Sunday, December 11, 2011

Free Razan, Free all Political Prisoners; Stop the Killing! Assad Step Down!

December 12, 2011

In Razan's words, The Regime does not fear the prisoners but rather those of you who don't forget them...

Since I wrote my first blog last March on the Syrian uprising, , Now it is Syrias Turn, where I commented that the demonstrations and Daraa and Latakia marked “the beginning of the end,” more than 4000 Syrian protestors have been killed.  Sadly, Assad did not disappoint us and showed that he is no different than his father; like Hafiz al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad has used brutal force to try extinguish the uprising.  However, I am as convinced as I was almost a year ago: his end is near, and is much closer than ever before. 

During the early summer months when I was in Istanbul, I was able to meet quite a few Syrians running from the regime.  They simply knew that if they remained they would be arrested immediately.  I have to say that my heart went out to them; to be in exile, and to have to work from outside of the country when you tied your fate to its future is a burden that few could imagine. The longing to return home and be united with family, friends, and back to the society they have worked so hard to change is unbearable. However, the choice to leave cannot be difficult when the alternative is to live from within the walls of a prison, where torture is rampant.

One Syrian I was able to meet was Razan Ghazzawi, who opted to stay in Syria, while actively criticizing the Assad regime and blogging about those who dared to speak out.  Razan was in Istanbul for the Pride Week, where she, along with Egyptian woman activist Kholoud Bidak, engaged a full room of listeners about the role of women and the LGBT community in the Arab uprisings.  After the talk, I was able to exchange a few minutes with her and expressed my hope that one day they could speak in the US and share their experiences with students.  Knowing the situation in Syria however I also wished her the best, keeping my worries to myself and admiring her courage to speak out while the whole time thinking of my new friends taking refuge in Turkey, unable to return. 

Well last week she was arrested on her way to give a talk in Jordan.  According to the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, where she works as a media officer:

Yesterday afternoon, on Sunday 4/12/2011, Syrian immigration police at Syrian/ Jordanian borders has arrested the activist and blogger Razan Ghazzawi on the Syrian-Jordanian borders,  while she was heading to attend the Forum of Defenders and Media Freedom in the Arab World in Amman representative of the Syrian Center for Media and freedom of expression (SCM).   Razan Ghazzawi works as a media officer at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM). She graduated of the Department of English Literature at the Faculty of Arts of Damascus University and holds an MA in comparative literature from the University of Balamand, Lebanon

Her friend, Julie York wrote the following in an article published in the Guardian (which I highly recommend you read):

I got an urgent instant message from my good friend Razan Ghazzawi last Tuesday night. Having tweeted and blogged against the Syrian regime for the past several months under her real name, from inside Syria, Ghazzawi was concerned that she had become a target.  Always prepared, she sent me her contingency plan: close her online accounts. Syrians who have been arrested and detained over the past nine months have reported having their passwords demanded by authorities. Though closing her accounts wouldn't help her, it could protect her friends – that's the kind of person Ghazzawi is

In Istanbul, Lamdaistanbul has held a protest on her behalf in front of the Syrian consulate, and they along with all the other protests on her behalf, are getting the word out!  Please share this post with others, together let us get the word out.  And, in a loud voice let us say to the Syrian regime: Release Razan now!  Free all political prisoners! Stop the killing! And, last but not least: Assad, allow the democratic forces in your country to take power.  Your days are numbered so step down immediately! 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Call to Free Zarakolu, Ersanli, and all other Peace Loving Citizens

November 3, 2011
With clashes between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) on the rise and an earthquake in Van, which is one of the major cities in the volatile southeast, I sat down numerous times to write a blog focusing on the events. However, out of personal reasons, I opted to remain silent. In my past blogs I have written on the Kurdish question and my thoughts have not changed.

With the recent arrest of Ragip Zarakolu and Busra Ersanli I have decided to break my silence. In the last two years, there has been a clamping down on free thinkers who support Kurdish rights and the Peace and Democratic Party (BDP) which identifies with the plight of Kurds within the Turkish society (while most in the party are ethnic Kurds, they also have the support of leftist Turks). These arrests have targeted numerous politicians, journalists, academics, and activists accused of collaborating with the PKK’s civil branch, the KCK. However, no proof has been put forth linking them to the KCK; they simply are BDP supporters, a legitimate party within the Turkish parliament. What seems to unite many of those arrested are they are the ones pushing for a non-violent solution to the Kurdish question; they are far from terrorists, and certainly are those who chose not to “go to the hills” to fight but rather chose to work within the public sphere at reaching some compromise. I would go even as far to say that while they are painted as the enemies of the Turkish state, they are the opposite; who more than them in Turkey are working to save lives of Turkish citizens, regardless of which side of the battlefield they fall on. Put simply, if these people who serve the middle ground are arrested who will be able to bridge the growing gap between the warring sides?

For now it seems that the only ones that are really immune to the arrests are the BDP parliament members themselves due to political immunity granted to parliamentarians, some who were released from jail awaiting trial in order to enter the parliament. Otherwise, anyone who has even come close to the BDP’s headquarters seems to be under an imminent threat of arrest. While these arrests are not new, it seems that the ring of arrests is closing in on a more visible group. This week two names have hit the headlines; Professor of political science at Marmara University, Busra Ersanli, and publisher Ragip Zarakolu, whose son Deniz, a Phd student and lecturer at Bilgi University, has also been recently arrested. In his first letter from prison (where an accused person can wait months and years for a trial), Zarakolu writes the following “My arrest and the accusation of membership of an illegal organization are parts of a campaign aiming to intimidate all intellectuals and democrats of Turkey and particularly to deprive the Kurds of any support.” And, continues “During my interrogation, they did not ask any question about the organization of which I was accused of being a member. They questioned me only about the books that I wrote or edited for publication, the public meetings where I spoke or attended.”

