7:00 pm).

What was most surprising was the fact that twenty years ago only a few hundred people would have joined in. For the secular Jewish society in Israel, living an alternative lifestyle has become somewhat of a norm, with gays and lesbians serving in the army, receiving rights that in the US would seem impossible, and adopting and bringing children into the world. Further, more and more religious Jews are coming out and demanding that the religion take them into consideration and offer them expression to their natural feelings. Still, we should not forget that two major communities were not present: the ultra-orthodox and the Palestinians citizens of Israel. In reference to the latter, there are LGBT Palestinians organizations in Israel however co-existence in Pride exists mainly in Haifa, with no visible presence of Arab organizations in Tel Aviv. Of course, there were Arabs intermingled within the thousands of people. However, historically Tel Aviv, the first “Hebrew city” has never been friendly to the indigenous Palestinian population despite its large “liberal” population and their voting for the “left” parties.

In the end it is important to state that even if it seems as if Pride was only a great huge outdoor party, it is indeed a demonstration of pride and it is very political. Israel has taken great steps to allow the LGBT community to thrive. Still if we are not careful the bubble of Tel Aviv can burst. Poverty and war –and the lack of will among its leaders to reach a peace agreement- are serious threats to the stability of the State in general, not to mention to the community.

I would like to take this opportunity also to state that the new trend in Gay Pride parades worldwide to bash Israel while remaining blind to their own injustices is in itself an injustice. On the other hand, the trend of the Israeli foreign ministry to portray Israel as a leader of gay rights in the Middle East as a way to discredit Iran, Hamas, and other countries and organizations is also an equally unrelated pathetic use of human rights to gain irrelevant points in a long worn out conflict.

Part Two “Istanbul Demonstrations and Pride” will be posted in a few days along with a link to the photos.

Link to pictures of the Tel Aviv Demonstration and Pride



Link to short TRT coverage of the Tel Aviv demonstration (in Turkish):


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Getting the Word Out: Attempts to Show the “Other Side,” in the aftermath of the Gaza Flotilla

From the moment I heard about the incident last week, I decided to work to show each side (Israeli and Turkish) the “other side.” When interviewed in Istanbul by the Emmanuel Rozen for Israel’s Second channel, I was skeptical of what the media wanted. Well it turned out that I, along with another Israeli friend, were “cut” from the show. Clearly, it was not the narrative he wanted to hear. We were not scared and we openly criticized Israel, and were also critical of Turkey. Needless to say, his show ended up only portraying Israeli businessmen and their “wives” packing up and leaving Istanbul, or opting to stay and live under the fear of being “knocked-off.” The show ended with the Israeli (of Turkish origin) coming to the conclusion that his textile factory might have to be moved to Romania, and Emmanuel Rozen saying “farewell” to Istanbul for the last time since (perhaps) it will no longer be possible for Israelis to travel to the beloved city. Israeli TV Channel One also aired a special new story about Istanbul on their weekly Friday night “Yoman” broadcast. In this story, Istanbul was portrayed as if had turned into the “Islamic” Republic of Turkey, making numerous comparisons with Iran. In short, the Israeli television, quite similar to the Turkish television coverage, opted out to exaggerate the situation and to induce fears.

It was for this reason, I was so happy to meet the TRT (Turkish State Television) television crew in Tel Aviv at the protest I participated in against Israel’s action against the Humanitarian Aid ship, and against the (continued) 43 year occupation of Palestinian territories. While Turkish television was filled with pictures of the Israeli soldiers capturing the ship, and of Israeli politicians expressing a stance so defiant that even most Israelis would find difficult to accept, TRT and the Anatolian Press Agency wanted to show Turkey that there is a different side to the Israeli public. While they questioned the protestors about their feelings, I turned towards them and spoke Turkish. Quite shocked, they turned the camera towards me and I stressed how sad I was over the incident and that if any blame is placed it should be on the government and not the army. The clip along with many other voices of Israelis was aired on primetime Turkish television and reproduced on online sites also in the format of an article. From some friends, I learned that in general this protest had wide-coverage in Istanbul.

Following the demonstration, I agreed to meet with the crew to provide a more in depth interview. For this I organized two more Israeli academicians to join in: Dror Zeevi and Tsameret Levi, both who have lived in Turkey for an extended period of time. This show should be aired on a special program sometime next week. For this interview, we shared our thoughts about the current situation, Israeli-Turkish relations, and our experiences of living in Turkey. I think it should be stated that regardless of what we said on Turkish television, such interviews are a step in the right direction, working to salvage what we can from the “good-old” days.

