Thursday, April 28, 2016

Israel Needs to Recognize the Armenian Genocide - and the Nakba*

Haaretz: “Turkey needs to realize that Israel's debate is only remotely related to ties with Ankara, but rather holds a special place in the broader debate about the Holocaust and Jewish victimhood.”

Louis Fishman, April 25, 2016-Haaretz

Once again the official day commemorating the 1915 Armenian Genocide, April 24, has passed without Israel issuing a statement of official recognition. As a country that inherited the legacy of the European genocide of Jews — the Holocaust — its recognition of the systematic killing of Ottoman Armenians would not only amount to a historically just move, but would also be an important step in promoting the study of comparative genocides, giving a special meaning to the important motto of “never again.” Further, it could lead to the understanding of how Turkish denial has only prevented the country from moving forward, showing Israel the need to end the denial of its own injustices.   

Israel’s choosing not to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide is directly related to its attempts to maintain ties with Turkey, in good days and bad. At the height of Turkish-Israel relations in the 1990s, Israel maintained this policy in order not to risk jeopardizing its strong ties with the Turkish state, not to mention its arms deals. Shamefully, U.S. Jewish lobbies were coopted as a way to block American recognition of the Armenians’ tragedy as well.

Simply, Turkish tank deals trumped the moral and historical obligation of genocide recognition. Despite this, the internal debate surrounding the non-recognition emerged in 2000 when the liberal leftist education minister, the late Yossi Sarid (Meretz), attended Jerusalem’s 85th Armenian Genocide memorial ceremony. There he stated, “The Armenian Memorial Day should be a day of reflection and introspection for all of us, a day of soul-searching. On this day, we as Jews, victims of the Shoah [Holocaust] should examine our relationship to the pain of others.” In this speech he mentioned the word genocide no less than 10 times.  

Despite years of strained relations that hit a pinnacle with the 2010 Gaza Flotilla affair, Israel still has not recognized the genocide. Ironically, the new reason was that Israeli policy makers believed this could lead to a full break in relations. However, before reaching this conclusion, U.S. Jewish lobbies had already opted out of taking their usual role in blocking Armenian Genocide recognition, and the Knesset debated the matter. While both groups denied this was related to the Flotilla, the message was clearly one of punishment for Turkey’s role. Even I argued against this, since recognition as a punishment against Turkey equaled no less of a farce than the previous situation.  

In the summer of 2014 however, after Reuven Rivlin, a longtime advocate of Armenian Genocide recognition, became Israel’s president, it seemed that Israeli recognition would finally come at the 2015 centennial commemoration of that genocide. However, this too fell through due to pressure from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Despite this, Rivlin came quite close to offering official recognition, saying “the Armenian people were the first victims of modern mass killing,” and stressing that many Jewish people in Ottoman Palestine witnessed the horrors of the killings, a known fact. Rivlin’s words reiterated the fact that among the Israeli public, few doubt that it was a genocide - it is known in Hebrew as the Hashoah Ha'armenit, the Armenian Shoah (holocaust). 

Perhaps now that Israel and Turkey have made numerous statements that they are close to renewing full diplomatic ties, Israel should make clear that its relations cannot be held hostage to Turkey’s intractable stance towards this topic, and that Armenian Genocide recognition is not about being a friend or enemy of Turkey. Further, Turkey needs to realize that in Israel the debate is only remotely related to Ankara, and rather holds a special place in the greater debate of the “uniqueness of the Holocaust” and the question of Jewish victimhood, which hits at the heart of Israeliness and the question on how to memorialize the Holocaust. 

With April 24 falling during Passover this year, it also important to remember that denial is also inherent in the Israeli narrative. Passover, a holiday that celebrates the ancient Israelites' liberation from slavery, embeds within its modern meaning the sense of freedom, and sets into motion the national days of Holocaust Memorial Day, moving on to Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers, and finally culminating in Independence Day. However, for Israel, freedom and independence amounted to the Nakba — the Catastrophe — for the Palestinians.    