As it stands now over 7000 people have been arrested and 3500 people have been held (see article). The AKP government can blame this on the judicial process as much as they would like, however, they can no longer hide under such a pretext. While Prime Minister Erdogan was given a “grace” period following the elections, this period is long over. With over 50% of the general vote going to his party, and an ambitious agenda to implement a new constitution, it is essential that the government take full responsibility of those arrested and immediately free those held who pose no threat to the general public, and to stop using claims of terrorism to silence pro-Kurdish activists. Lastly, while I have not remained oblivious of what is going on, I like many placed hopes in the future ratification of a new constitution, which I believe has the chance of leading Turkey to become a strong liberal democratic state (or how I stated it, the only real democracy in the Middle East), however, times is running out quickly and this unbearable situation needs immediate attention.

Below is the wording of petition which goes into more detail:

The international public has so far been oblivious to the so-called “KCK operations” carried out in Turkey by Prime Minister Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party for the past two years. Under the guise of “fighting terrorism,” the Erdogan government has been using the judiciary, the police, and the media to penalize all civic activism in support of rights demanded by Kurdish citizens in Turkey. The “KCK operations” in particular have been deployed to spread fear amongst activists, to silence public dissent, and to normalize the arbitrary arrest of citizens. Ironically, the Erdogan government’s suppression of dissent and of democratic politics has visibly intensified at a time when “Turkish democracy” is being hailed as a model for the Arab world.

Since 2009, as many as 7748 people have been taken under custody on the alleged grounds that they are associated with the KCK—an organization claimed to be the urban branch of the armed organization known as the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party)—while 3895 people have been arrested and imprisoned without even the prospect of a trial in the foreseeable future. Elected mayors, public intellectuals, members of civic associations, journalists, university students, researchers, academics, and activists have all been undergoing this heavy-handed treatment.

One of the latest victims of the Erdogan government’s assault on public dissent is Professor Busra Ersanli of Marmara University, a highly respected academic. Her only apparent “crime” is to have played an active role within BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), which has been struggling for the rights of Kurdish citizens in Turkey. The members of this party have been systematically targeted by counterterrorism units’ arbitrary arrests, even as the party currently holds seats in the parliament. Professor Ersanli was to attend a conference on “Controversial Issues in the History of the Turkish Republic” at Istanbul Bilgi University on 29 October 2011, but she was taken under custody on 28 October. On the same day, Ragıp Zarakolu—a founding member of the Human Rights Association and the former chair of the “Writers in Prison Committee” of the International PEN organization in Turkey—was also taken under custody within the framework of the “KCK operations.”

Earlier in October 2011, Ayse Berktay (Hacimirzaoglu)—a renowned translator, researcher, and global peace and justice activist—was taken by the police from her home in Istanbul five o’clock in the morning and subsequently arrested. She still remains imprisoned for the foreseeable future. Professor Busra Ersanli, Ragip Zarakolu, and Ayse Berktay are among thousands of people who have been imprisoned and silenced in the last two years.

Under such political conditions that are only getting worse, it has become an urgent task to unmask the arbitrary and authoritarian character of the Turkish government's handling of the Kurdish issue. We are calling on friends abroad to spread the news and to build international pressure, which has become especially crucial and urgent at this time when any citizen of Turkey could be targeted by the Erdogan government, the judiciary, and the police for engaging in political acts of solidarity with those detained under the “KCK operations.”

Peace can never be achieved under the current conditions of public fear, paranoia, and authoritarian politics. Please sign the petition below to put pressure on the Turkish government to immediately release all those who have been taken under custody as part of the “KCK operations” and to demand that Prime Minister Erdogan’s government make a sincere commitment to ending its suppression of civic efforts in support of rights demanded by Kurdish citizens in Turkey.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Gilad, On his Way Home at Last!

October 15, 2011
I have a lot to say about the recent Hamas-Israeli agreement bringing the exchange of over 1000 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli, Gilad Shalit.  However, I will wait until after Shalit arrives home, which will hopefully happen this Tuesday.  Over the last five years the seemingly quiet and soft spoken soldier, was subjected to the one of the worse types of psychological (and perhaps physical) torture. During the years he was held captive, a whole country held their breath and dreamed for the day when he would be released.  Like many Israeli Jews and Druze, Shalit was swept away to the army at 18, only to fall hostage a year later to the Palestinian Islamist Organization, Hamas, who infiltrated the border and kidnapped him. The pain for the family and friends would have been enough merely had he been held as a prisoner of war; however, the psychological torment of never allowing them or even the proper international organizations to visit him, managed to capture not only the Israeli population, but also many international leaders.  The only signs of life his family has seen was one letter and then over two years ago a tape was released with a message from Gilad.   
Marking his fifth year in captivity, Amnesty International and other human rights groups issued the following statement early this year concerning Gilad:
Hamas must immediately end inhumane and illegal treatment of Gilad Shalit
Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit has been in captivity for five years. Those holding him have refused to allow him to communicate with his family, nor have they provided information on his well-being and the conditions in which he is being held. The organizations stress that this conduct is inhumane and a violation of international humanitarian law. Hamas authorities in Gaza must immediately end the cruel and inhuman treatment of Gilad Shalit. Until he is released, they must enable him to communicate with his family and should grant him access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
As I mentioned above, once Shalit has returned home I will write on the topic. Over the last three years I have had my blog I worked to keep his name on the agenda and can honestly say that his release will truly be a great day for many of us who never stopped hoping.  What a relief that the next time I will write about Gilad, he will be free, and I will then have the chance to comment on what this means in the greater scheme of things in the Middle East; and, I have much to say.  However, for now, I will hold my breath for a little longer and wait for the twenty-five year old to return home. His parents, Noam and Aviva also proved living examples of the true meaning of parenthood. They never gave into the pressures, camped out almost two years next to the Prime Minister’s house, literally campaigning for their son’s release everyday he was gone for over five whole years. My heart goes to them. 
Gilad, we are waiting for you and wish you only the best! This will certainly be a festive day (yom hag)!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupywallstreet and the American Predicament