We should remember that without Turkey it will take an even longer time for Israel to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians and Syria. Furthermore, Israelis also need Turkey, and not only in terms of billion dollar tank deals. We need Turkey since this was the only Middle Eastern country where Israelis could be Israeli, explore new cultures, and strengthen academic and personal ties (the list goes on and on).* Lets hope that more attempts at defusing the situation, as the case with TRT, will be become more widespread in Turkey and in Israel.

*In the future, I hope to write a blog generally addressing why strong ties between Israel and Turkey will benefit both countries, and the Middle East in general.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Divided between Turkey and Israel: the Days following the Gaza Flotilla Incident

During the last few days I have been emotionally bombarded by the wave of reactions to the Gaza Flotilla Incident. My facebook page seemed to reflect my multiple personalities of living in three cities: Istanbul, Tel Aviv, and New York. One facebook friend placed a Israeli flag, with the star being replaced with a swastika, while another Turkish friend called to condemn all expression of anti-Semitism. One Israeli friend praised Israel’s actions as “self-defense,” calling his friends to join a protest in front of the Turkish embassy, while another Israeli friend called Israelis to demonstrate against the Israeli attack of innocent civilians. My Palestinian friends expressed their solidarity with the Turkish victims. My American friends were divided.

In Turkey, personal reactions were similar to those I witnessed during the Second Lebanon War. In general, it is strange when friends start to tell you to keep a low profile (due to being an Israeli citizen among other things). However, at the same time it is comforting since it was done with good intentions. While I did not poll my Jewish and other non-Muslim friends, no one could deny the tension; however, some of my Turkish friends (both Muslim and non-Muslim) thought that this was preposterous to think that the Jewish community would be attacked in retaliation. However, clearly it was not baseless with Prime Minster Erdogan numerous times reminding Turkish citizens of the need to protect the Jewish community, and in one speech he even went so far to make it clear that all Israelis whether consulate workers, tourists, or businessmen should be treated with the utmost respect and not be targeted. Lastly, it should be noted that as usual in such times, one Jew wrote an apologetic letter to his “Turkish brothers,” explaining to them about how Turkish Jews have far stronger ties with Turkey than Israel.

In the midst of all of this, I was interviewed by Israel private Channel Two station about what it was like being an Israeli in Turkey, together with an Israeli woman who is studying in Istanbul. As I have lived in Turkey off and on for years I experienced less pressure to leave the country. However, this student was bombarded by family and friends pleading with her to return home immediately, as if at any one moment she would be lynched. The truth is that this is the last thing which occurred to me and as individuals the threat seemed limited. However, in my opinion, there is no doubt that “official representatives” of Israel were in immediate danger and thus were wise to leave.

Arriving to Israel yesterday (Thursday, June 3) to participate in my daughter’s school program, I had to make clear both in Israel and in Turkey that I was not “packing my bags” and escaping with what I had. Here in Israel, while many are defending the IDF’s right to defend themselves on the ship, most people when asked agree that it should have never reached this stage, and that simply isolating the ship in the ocean without engaging in any physical contact with the protestors would have been ideal; in other words, it seems that most Israelis are silently opposed to this government’s lack of experience in dealing with issues of defense and public relations. I imagine demonstrations against Israel’s reaction and the Gaza blockade will be held on Saturday evening and will report to all if I take part. Then there are those who are demonstrating for Israel’s right to defend itself across from the Turkish embassy. There is a limit to such audacity (hutzpah) and like some of their Turkish counterparts who do not understand why at all they are demonstrating, I will relate to this phenomenon in a separate blog hopefully.

Lastly, I wanted to end with two people who I thought really provided me with a glimmer of hope. One was a Turkish man I met on the flight to Israel who decided to attend his friend’s wedding in Israel despite the situation. Clearly, he was against Israel’s actions but did not find it proper to boycott his friend’s ceremony. Second, there was a fellow who I met on the bus going to the northern Tel Aviv region. He was working on a project to bring Turkish students to Israel, which unfortunately fell victim to these events. However, even while hesitantly supporting Israel, he seemed determined to continue to work to strengthen ties between Turkish and Israeli citizens. For me this was important to see. In the end, we are all human and it is in the worst of times we need to struggle to go against the current and to retain personal ties even when our nations go to war, or in this case a virtual war on the screens of our televisions.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Gaza Flotilla: the making of a Greek Tragedy

While I will be elaborating more on the Israeli attack on the Gaza Flotilla, today I will offer some limited thoughts. First and foremost, and most sadly, the outcome of foreign ships trying to break the Israeli blockade itself would not have reaped such a tragedy. However, once coupled with the Turkish contingent it was clear that both sides were in for a showdown. For me, the weekend was spent thinking about how and when this clash would happen. Like a Greek tragedy, it was clear that there would be no good ending to this story. The activists would fight a victorious battle and not give into Israel occupying their ship. Would they radically fail? No, their lost battle would turn them into heroes. They could not have wished for a better outcome.