Even if different in scope, it can be argued that Israel has adopted Turkey’s stance of denial as a model toward the Palestinian Nakba — the 1948 ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from the land — denying not only the existence of the event itself, which led to the forced expulsion or flight of 750,000 Palestinians, but also subsequently the erasing of the memory of a Palestinian past and the physical erasing of their presence in the geographical landscape of the country. In both countries, this has also included the use of legislation and courts to block the memory. 

It is time that Israel take the moral high ground and recognize the Armenian Genocide. No less important is the need to do away with its denial of the Palestinian Nakba. Otherwise, like Turkey, it will remain raveled in conflict. In both cases, the long road to reconciliation starts with the recognition of the crimes that paved the way for the founding of these subsequent nation-states. Only by recognizing this will it allow Israel – and Turkey - the much needed opportunity to move forward.  

*This article appeared in Haaretz on April 25, 2016. Click here for the link.

Dirty Deals: What Was the Agenda Behind Turkey's Erdogan Meeting American Jewish Leaders?*

Haaretz: “His government violates human rights on a massive scale, closes down media critical of his actions, and has openly sanctioned anti-Semitism. Is Erdogan trying to co-opt U.S. Jewish leaders to launder his reputation?”
Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made his way to Washington DC to take part in the Nuclear Security Summit. Unlike during the early years of his career, when Erdogan was met with fanfare in the U.S. capital, this time he received at most a lukewarm welcome from the White House and DC’s politicians and pundits alike, which was reflected in the media. Upon his arrival, the New Yorker published an article “Erdogan’s March to Dictatorship in Turkey,” and in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote that Erdogan is converting Turkey from a “democracy into a dictatorship.” 

Despite the bad press, Erdogan and his team struggled to promote an atmosphere of “business as usual.” This perhaps could have been sustained had it not been for the spectacle his security guards made – precisely demonstrating the turn to authoritarianism described by senior American commentators – by attacking journalists and protesters outside the Brookings Institute where he was due to give a speech.

And, after much speculation that U.S. President Barack Obama might snub Erdogan, in the end a private meeting was held, providing Erdogan with an important photo op for domestic consumption. However, just a day later, in a press conference, Obama rained on Erdogan’s parade by publicly voicing his deep concern for the “troubling” path taken by Erdogan for his country. 

Despite all the bad publicity, which also included a scathing open letter presented to Erdogan by U.S. foreign policy experts, the Turkish president received a very warm welcome from a coalition of U.S. Jewish groups and lobbies. Present at the meeting were the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

In fact, this is the second meeting to take place between Jewish leaders and Erdogan during the last two months, in which they have been discussing renewing ties between Turkey and Israel, in addition to issues related to Turkish Jews, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The first meeting took place on February 9 at Erdogan’s presidential palace in Ankara, also behind closed doors, and present at this one were also AIPAC and the ADL. 

Needless to say, the Jewish leaders showed little discretion in holding such a high-level meeting just as the Turkish leader was being grilled for the authoritarian steps his government is taking. There is no doubt that Jewish organizations have serious issues to bring up with the Turkish government, which until recently openly sanctioned anti-Semitism. However, didn't they talk about these issues just a month ago? Was another meeting that critical?

True, since the first meeting an Israeli tourist group was the subject of an ISIS attack in Istanbul and there are reports that Istanbul’s Jewish community was being specifically targeted by ISIS. However, it is highly unlikely that these American Jewish organizations can contribute much to this conversation. And if the meeting was designed to help smooth the path toward Israeli-Turkish reconciliation – does Israel really need their help in reaching an agreement with Turkey?

By meeting with Erdogan at such a low point, the Jewish organizations put out a strong message that they are willing to take sides in Turkey’s polarized political world and that the major clampdown on Turkish freedoms is not on the top of their agenda.

This comes as a slap in the face to the NGOs and Turkish citizens trying to combat anti-Semitism in Turkey, who – with or without American Jewish solidarity – will continue to wage their battles for freedom and liberalism in Turkey. The struggle against anti-Semitism in Turkey does not exist in isolation: anti-Semitism goes hand in hand with other forms of xenophobia and other acts of hate and that only an open and free society can take real steps to combat.