The other night, I ventured out of Brooklyn to come eye to eye with the Occupy Wall Street protest.  As someone who thrives on protests, I have always been a bit skeptical when it comes to protests which take place in the United States.  My visit to Occupy Wall street strengthened these convictions.

Preparing for the next day
It is not that I do not support them; the opposite holds true. They are a great group of people who believe in real change, tired of “more of the same.” By that I mean that they reject the continued injustices that take place on a daily basis in the place where so many people use to call the land of opportunities. The façade however has come crumbling down. Far too many Americans have no work. No future. As their homes are foreclosed, and their property taken away, they are left with no real answers, accept to turn towards religious based support groups and charity (among others) who are willing to fill in for the government (something that perhaps only perpetuates the problem in the long run).  And, it is in this reality, in this country, where stars make millions along with a corporate America who prefer to cut their employees salaries while doubling their own, that a group of Americans joined together to takeover Wall St.  The question remains whether they will succeed (understanding that the question of success is subjective). Far too many complain that the protesters do not have a clear set of goals. This might be true, but until now has there been an alternative? I support these protestors on Wall St., one by one, even with all the blemishes.  However, frustratingly, I cannot come to any other conclusion other than that their battle was doomed even before they sent their forces out to revolt.
Let it be known however that the eventual and inevitable failure of the protests will not be that of the protestors; they have proven their steadfastness, dedication, and their will to drive change. The failure can only be attributed to the American public who has not heeded their call.  However, this is to be expected in a country where such a large part of the population has been born and bred on a simplistic understanding of capitalism making any protest against big business and corporate America doomed to fail. 

Essentially, the American people have become shareholders in the American factory of McDonalds, Nike. Apple, Microsoft, Hollywood (to name a few), and even the banks (one cannot simply punish banks for a culture which enabled the banks to create such economic havoc). The American dream has transformed from the ownership of commodities to the embodiment of them. Consumerism and citizenship have merged into one ideology, one entity, creating a capitalocracy: a merging and blurring of capitalism and democracy. Let me be clear, not a plutocracy but a capitalocracy (correct me if there is a better word), one where every citizen is part of the machine, a shareholder in the system.
Keeping the protesters in good spirits
Simply put, any dissent is a threat to the American psychosis and is treated with a suspicious eye.  Therefore, it is clear that the protesters have only remained on Wall St. this long due to the grace of the New York Police Department; let us not fool ourselves, if the police wanted to they could permanently clear the protestors from Wall St. within hours. Such compliance and public trust in the police force might be the norm in the US, but it is not the case in most places in the world. So the question that remains is how long can this go on? I hope I am wrong, but I imagine not much longer.  If I were the protestors, I would reorganize and work on a new strategy which would capture the minds of the American people, who are quickly getting bored.  Abandon Wall St. and keep your struggle dynamic. You have already captured the minds and hearts of a minority; now rethink your strategy to capture the  majority. Show us that you are here to stay! Keep us on our toes, and continue to take the US and world by surprise. And, do not let the institutions you are fighting simply bury your movement where you have started: in Manhattan, on Wall St. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Palestine Now! The UN vote and Some Personal Thoughts

September 21, 2011

After Forty-four years of the Israeli occupation of lands which had been previously occupied by Jordan (West Bank) and Egypt (Gaza) for 19 years, the time has come for the United Nations to correct an injustice long overdue: recognize Palestine as a state.  Clearly, the Palestinians have exhausted all efforts in reaching an agreement with the current Israeli government.  Since the tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s began in early 2009, the current Israeli government has clearly demonstrated that it is not the least bit interested in reaching an agreement with the head of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas.  Without a doubt, once Netanyahu took on board the extreme right-wing Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, it was clear that the Palestinians simply did not have a partner.  Settlements are continuing to eat-up more Palestinian territory, which is no more than a last ditch attempt to de facto annex more land.  The damage Netanyahu has caused Israel in the world is irreversible; be it relations with Turkey, most Arab countries, and the US. Simply put, Netanyahu and Lieberman, long ago became bankrupt of any legitimacy and are continuing to pull Israel into deeper waters with no lifeguard in sight.  