The clear loser in all of this is Israel itself and its international legitimacy. What was the Israeli government thinking? Why did they not simply line battleships and literally block the entrance of the ship. Yes, a diplomatic brouhaha would have ensued with serious international negotiations setting in. However, having your soldiers board a civilian ship in International Waters? What a pathetic use of soldiers, placing them in place of negotiations. Thus it needs to be clearly stated: Israel in the end, no matter how they play the cards, is the guilty party. Guilty of killing civilians not in their territory; guilty of sending an ill prepared capture of the ship; guilty of causing irreparable damage to Israel’s image. As eloquently stated by Yossi Sarid, this was the work of “Seven Idiots in the Cabinent.” http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/seven-idiots-in-the-cabinet-1.293418

Also the Turkish government needs to take a share of the blame. Why did they not intervene? While Prime Minister Erdogan and his Foreign Minister were traveling throughout South America, did not think to derail this tragedy. They certainly knew that these ships were full of woman and children and that some sort of clashes would ensue. Once again, Erdogan has failed; how will he defuse the massive wave of anti-Israel protestors? Will he be able to extinguish the fire that has been ignited? Will he be able to progress a peace initiative? Certainly, the worsening of relations with Israel will only make a peace agreement even farther away.

In this article, I have yet to mention criticism of the Free Gaza Campaign. Since I have been writing this blog, I have stated that I am against the blockade of Gaza. The Turkish contingent represented by the radical IHH (Insani Yardim Vakifi) foundation has shown their true colors in the past. The fact that the Free Gaza Campaign joined forces with them also shows what a desperate state of affairs they are in. Indeed, it was a reckless decision by the Campaign.

What is makes this case a Greek Tragedy however is the fact that Israel so willingly entered the trap and proved to the world that like in Gaza, they will use military force when they really should be negotiating.

Stay tuned for more......

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The End of a school year, back to Istanbul, the CHP, and blocking Chomsky

The month of May is always a stormy season in academia: exams to grade and papers to read, the usual wishing the students on their way, with some taking the big/little step of graduation. For me, the end of May also has come to mean packing bags and heading back home to Istanbul and Tel Aviv. This year, however, is a bit different. I will be heading back for 14 months, and start to tackle the book project, which I talked about in my previous blog.

Upon landing in Istanbul, I will be participating in the Hrant Dink Memorial Workshop, at Sabanci University, where I will be presenting a paper entitled: Remnants of the Past/Present: Jews, Greeks, and Armenians, as Historical/Living Artifacts. This paper was previously presented in a conference in New York last year, and since then I have been working on developing the theoretical side. Far from my field of Ottoman Palestine, this paper began while working with the Bezalel School of Arts in Israel, when I accompanied a group of architecture students studying under the direction of Professor Senan Abdelqader to Istanbul. For this, I began to investigate historical issues connecting Ottoman Jerusalem with Istanbul. It is exciting project, and once published I will post it –or at least the information where to find it.

Of course, this long introduction is basically explaining why I have not submitted a blog entry for little over a month. However, once over there, I will start sharing more stories with you about Turkey and Israel branching out and focusing on human interest stories, in addition to the political analysis.

The fact that I have not been writing does not mean that exciting things are not happening. In Turkey, the head of the opposition party, the CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi), Deniz Baykal has stepped down following a sex-scandal that was caught on tape. It must be stated that this comes to a relief to many who had wished he would have stepped down years ago as he never conjured up enough votes during the last 5 terms to become Prime Minister. If all goes as planned, the future leader of the party Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu will prove to be a real competitor to the the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. There is no doubt that the AKP monopoly, which has lasted almost 8 years, needs to come to an end. For more on the moderate candidate who has the chance of breathing new life into the CHP see the following link: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=gandhi-kemal-a-symbol-of-decent-politics-2010-05-19

As for Israel, I guess the biggest non-surprise yet pathetic move was blocking Noam Chomsky from entering the Palestinian territories to give a lecture. If they are interested in limiting efforts to start world boycotts, the Israeli government best get their act together and reinstate the basic human rights every democracy prides itself in: freedom of speech and expression. Blocking Chomsky is a cheap move and will only exacerbate relations between Israel and educational institutes abroad (and in Israel for that fact). This is just another case of limiting entry to people who are outspoken of Israeli politics and the occupation and is quite worrying to say the least.