The United States has threatened to veto a move by the Security Council if a majority calls for a Palestinian state.  This move is one of the worst moves President Obama can take in the Middle East today.  He truly has become the disappointment of the region and a veto would be another major blow to an administration that most Arab countries simply do not trust or believe in.  Therefore, I call on President Obama to vote where his heart is and say “YES!” to Palestine and clarify that the US support is contingent on real progress in the peace process, making it clear to Israel that it simply has no other choice than to sit and negotiate. The likelihood of this happening is next to nil; however, it must be stated. Further, recognizing Palestine is practically good since it will give them (and the Israelis) true urgency to reaching a peace agreement. The Palestinians know that in the end it will be an agreement with Israelis which will secure the success of their state.

As an Israeli citizen, I call on Israelis to welcome this move and to support a Palestinian state if recognized; whether in the Security Council or a watered-down version in the General Assembly. We all know that this is inevitable; the time has come to get the show on the road! How much longer can we as a people lie to our children and act as if this land will be ours for eternity.  Our children deserve more than this! Furthermore, I have to admit that I feel the pain of many of the settlers who have been misled by each and every Israeli government and simply are being used as negotiating pawns. We all know that most of the settlements will be evacuated sooner or later. The facts are on the ground: a Jewish state occupying Palestine cannot exist much longer and time is running out.

For Palestinians, I have to state that since immigrating to Israel as a youngster, I have always supported a Palestinian state next to Israel, and for the citizens of the region to be able to decide their fate and what type of state they wish to have (one or two-states). I long for the day when both peoples can live as one.  Together with you, I have shown my solidarity and placed great hopes. Together with you, I have cried and felt the pain of Jewish and Arab violence. Therefore, whatever the outcome I call on all the forces, Jews and Arabs to support the establishment of Palestine through passive resistance and not to raise arms. Enough with death! 

Lastly, I will state that if Palestine is recognized on Friday as a state among nations, I will be the first to make a sigh of relief, while bracing for a storm of chaos and clashes.  This day brings back memories when in November 1988, as an Israeli soldier, I was patrolling in a village near Bethlehem when fireworks lit the sky of the West Bank. On that night, the late Yassar Arafat declared the establishment of a Palestinian state and we, Israeli soldiers, were there to suppress the celebrations and put out the sparks of a dying intifada.  However, secretly so many of us rejoiced in our hearts believing that just like the Jewish people, the Palestinians are equally entitled to the land.  Since then, a whole generation has been raised, with many of them now raising a new generation; new generations having to witness even more extreme violence and destruction.  Palestine as a state is long overdue. For now, the solution is two states for two peoples. Once this is reached the sky is the limit with both peoples challenged to make this work by offering new solutions such as confederacy, open borders and free exchange of populations, with residency rights for both Jews and Arabs to live where they wish. The road is long. Our work is far from over.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Saving Turkish-Israeli Ties: Sideline Netanyahu and Lieberman

The Israeli government’s incompetence in solving the ongoing crisis with Turkey should be ample proof that it is time for this government to pack up and go home. While this is not likely to happen, sadly it seems that Foreign Minister Lieberman once again has gotten it his way. The damage he has caused is reaching the point of no return, and has been shockingly sanctioned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While late last week details of the Palmer Report were leaked by the New York Times, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that Israel had 24 hours to apologize for the death of the nine Turkish activists, who were killed in last summer’s botched Israeli raid on the Gaza Flotilla, warning that the consequences would be nothing less than scathing. For weeks, Turkish and Israeli diplomats and politicians tried to work out a formula that would save the relationship between the once friendly states, but to no avail. Netanyahu made it clear that Israel would go no further than expressing regret; meaning an Israeli apology was out of the question. This was despite wiser government officials who believed that it was in Israel’s absolute interests to mend ties with the Turkish state.

While I will not focus on the details of the Palmer Report, I will make the following comments (here is a link to read it in its entirety): it is clear that like most diplomatic pieces of work it worked hard to give each side something it wanted: for the Israelis the report legitimized its blockade of Gaza and clearly show intent by the Turkish activists at provoking an Israeli response:

Although people are entitled to express their political views, the flotilla acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade. The majority if the flotilla participants had no violent intentions, but there exist serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly the IHH..”

for the Turkish side, it claimed that the Israeli forces acted excessively and ends with the serious claims the Israeli soldiers killing the victims were done execution style:

the loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force by Israeli forces during the take-over of the vessels was unacceptable…forensic evidence showing that most of the deceased were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range has not been adequately accounted for in the material presented by Israel.

With the report further stating:

Two people were killed by a single bullet wound: Cevdet Kiliclar was killed by a single shot between the eyes, and Cengiz Songur was killed by a shot to the vase of the throat.

And continues to state information about the death of the student and US citizen Furkan Dogan who:

may already have been lying wounded when the fatal shot was delivered.

The reports also documents violence perpetrated against the Israeli soldiers and how the events played out perhaps will never be completely clear. However, this report demonstrated that  Israel has failed to answer serious questions concerning the deaths of the nine activists. In short, where I agree with the report that the Turkish activists were provoking an outright conflict Israel is at fault for falling into the trap, and setting off on an operation which would leave so many people dead. For this Israel needs to apologize; if not only for the fact that even if the activists were clearly enemy to the Jewish state, they were citizens of a friendly power.  

As of today, the relations between the two states have been scaled back, with Turkey expelling the Israeli ambassador, and suspending all military ties. There were fears that this would be expanded to trade relations also; fortunately, this still not has happened but certainly the threat is looming. With such repercussions, it seems inexplicable why Israel simply did not come forth and issue an apology, if only out of realpolitik. Especially since Turkey was more than forthcoming in explaining that an apology and compensation would put the matter behind and serve as a way to rekindle their ties. However, it is clear that once again the Israeli government has been hijacked by the likes of Avigdor Lieberman, and that Netanyahu has opted to secure the coalition government even in light of such destructive policies, totally disregarding what is best for the Israeli state and its citizens.

As for the Turkish government, they too seem to be climbing higher and higher up a tree which will be difficult to come down from. With scornful messages coming from foreign minister Davutoglu, the president Abdullah Gul, and most lately from the Prime minister Erdogan himself, it seems that they are set on throwing fuel on the fire. However, the question is once this fire is a set will they be able to extinguish it. Much of the language being used seems nothing more than bullying and in a region where the status quo recently has been turned upside down, such rhetoric can lead to even more instability. Simply put, in this debacle there will be no winners.

One way out of this mess, is for the Israeli opposition to immediately work to stop the deterioration of ties; if a coalition of Israeli politicians and academicians, along with other citizens were to formulate an apology and visit Turkey, meeting with Turkish counterparts, this could serve as the first step at mending ties between the two states. Perhaps, it is now up to citizens (on both side) to stop this free-for-all which is causing the region irreversible damage. As almost 450,000 Israelis marched for social justice not allowing their government to dictate their future, other right minded Israelis should come together in an united voice to rethink their future in the region at large; this concerning the upcoming recognition of Palestine, and just as well their future ties with Turkey.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

An Early September Update

Dear all,

After almost 14 months in Istanbul and Tel Aviv, I have arrived back to New York to continue teaching, after being away due to my research. Like always, I am excited to be back at Brooklyn College and to be teaching such a diverse and interesting group of students. Coming back to teach Middle eastern history after the Arab uprisings, the worsening of Israeli-Turkish ties, the establishment of a possible new social order in Israel, and on the eve of a possible official recognition of the Palestinian state in the United Nations, makes my work even more exciting. For years, teaching Middle Eastern history was quite frustrating, with me declaring at the last lecture that "one day Mubarak will fall, along with Bashar Assad, stating that it was just a question of time. And, as Assad continues to tries to violently suppress the uprising in his country we know too well that his days are numbered, with almost 3000 Syrians killed by their own armed forces. For Mubarak, he now is on trial and with his health in such bad condition, it seems his days are numbered also.

Due to the painstakingly return to my office, and catching up on my work, I have not been able to submit a blog for a few weeks. However, currently I am working on two topics (a new social order in Israel, and another one on the continuing deterioration of Israeli-Turkish ties related to the issuing of the UN report which investigated last year's flotilla incident. Hopefully, by Tuesday I will have posted them. Until then, I wish all well and my warm greetings.


Monday, August 15, 2011

The Day the Bars Died; Bring Beyoglu back to the People!

Bustling Social Center, Now Empty

It started a few weeks back। One night Istanbul’s municipality workers came and started to pull chairs out from under the customers on the sidewalk bars of the Asmali Mescit neighborhood। Then they gathered the chairs and tables and started packing them up and loading them on a truck and shipped them away and impounded, or for the ones that had a license they were ordered to clear their tables and chairs from the sidewalks। The customers, some regulars other just random, who were passing time enjoying a cold beer outdoors to combat the summer heat, left slowly and went home. Perhaps, they thought that this was a random misunderstanding over permits between the bar owners and the municipality. However, many of the bars had permits. For example, Badehane had all the proper licenses, and the owner Bade has ran her business tip-top for over the last ten years, closely following the municipality’s regulations. There simply was no reason to clear the sidewalk. Now, Badehane, the first indoor-outdoor bar to open in the neighborhood is in danger of closing. While the indoor section fills up in the winter, during the summer you cannot pay people to sit inside. It simply is not a part of the culture. Forget the indoor smoking ban, however nice and cozy the indoors is, it simply can compete with sitting outdoors on a small narrow road, under the shadow of 19th century classic buildings. The municipality’s unilateral action also took a huge toll on workers. Where Bade on a normal evening employed 7-8 waiters, now only one or two are needed to hold down the fort leaving the others with no answers to how they will pay their bills.

Well for those who that thought that the sidewalks bars were being closed to the dangerous overcrowding on the Asmali Mescit streets, they were wrong. Bars, such as Urban and Pia (and some restaurants that serve alcohol), which have served their customers for easily over a decade slowly had their tables and chairs collected. They were clearly zoned for seating and do not hinder pedestrian traffic. Then there were the cafes in the trendy Cihangir. Finally, save for the Nevizade street, or a few other places, many outdoor restaurants also had their tables cleared. For now, many of Beyoglu neighborhood’s have turned into practical ghost towns.

So, why the ban on outdoor seating? Well, the municipality has not really given any clear answer; it seems that this was a drastic attempt to control the abuse of sidewalk use by non-licensed cafes and bars. However, for the bars and restaurants which have abided by the municipalities zoning the ban has turned into a nightmare. Due to the fact that no real answer has been given however it has led many to speculate. One rumor that has spread that this started off first as a payback by an angry Prime Minister Erdogan who was humiliated by raising an alcoholic toast to him as his motorcade passed near the Asmali Mescit neighborhood. Another rumor is that this is directly linked to the fact that it the ban happened almost parallel to the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Others claim that the municipality had been planning a crackdown for some time, and it chose the month of Ramadan out of respect for the business owners. In other words, they believed that it was best to implement these changes during the month that is usually slow due to the many people fasting during the day and refraining from alcohol consumption at night, as well as the exodus of Turks to vacation spots on the Aegean and Mediterranean coast.