Wishing everyone a nice and safe summer,


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Israel’s Sixty Second Independence Day

When I first immigrated to Israel in 1988, I celebrated the 40 anniversary of the State. I was living in an immigrant home and would soon be joining the army. During those years, many of us really believed that peace was possible. Together with others in the political left, we fought for a country that would free themselves from occupying a whole people and demanded that Israel recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization. It was these dreams that kept me sane during the First Intifada, where I served in areas surrounding Bethlehem and Hebron.

I remember when the Oslo Accords were declared and how hopeful so many of us were. Within in two years things began to fall apart. PM Rabin was assassinated and suicide bombings became the norm. Baruch Goldstein shot down innocent worshippers. Arafat proved to be a failure and was locked in his compound. The First Intifada was overshadowed by the Second Intifada and Israel continued to build settlements. Ariel Sharon entered a coma. Gilad Shalit was kidnapped and war broke out in Lebanon. Missiles crossed back and forth. Hamas rose in popularity. Sderot and southern Israel was bombarded for years, while Gaza was massively bombarded and still remains as an open-air prison.

To say the situation remains bleak is an understatement. Starting in June, I will divide my time between Istanbul and Tel Aviv, working on a book manuscript. I will have 14 months to reconnect before I come back to Brooklyn to work. I can no longer remain in self-exile, as I did during the Gaza War (see previous blog). During this year, I will have time to rethink strategies and ideologies. I will investigate how to make the situation better, if only by a little. Lastly, I will continue to search and grab onto any optimism I can find and search for a realistic settlement which suits both sides.

For now, I will not celebrate the Independence Day, and I will wait to see if next year brings us something more to celebrate about.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Home to Israelis and Palestinians: Jerusalem, a Shared City

Through his “slick” politics, Benjamin Netanyahu is doing more to ensure that Jerusalem will become the shared capital of Israel and Palestine than his “leftist” predecessors. I should make it clear that I made the transition to accepting the fate of Jerusalem years ago, while a student at Haifa University. Back then, in 1992, we, a group of Jews and Palestinians, declared this in unison. However, 18 years later there are still those who believe that it will remain in the sole hands of Israel--something no Palestinian in his right mind would accept.

During the last week or so, the issue of Jerusalem has been brought to the world’s attention due to the political maneuvering of the Israeli Prime Minister, who was “completely unaware” of the fact that just hours after his meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden, Shas party member Eli Yishai would publicly undermine his attempts to restart negotiations by announcing that Israel was planning the immediate construction of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem. What a blunder! What happened to the shock-and-awe politics of building settlements “quietly” and creating “facts on the ground,” before the US and others could get involved?

Well, Netanyahu has succeeded in creating a crisis between the US and Israel, and it looks like, for once, the US will draw the line: any expansion of settlements in the West Bank --including within the Jerusalem municipalities’ borders--is detrimental to the peace process and cannot be tolerated.

However, whether it is the Israeli government or the Jerusalem municipality, there are two other cases I would like to highlight that only exacerbate the problems of Palestinian-Israeli daily coexistence in Jerusalem. One is the ousting of 1948 Palestinians refugees from the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. These residents have lived in their homes since 1948. Recently, after Jews produced pre-1948 ownership records showing that the property actually belongs to them, eviction proceedings began against the Palestinian residents. Putting the legal issues aside, clearly the motivating factor behind the attempt to evict Palestinians is to strengthen the “Jewish” character of the city in the heart of Arab neighborhoods. Numerous other administrative and social initiatives are in place aimed at cleansing Jerusalem of its Palestinian population. Israeli pro-democratic movements should give priority to these issues and join forces with Palestinians.

The second case has to do with the controversy over the building of the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance on the site of an ancient Muslim cemetery. This is a case where one finds oneself gasping at the shock of a museum that teaches tolerance and the history of the Holocaust setting out to erase the past of the “other.” While the Simon Wiesenthal Center denies that this is the case, the overwhelming evidence does not support their claims. Perhaps the Israeli government should start showing goodwill by intervening--first, to block the continued building of the museum, and second, to declare the cemetery a heritage site where Israeli and Palestinian children can learn about the history of those who graves date back perhaps even to the time of Saladin.