Badehane's Regulars Now Enjoy Their Beer on Cardboard Boxes

Whatever the reason, it should be clear that this rightly can be seen as an infringement on the lifestyle of Istanbul’s secular residents and the municipality which is controlled by the ruling AK party should be extra sensitive when it comes to decisions which radically shift the social status quo. As it is, this act by conservative bureaucrats in the municipality is seen by many as confirmation of the curtailing of secular freedoms and an increasing display of religious conservatism. Further, punishing those who have abided by the municipality’s zoning laws is taking a huge economic toll on law abiding citizens who have work hard to ensure that Beyoglu remains the charming place it is. In short, while I have not been able to attend the protests against the banning of outdoor seating, they have my full sympathy. For me, it is sad to see the streets empty of people and the shutters of businesses closing their doors for good due to a short sighted move by Beyoglu’s municipality along with the support of the Greater Istanbul Municipality.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Waking to a New Reality in Israel (and perhaps for Palestine?)

During the last year I have spent in Turkey and Israel, I have happily watched from the side as the Arab countries one by one started to break away from their oppressive regimes. Where I was not able to join these demonstrations, during my year away from the classroom I was proud to take part in numerous demonstrations both in Israel and Turkey. While I am citizen of Israel and not one of Turkey, I felt as if my participation was just as crucial in Istanbul as it was in Tel Aviv.

This year it was clear that in Israel something was brewing; a marked increase in public dissent and the demonstrations by the left parties started to pick up momentum after years of falling in disarray. Yet, these demonstrations were a far cry from the massive ones Israel once knew where many demonstrations could easily attract 100,000 demonstrators; not to mention, the biggest demonstration in Israeli history, when 500,000 people came out in 1982 to protest against Israel’s active participation in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres (then about 1 out of 8/9 citizens). Then there was the massive demonstration where Prime Minister Rabin made his last speech only to be assassinated by a Jewish radical, which was followed by the solemn and massive demonstration to mark his murder. Following the second intifada, and the collapse of the Israeli left, the Second Lebanon War only managed to bring a few thousands brave souls out to the streets, followed by the embarrassing low turnout to protest Israel’s war on Gaza, in December 2008. If it had not been for Hadash, the Jewish-Arab left party, it seemed that the protest spirit would have almost completely dissipated. It was after the Gaza War that I decided to begin to write a blog out of pure frustration. Israel had changed radically since I had left for my PhD studies in 1995 and I needed a venue to express these views.

This leads us now to the recent protests in Israel which perhaps should be traced back to a facebook protest against the sudden increase of cottage cheese prices (yes!), which was well covered in the press a little over a month ago. This was followed by one woman who set up a tent on Rothschild Avenue (which is a sort of pedestrian park) to protest her being evicted after she could not afford to pay her rent. This one event set off a trend that has continued to grow ever since with people coming out one by one, setting up tents and calling for the government to deal with the rising property costs. With property prices so high, and rent skyrocketing, the reality young and middle age people go through in Israel to secure living arrangements is beyond belief. For many Israelis, living abroad even seems like a better and easier option compared to the reality of having three jobs just to rent a shabby apartment with landlords that just continue to raise prices year after year. Of course, while this protest first struck a chord with the middle class, it certainly has started to capture the imagination of so many poor people across Israel who live in a society where the gap between rich and poor is one of the highest in the world when put on the scale of western countries.

From the tent city on Rothschild which began almost three weeks ago, the momentum has grown and last Saturday night, after two consecutive demonstrations, the organizers of the tent city, together with a coalition of other groups making demands to the government, managed to bring out to the streets well over 300,000 protestors, with signs comparing the happenings in Israel to the Arab Spring such as “Egypt is here!” From doctors on strike to pensioners, from young professionals to the poor from the “neighborhoods,” from Bedouins living in unrecognized villages to academics who suffer on a daily basis due to the government’s neglect of higher education, the Israeli society has taken the initiative to at last take control of their destiny. Remarkably, when so many analysts were asking how the Arab Spring would influence the region, few could have imagined that Israel would be the one duplicating the Tahrir Square protests; like Egypt its citizenry too is tired of old rhetoric and corruption. The Israeli political establishment is being challenged and the people are voicing an overwhelming “no” to the dangerous American type of capitalism, which has been wholeheartedly adopted by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and previous governments. The current Israeli government is seeing that if they do not do something quickly the rug will could be pulled out from under their feet, with new elections on the horizon. Perhaps now, Netanyahu will see the true damage such divisive members of his parliament have caused; instead of focusing on the real issues, Netanyahu has been led astray by the anti-democratic Avigdor Lieberman who has set Israel on a dangerous track.

Now the major challenge of the growing campaign is to reach its goal of bringing a millions Israelis to the street on September 3. Until then they have to clarify their goals, unite the people, and make it clear that while questions of justice for Palestinians have remained on the back burner until now, true social justice for Israelis must include the recognition that the occupation needs to come to a screeching halt, and that a democratic Israel cannot exist as long as it continues to occupy Palestinian land and deny the Palestinian people their right to a nation. If the protestors in Israel reach this consensus, then the popular upheaval we are currently witnessing will force the Israeli politicians to work for a social state which keeps the welfare of its citizens at the top of the agenda, and to work with the Palestinians to usher in a new reality for all peoples of the Middle East.

Zaman focuses on my Haaretz Article (Turkish)

Here is a link to an article which translates almost in enterity m article which was published in Haaretz, which was entitled 'The Region's Only Democracy?" on 5 August 2011. Comments are welcomed!