No one can deny Israel and the Jewish people’s connection to Jerusalem; however, the Palestinians also have a historical connection to the Holy City and are entitled to live in respect and dignity, and to self-rule in Jerusalem. Ironically, it is the Netanyahu government that is doing the most to help the world understand that Israel will one day have to relinquish parts of the city if there is ever to be peace. Without peace, Israel will face a continued uphill battle, not only to convince its children that this is the land in which they should remain, but also to convince the world that Israel is the state it portrays itself to be: one that longs for peace and promises a land where Jews can live in dignity and pride.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lest We Speak: the AKP and Freedom of Expression

In October 2009, when Israel protested a Turkish television, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, stated the following, “there is no censorship in Turkey.”; if this was only the case. Jumping up to late February 2010, Prime Minister Erdoğan criticized Turkey’s columnists as negatively influencing the Turkish economy and called on the editors of the Turkish press basically to censure their work, stating: “I want to call the bosses of these newspapers. You cannot say, ‘I cannot intervene in what the columnist writes.’ Nobody has a right to increase tension in this country. I cannot let such articles upset financial balances. You pay the salary of that columnist and tomorrow you will have no right to complain.” It seems that Erdoğan, who has criticized the media harshly in the past, needed a quick scapegoat as a result of the massive speculation voiced by the media outlets following the arrest over 50 military officers (retired and active), related to the “Balyoz/Sledge Hammer Affair (see previous blog entry). This massive raid on army officials obviously turned into a media frenzy, as it would in any country that has its top military echelon arrested for attempting to overthrow the state! Further, it would not be normal for an economy like Turkey’s, which is tied closely to political stability, if the arrests did not throw the financial markets into disarray to begin with.

The Prime Minster’s words are worrying since he is the leading the campaign of constitutional reform, and for the very fact that censorship in Turkey has been able to prevail and has remained unscathed as the result of a general lack of interest by a great part of the population. Numerous websites are banned in Turkey, including Youtube, which are easily accessed via third party sites (and with PM Erdoğan ironically stating that he visits the site). Sites are banned for promoting terror, criticizing the founder of the Turkish Republic, and pornography, among on long list of other reasons. However, the line dividing issues of morality are blurred with 3 gay dating and social sites being temporarily suspended in October 2009, for example. Furthermore, during my last visit to Turkey, I can attest to the fact that the “free internet service” on Istiklal Caddesi, supplied as a courtesy of the Istanbul municipality, conveniently blocked an article which appeared on Bianet that covered a news story about a book in Turkey, which was being investigated by Istanbul’s prosecutors due to its containing stories alluding to same-sex love between women (not to mention the banning of a book for youth under 18-years of age, based on its subject matter: the life of a transsexual).

Most recently, the European Human Rights Court has fined Turkey (43,000 Euros) for the past closing/suspensions of newspapers due to their coverage of the Kurdish issue. As we will see with the case of Berivan, which I previously wrote about, the harshness of punishment is greater when dealing with Turkish citizens living in the Southeast. An editor of a local Kurdish language daily in Diyarbakir, Azadiya Welat, has recently been charged with crimes which call for a 525-year prison sentence.

While clearly, the judiciary is responsible for many of these cases, the government has also actively pursued some cases of censorship, making clear that freedom of expression does not top their agenda. An example of this is the fact was that in place of abolishing the controversial law 301, they opted to “reform” it. Lastly, since PM Erdoğan has set out to solve the “Kurdish question,” it seems that there has been an escalation in excessive punishments being handed down.

In this article, I have only touched upon a few cases of censorship, while many more exists; both in print and the internet.* The Turkish government seems suited on one hand to bring forth the democratization of Turkey; especially when it comes to settling accounts with the Ergenekon affair. However, without upholding the most basic right of democracy –freedom of expression- how can one take this conservative party truly as a democratizing force? And, as long as the groups being targeted remain on the fringes of the society, their struggle to freely express their aspirations and concerns will continue to be met with uphill battles.

*A detailed list of articles relating to issues of Freedom of Expression can be found on Bianet at the following site: http://bianet.org/english/freedom-of-expression

Monday, February 22, 2010

One Year Later after the Israeli Elections: Yes, it is that Bad.

One year has passed since the Israeli elections, when Benjamin Netanyahu so swiftly took the Knesset from the hands of Tzipi Livni, and it is safe to say that the present government has failed radically on a few fronts: Gilad Shalit, the peace process, and perhaps most of all, allowing Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to continue to serve.

Until now, I have not written much about the Israeli soldier who has been held hostage in Gaza since June 2006. Yet, I think of him constantly and I am thankful for all those who have worked to keep his memory alive. No war has been able to get him released and Hamas refuses to allow international organizations access to visit him. Last year, on September 30th, Hamas released a video clip in exchange for 20 Palestinian women prisoners. This tape set off a wave of excitement and it seemed that in no time he would be returned home; but to no avail. A deal, proposing an exchange of 1000 Palestinian prisoners for him, fail through, despite the hard work of the German negotiator. I for one will not forget Gilad and will continue to demand that both sides adhere to international laws concerning the holding of enemy combatants and civilians.