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Sad Reminder about the Kurdish Question

As someone who has lived with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for over the last two decades of my life, I was sad and frustrated when hearing about the 13 soldiers killed in eastern Turkey yesterday. Like a ritual I am too far familiar with, I waited until the morning to read the names of the fallen soldiers, to hear their stories, to find out who they were; to find out who the people in the uniforms really were. I also read alternative news sources to learn about the other side, the Kurdish fighters killed; understanding that both the soldiers and the ones fighting are both Turkish citizens; both caught up in a struggle which has gone on far too long. While there are counter narratives at what happened, I do not find comfort in any of the sources. Last night, the dreams of young people were snatched away by gunfire and explosion, leaving their families to mourn for days, months, years, and lifetimes.

The clashes come at a time of great uncertainty in Turkey. Following the elections, some of the independent candidates affiliated with the mostly Kurdish Peace and Democratic Party (BDP), have been blocked from entering the parliament due to the fact that they are awaiting trial for crimes related to belonging to an affiliate group of the outlawed PKK Kurdish Workers Party. Topping the list is Hatip Dicle, plus six others out of the total of 36 independent candidates, who are barred from entering the parliament. It is important to point out also that in the case of Hatip Dicle, the Supreme Election Council (YSK) approved his candidacy previous to the election and only after his victory did they announce that they would not accept his candidacy handing the parliamentary seat over the to the ruling AK party candidate. Until now, no compromise has been reached and the 36 elected members of parliament have made it clear that they will not enter parliament until every last one of their members are allowed to enter parliament.

If this was not enough, the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), an umbrella group for Kurdish groups has declared they are aiming for democratic autonomy, something that stands in complete contradiction to the Turkish state, with even the ruling AK party, once sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations, not even coming close to accepting. The congress’s findings were announced by Aysel Tugluk a BDP elected MP, who stated that the “Kurdish people do not want to be a non-status population anymore. There is no other population in the world like Kurds, which include 40 million people and do not have rights. We, as Kurdish people, are declaring our democratic sovereignty, holding to Turkey’s national unity on the basis of an understanding of a common motherland, territorial unity and the perspective of a democratic nation.”

While it was clear that the Kurdish demands have risen, something to be expected after securing such an important block in the parliament, it is incumbent upon them to ensure that the Kurdish struggle remains within the realm of civil action and that they work hard to secure a new ceasefire between the Turkish state and the PKK. Even if the BDP supports passive resistance and knows that the Kurdish citizens of Turkey have gained more through civil struggle than military, on this day it needs to reiterated. Likewise, the AK party and the opposition People's Republican Party (CHP) need to quickly find a solution to the parliamentary crisis and to ensure that work on a new constitution can begin which will offer the Kurdish society rights which they have been demanding for decades. The alternative is more bloodshed and violence; something that if it is not dealt with effectively will certainly only get worse.

For articles on this topic see:

Monday, July 11, 2011

A March for Palestine and the Deterioration of Israeli Democracy

This upcoming Friday, July 15, the weekly Sheikh Jarrah solidarity protest group is planning a massive protest to support the establishment (and UN recognition) of a Palestinian state this upcoming September. With the Israeli right-wing government once again attempting to legalize anti-democratic laws, this protest cannot come at a better time.

The planned protest follows similar protests of Israelis saying “Enough to the 44 years of Occupation!” In June, the Jewish-Arab left party, Hadash, along with Meretz, Peace Now, and other affiliated groups organized a massive rally in Tel Aviv supporting a free Palestine. Currently, Hadash is also in the midst of a signature campaign and providing information about the upcoming UN vote, which will recognize the right of the Palestinian people to a homeland, aside Israel, with Jerusalem serving as a joint capital for the two peoples.

Friday’s Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity march organizers (see my past blog on the SJS group), have declared the following:

This Friday, July 15th, we will stand with our Palestinian partners in a Palestinian-Israeli march through the heart of Jerusalem for the independence of Palestine -because the Palestinians also deserve to be “a people, free in their country”. Because Jerusalem is the place for this freedom to be realized and because Jewish-Arab solidarity is the only response to hatred and racism. We will march together in both sections of the city, the Israeli and the Palestinian, to express our support of Palestine’s independence and our commitment to fight for it together.

Writing in an article in Haaretz, Yael Sternhell likened the upcoming march and Israeli solidarity with the Palestinian cause similar to the participation of whites who joined in with the African American civil rights protest in the 1960’s and concluded by saying that:

The march supporting the Palestinian declaration of independence is a golden opportunity for change. It's the moment we can say to ourselves, to our Palestinian neighbors and the entire world that we too can be freed from the chains of hatred, fear and the racism that grips the State of Israel.

With her earlier acknowledging that:

In the Israel of 2011, every manifestation of basic human empathy toward the Palestinian side, every disclosure of understanding for its aspirations and priorities hits a wall of hatred, distrust and the growing siege mentality.

While certainly there are huge differences between the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the struggle for equal rights in the US, it is hard to argue with Sternhell, especially in light of the continued attempt at legislating anti-democratic laws in Israel. Today in the Knesset the anti-boycott law is being currently ironed out which applies “severe punishments on anyone who calls, directly or indirectly, for boycotting Israel.” While Haaretz is known for its left leaning editorials, today’s editorial is particularly scathing, highlighting the danger of this law:

This is a politically opportunistic and anti-democratic act, the latest in a series of outrageously discriminatory and exclusionary laws enacted over the past year, and it accelerates the process of transforming Israel's legal code into a disturbingly dictatorial document. It casts the threatening shadow of criminal offense over every boycott, petition or even newspaper op-ed. Very soon, all political debate will be silenced.

Certainly, with such laws being enacted, Israeli settlers are receiving blatant support by the Israeli government to continue their colonization project. The struggle for Palestinian independence should top the agenda of every freedom loving and democracy supporting Israeli, who are subjected on a daily basis to the systematic and compulsory collaboration with an oppressive state who has denied the Palestinians their basic rights for the last four decades. Perhaps, with such grass roots movements, and the restructuring of the Israeli left into a democratic front, more and more Israelis will also join in on the struggle for Palestine since it seems that most Israelis have come to the conclusion that the future of Israel as a Jewish state is contingent upon leaving the occupied territories; sadly, however, the current Israeli government refuses to listen to the silent majority remaining merely as a mouthpiece for right wing factions. While I will not be participating on Friday’s march, they certainly have my support coming from my current residency in Istanbul.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Turkey and Israel: Bridging the Gaps and Moving Forward?

During the last few days, both Turkish and Israeli newspapers have been filled with headlines hinting that the two countries are serious about reconciling their differences. Something I obviously find refreshing and spelled out the need for in an article in Haaretz. The first major test standing between the two once friendly states is reaching an agreement over the wording of a soon to released United Nations Report on last year’s Gaza Flotilla incident. We will need to wait and see how both countries will climb down from the tree and find a compromise which allows Israel to “apologize” without “outright apologizing,” not to mention finding a meeting point over Turkey’s demand that Israel can compensate the victims’ families of the flotilla incident. Of course, Israel’s negotiating chip in all of this is the fact that there are rumors that Turkey also runs the risk of being chastised in the report, something that Turkey would not at all be pleased with since it was Turkey that demanded that the UN investigate the incident (see Hurriyet Daily News article which does a good job at explaining this issue)

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the ball is mainly in Israel’s court with Turkey successfully foiling any Turkish participation in the current Aid to Gaza Flotilla, which has ran into serious problems in Greece. Furthermore, it seems that Israel has also turned to Turkey to help reignite Israeli-Hamas negotiations over the release of the Israeli held captive Gilad Shalit in exchange of Palestinian prisoners. Last autumn, I argued in an article in Today’s Zaman that if anyone could bring the release of Shalit, it was Erdogan. I still believe that he is the ideal person to work for the release of Shalit, and if he succeeded he would receive the prestige of Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Clearly, Turkey is in the midst of renegotiating their presence in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring revolutions and their major fallout with Syria, whose leader Bashar al-Assad continues to lead a bloody campaign against his people’s uprising, with over 1500 protestors killed. However, it is important to equally state that Israel needs now more than ever to renegotiate their presence in the Middle East. Their warming up to Turkey can greatly be explained as a tactic to somehow defer (or minimize the damage of) a unilateral declaration (and recognition) of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September, a topic I will focus on in the next few weeks. We should hope that Turkey will be able to convince Israel once and for all need to take Palestinian claims seriously and negotiate with them as an equal partner. Further, Israel would be wise to listen to Turkish criticism since Turkey is not far off from what most of the world believes: Israel needs to recognize an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. In other words, the occupation of Palestinian lands needs to come to an end and Jerusalem should become the united capital of both Israel and Palestine.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Istanbul Pride 2011

First, here is a link to photos of pride on my facebook! Enjoy, they will attest to what an amazing day it was!!

Following the BDP protest (see previous blog), I made my way over to the annual Istanbul Pride Parade, which I have participated in for four years now. Every year the parade has grown, and this year it took a bit longer for the participants to reach Taksim due to the closure of the roads as a result of the BDP support protest; therefore, the first photos (see link above) seem as if it was going to be less people, however within a half hour it appeared that there were anywhere between 3-4 thousand people, if not more. I have to say that with each passing year I enjoy Pride more and more; it is simply impossible for me to describe the positive energy from the participants and from the onlookers who often clap and cheer. This year the parade was led by Lamda Istanbul’s Family Support group, with mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers joining in and showing their solidarity and pride with their children and siblings. Also, we were happy to have parliament member Sebahat Tuncel and upcoming parliamentarians Sırrı Süreyya Önder and Ertuğrul Kürkçü (all affiliated with the BDP) taking part, following the early clashes between them and their supporters and the police. During the Pride parade, due to the wind shifting directions tear gas was in the air often burning our eyes. During the last few years, Tuncel has been an important supporter of the LGBT community and the coalition to bring equality to all citizens of Turkey.

This year’s Pride Parade comes at an important crossroads in Turkish history with the upcoming parliament set to rewrite the constitution. Therefore, in Turkey, the main goal for the LGBT community is to amend current anti-discrimination laws to also prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender-identity, and to introduce laws protecting the community (and other communities in Turkey) from Hate Crimes and Hate Speech, among other issues such as ending the rampant violence suffered especially by the transgender community (here is a link to my previous blog on the topic). Like last year some of the slogans were “homosexuals will no longer be silenced,” and “we are here so get used to us.”

Following the parade, crowds gathered in Tunel Square for a festive evening of drinking and dancing in the street. To end, I will attach a paragraph that I wrote last year when I covered Pride, and I think it still holds quite true: 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 [the past] 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 [did not] resign is in itself a disgrace to the [past] 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.