As for the peace process, one can only ask what peace process. The current government has its eye on Iran, while diverting the attention of the real challenge: a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians which would lead them to an independent state. For me to call out FREE PALESTINE now would simply fall on deaf ears (simply since this has turned into somewhat of a cliché and it seems farther away than ever). However, I have to say it. The occupation has gone on for 42 years, and Israel has no time to waste. For years, we, in the leftist camp, would declare the need for a state out of some humanistic reasoning; now Israel does not have that option. Simply, demographics are at work and if Israel is not careful a Jewish state will seem like something of the past. On this topic, I promise to write more during the upcoming months. What is clear to me more than ever is that to continue to place blame on the “right wing” and “settlers” will get us nowhere since real change has not taken place due to the fickleness of the political center, and not as a result of the political maneuvering of the right.

Lastly, on the diplomatic front, the Foreign Minister has been quite a surprise. Avigdor Lieberman, the one who almost all love to hate, has met an enormous number of foreign ministers and seems to be working much more than the average Israeli politician. However, as long as Danny Ayalon remains his deputy he really need not worry; Ayalon has stolen the show and takes the prize as the most incompetent and damaging figure Israel has encountered in years. Whether it was the public humiliating of the Turkish Ambassador, the snubbing of US congressmen due to their trip-affiliation with the American Jewish pro-peace camp organization J Street, or the almost bragging about the alleged Mossad assassination of the Hamas member in Dubai, Ayalon has proven time and time again that he is unfit for the job –or any public position for that matter. The damage he has caused is immeasurable and it is about time that he goes home.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Turkey’s Forgotten Children: The Story of a 15-year old Girl named Berivan

Often it is easier to ignore a situation than to write about it. Today’s entry is especially disturbing since it is about children who have become entangled in a political struggle, and as a result, have ended up with hefty prison terms. Further, outside of human rights organizations, it seems as most people, including Turkish citizens themselves, are unaware of the huge injustice which is taking place. Until now, my blog has focused mostly on analysis. However, this piece goes beyond analysis and I hope it will join forces with others who are working for a more just Turkey. There is no doubt that great steps have been taken; but how a country over a three-year span can try almost 3000 minors for political crimes simply seems incomprehensible.*

Last year, Prime Minister Erdogan setoff on an ambitious ‘Kurdish initiative,’ which I have highlighted in some of my past posts. This was basically an extension of the AKP’s policy which began in 2002 and was set towards relaxing strict policies placed on the Kurdish population. Almost immediately the banned Kurdish language was allowed to enter the public sphere. Overnight, bars and clubs which use to be closed down for having Kurdish music were now the spot to hang out with an extremely happy Kurdish population proudly singing in their mother tongue. A few years back, the official Turkish television(TRT) started a Kurdish language station, and more recently universities have started contemplating teaching Kurdish (as a foreign language). Tangible progress has been made. After the last elections, the DTP (Kurdish) party formed a coalition in the parliament and during the last year the AKP, together with the DTP, worked together on a Kurdish initiative; basically, a program set to find a political solution to ending the conflict, in place of a military one. Things were moving forward. However, following the constitutional court’s official closure of the DTP, and with the party leaders publicly expressing their allegiance to outlawed and imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan, the initiative has all but been suspended.

It is in this context, I am writing the following piece. Right before I left Turkey for New York, I read an article in the daily Sabah, about a 15 year old girl who was arrested for throwing rocks at police in protest and chanting pro-PKK slogans. The next day it made headlines in Taraf , and its editor, Ahmet Altan, dedicated a column to the topic, in addition to two news article, which appeared the same day (January 28, 2010). The girl’s name is Berivan. She was arrested in the Southeastern city of Batman and is currently held in the Diyarbakir prison. She received a total of 13.5 years in jail, but due to her age it was cut down to 7.9 years. Taraf provides a quote from Berivan, where she claims her innocence, stating:

I am 15 years old and I have entered prison for the first time. I constantly cry here, and I am unable to get use to it. I want to be together with my family. It is so painful. I want to get out of here and go to school. I have nothing to do with politics. I am waiting for you (someone) to do something about this.”

Following this, Berivan’s mother addresses an important point asking “was she charged with murder? Even people charged with murder do not receive such sentences…,” and adds that “I have not been able to see my daughter’s face for three months and I pleading for them just to leave my daughter alone..”

In addition to Taraf and Sabah, I also came across articles on the topic in the alternative news site, Bianet. Stating different statistics, it appears that in the last three years almost 3000 minors have been tried under the anti-Terrorist act; with most of the sentences ranging from 6-24 years.* In 2009, almost 1300 children were detained or sentenced in the South-Eastern part of the Turkey. However, due to the mass-migration of Kurds to the western part of Turkey in the 1990’s, similar problems have been imported to Istanbul, Mersin, and Adana. While I have not found statistics relating to Istanbul, Adana’s record of child imprisonment seems particularly alarming according to another article in Bianet, which expands also on the troubling conditions they face once in prison.**

For the time being, changes to the anti-Terrorist orders concerning children are held up in the Turkish parliament, and once –or if- passed, such children will be tried in special courts for minors. However, it is important to remember that it was the AKP that originally made these matters worse when in 2006 the Law on Terrorism was amended allowing minors 15-18 to be tried as adults. Lastly, it has been made clear that the amendments in the parliament will not serve as a solution to all the cases; especially for the children sentenced to 90 months or more. Importantly, last year Turkey was penalized by the European Human Rights Court for sentencing a 14-year old for belonging to an illegal organization.

The children being held simply have fallen victim to the decades old struggle between the Kurdish Southeast and the Turkish state/authorities. To claim rock throwing is equal to terrorism is absurd, and to sentence children, who are clearly living a civilian life, for belonging to a “terrorist organization,” is even more so; not to mention the inflated sentences. And, what does the future hold for all of these children who will spend years behind bars. Does anyone believe that this will serve as a reconciling point and that upon their release they will become better Turkish citizens. Not many words need to be added. The tragedy of the story stands on its own.

*This is a correction from the original blog posted. **Once I receive exact statistics of the exact number being serving time, I will publish them.

Taraf’s Ahmet Altan’s article:

Taraf’s article about Berivan

The other link entitled “Üç bin çoçuk TMK mağduru (28-01-10), I was not able to locate online.
Below are three articles for Bianet (in English), which I also consulted:




Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Polarizing Sledge Hammer...

In the first blog entry for the New Year, when I addressed the unsolved problems of 2009, which would continue to plague Turkey in 2010, I wrote the following:

“…the AKP’s blatant insistence at trying to break the extrajudicial powers of the Turkish army under the context of the “Ergenekon Affair” is quite worrying to say the least. The arresting and trials of numerous secular and army officials accused of planning a coup d’etat, is worrying in the sense that even if there is truth to the affair, the way it is being played out in the public sphere appears simply to be the religious and liberal factions taking revenge on their political rivals. Furthermore, with numerous “suicides” among army officers who were arrested for plotting against the government, the extent of chaos in the army cannot be underestimated.”

Well, sure enough, late last week another story emerged concerning the Turkish army’s plan to overthrow the current AKP government. Once again, the liberal newspaper Taraf (which supports the current government solidifying the religious-liberal front) set off a Tsunami with their claim that they had a 5000 page military plan from 2003, which goes into intricate details about how the army was planning to overthrow the government. The secret plan, codenamed Balyoz (Sledge Hammer), provides a scary scenario where the army would bomb mosques, bring the country to the brink of war with Greece, among other things, all in order to justify their overthrowing of the government, and “save” the country from the ongoing chaos (to read more see links below). Thousands of arrests would take place and civil politics would come to a complete halt, quite similar to the 1980 coup (Of course, just to remind my readers less familiar with Turkish politics, since the republic was founded in 1923 there have been four coup d'états/forced removal of ruling governments: 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997; all differing in scope and action).

What fascinates me is to what extent this plays out in the public sphere. While this has captured the minds of numerous network news programs and produce "shocking" newspaper headlines it would appear that many Turkish citizens have remained greatly indifferent to all of these claims. Perhaps, this is out of shear fear that this could be true, and if so, what can be done! How can a people come to terms with the fact that their most trusted institution was planning to blow up a mosque full of people? Or, if this turns out to be fabricated, what can be done when the forces mechanizing/fabricating this are so strong that they can de-legitimatize one the strongest institutions in Turkey; not to mention one of the strongest regional armies (if not the strongest). The situation is bleak and the gap between the two sides –the government and the army- seems completely out of the range of reconciliation. However, just a day after Taraf published the report, Prime Minister Erdoğan was already taking the accusations, in their entirety, as the truth, publicly challenging the military. In my opinion, this once again proves his outright contempt for the generals in power, and further polarizes the situation. He has once again shown his populist side which is not only isolating the secular forces but also hurting Turkey in the international realm. With no way out, the Chief of Staff Başbuğ gave a press conference, where he clearly expressed his shock over how any one could believe such far-fetched claims, and his frustrations with the numerous leaks coming from unknown military sources. Further, he stressed that the army has past its days of interfering in government affairs, but warned that they were losing their patience. Whatever the case, the army has taken one if its greatest blows in the history of the republic and is apparently suffering from a serious internal crisis.

This scandal will not go away in the future, and will contribute to the already scandalous Ergenekon affair (scandalous since until now no one has been found guilty, and they continue to detain people without charges). While it is clear that Turkey needs to deal with the issues of the “Deep State,” a new strategy needs to be charted out. I write this in the “passive form” simply since while it is easy to criticize, with the two sides having institutional powers it seems likely neither side will emerge as a “winner,” from this mess. For now, we will need to wait and see how this plays out. Numerous questions remain unanswered, answers which will lead us to a better understanding of the Balyoz affair and its reprecussions.

To read more see the following articles. The first is a general survey of the Balyoz affair from the Daily News, and the second is an interview with Yasmin Congar of Taraf, as it appeared in Today’s Zaman. Shockingly, she comes out strongest accentuating that the army was perhaps behind the 2003 bombings. Lastly, I have added an article focusing on the Chief of Staff’s press conference.




Wednesday, January 6, 2010

2010…More of the Same?

For me it seemed like 2009 never ended. In fact, in terms of Turkey, Israel, and Palestine, we have seen more of the same. There were no major breakthroughs on all fronts, just a continuing bleakness which very well might continue through 2010. Immediately, before writing this, I read bits and pieces of my yearly horoscope thinking to myself that it would be great if I could look into the stars and predict the future of the region.

Israel and Palestine
As I write this, I am in a nice café in Ranaana, one of the most upscale cities located north of Tel Aviv. It is hard to imagine that just 10 miles from here there is a different reality which gets worse and worse as years go by. The gap between these well-off neighborhoods and what lies just over the “green line” in the Palestinian territories is immense. However, one not need go so far; the gap between rich and poor among Jewish communities in Israel is shocking enough. I always said if Theodore Herzl was to come back to life and visit the northern Tel Aviv neighborhoods he would be proud! However, if he were to go the southern Israeli cities, the mixed Jewish-Arab cities, or the “development towns,” he certainly would have admitted that Israel had failed once he set his eyes on the poverty, the low level of education, and the apparent inequalities of the Israeli society.

On the peace front, nothing emerged in 2009. And, another year passed with Gilad Shalit being held captive, while the bargaining goes on between Israel and Hamas. While this goes on, the Gaza strip is still under a blockade, locked in their open-air prison. Israel has not only succeeded in recycling their leaders, but also parts of the peace process. In 1992 the main demand was for Israel to freeze all building of settlements. In 2009, this was the main debates: to freeze or not to freeze the expansion of settlements. This is just a sign that Israel still has a major leadership crisis. How else can one explain that Benjamin Netanyahu became the Prime Minister once again? Clearly, the time is on the Palestinians side and it shocking that Israel remains so blind to the reality on the ground. Well, even if time is on the Palestinians side, it does not matter much with the continued inability of the two Palestinian factions –Fatah and Hamas- to reach an understanding. In short, there are not many options for 2010. Perhaps another war between Israel and Hamas; perhaps with Hizballah; perhaps the beginning of another round of pointless peace talks, which are set more to buy time than reach a genuine peace. The forecast does not look promising. Let’s hope I am wrong.

There is no doubt that in comparison to the above Turkey is going through a much more dynamic period. The AKP ruling party’s Kurdish initiative was a bold step; however, with the outlawing of the Kurdish DTP party, and the cracking down on Kurdish leaders, who clearly expressed that they are following direct orders from jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the government has learned that this process will be much more painful than they previously assessed. Meanwhile, daily clashes between Kurdish supporters of the outlawed PKK organization and the Turkish police can easily be ignited into a much greater conflict. It seems that the Kurdish initiative is in some sense a symptom, which characterizes all of the government’s major initiatives, and appears to not have been fully thought through before its implementation. For example, on the Armenian front, things seemed as if they were moving forward after the signing of the protocols in the fall. However, since then not much progress has been made at opening the border and trying to reach an historical consensus between the two states. Lastly, the AKP’s blatant insistence at trying to break the extrajudicial powers of the Turkish army under the context of the “Ergenekon Affair” is quite worrying to say the least. The arresting and trials of numerous secular and army officials accused of planning a coup d’etat, is worrying in the sense that even if there is truth to the affair, the way it is being played out in the public sphere appears simply to be the religious and liberal factions taking revenge on their political rivals. Furthermore, with numerous “suicides” among army officers who were arrested for plotting against the government, the extent of chaos in the army cannot be underestimated. Therefore, the problems that cursed Turkey in 2009 seem to be the exact same ones that will preoccupy the Turkish political spectrum and society in 2010. And, after all the dust has settled, PM Erdogan seems in a much weaker position, both in Turkey and on the international scene. No doubt, he is still extremely popular, however his “one-man show” is getting boring and the Turkish society would like more action than talk. These traits are evident also internationally, and while countries will have to continue to work with him, his zig-zag behavior and heated rebuttals paint him out to be much more of a petty politician than a visionary who will make his stamp on history.