Indeed, if anti-Semitism in Turkey really was a burning issue for those U.S. Jewish groups, it’s ironic they sat down to meet the president who’s shutting down and sanctioning precisely those critical media outlets who speak out against hate crimes, while the pro-government press is still free to spread anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry.

The other question that begs asking: What's the new-found interest by Erdogan and his AKP ruling party toward American Jewish organizations? It seems like the engagement with the Jewish community serves Erdogan's purposes well. The meeting occurred at a point where, for some in the AKP, the time seems ripe to sacrifice the anti-Semitism card (that has played out well domestically from time to time) for the much needed public relations boost such a meeting could provide, not to mention the chance that Erdogan, having absorbed one conspiracy theory too many, may have hoped to impact influential Jewish figures in the hope they might provide a quiet form of pro-Turkish lobbying in the corridors of DC power. There is no evidence to support or refute this contention yet.

Of course, what seems to be a growing bond between American Jewish groups and the Turkish government bears striking resemblance to the 1990s. Turkey then was in desperate need of a friend: a war with the PKK in its southeastern regions led to rampant human rights violations against its civilian population and international criticism. Turkey tacitly appealed to U.S. Jewish organizations, suggesting a kind of immoral tradeoff:  in exchange for Turkey bolstering ties with Israel, those Jewish groups would lobby on behalf of Turkey, one permutation being a pointed silence about the suffering of Turkey's Kurds. Some U.S. Jewish groups went as far as to act behind the scenes against the recognition of the Armenian genocide. 

Now, two decades later, Turkey is once again embroiled in a war with the PKK, and once again we see a tsunami of human rights violations executed by the Turkish government, with whole neighborhoods in the Southeastern cities of Cizre and Sur (among others) being utterly devastated.

I hope I am wrong. I hope that last week's meeting between American Jewish organizations and Erdogan  won't become a repeat of the ethical iniquity of the 1990s which until today this remains a moral stain, when we witnessed how the recognition of acts of genocide was trivialized in the name of Turkish-Israeli arms deals that in the end themselves only led to more death.

Only time will tell if these American Jewish groups soon will be back in the halls of the U.S. Congress lobbying for a government that’s increasingly and justifiably isolated in world opinion.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on April 5, 2016. Click here for the link.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Turkey's desperate need to reconcile with Israel (following Istiklal Blast)*

Haaretz: “The ruling AKP party, used to sanctioning extreme anti-Israeli rhetoric and even blatant anti-Semitism, has condemned the anti-Israeli hate tweet of a party activist after the Istanbul bombing. It's is a sign of how actively Turkey is now courting Israel.”

Louis Fishman March 20, 2016

Saturday morning, a suicide bomber blew himself up on Istiklal, Istanbul’s main pedestrian avenue. An Israeli group on a culinary tour of the city took the main force of the explosion, in what appears to be a random act directed at tourists, and not specifically at them as Israelis. Three Israeli citizens were killed and eleven injured, in addition to an Iranian who succumbed to fatal injuries; a Turkish family, including a two year old toddler and her father, were hospitalized in serious condition. 

This is the fourth bomb to go off in Turkey in the last two months which cumulatively have killed over 80 people. Two bombs have hit tourists in Istanbul, with those attacks believed linked to ISIS sympathizers, and the two recent Ankara bombings directed at Turkish citizens were claimed by TAK, a militant Kurdish organization, an offshoot of the outlawed PKK, whose most recent bombing happened just a week ago killing 37 people. Last October, an ISIS sympathizer killed over a hundred people at a leftist pro-peace rally in Ankara as well.  

Saturday's bombing sadly did not come as a surprise: The American and German embassies had issued warnings, with many Turkish citizens themselves avoiding Istiklal for fear of an imminent attack. 

Immediately following the attack on Saturday, Turkey’s social media was saturated with misinformation, including claims that another bomb had been detonated in Istanbul’s upscale neighborhood of Nisantasi. Very soon rumors began to emerge that among the injured was a group of Israelis. At first, this seemed far-fetched, since even before the 2010 Gaza Flotilla incident and the breakdown of Israeli-Turkish relations, Israeli groups and tourists are rarely seen in Istanbul outside of its airport, which serves as a major hub onwards for Israeli travelers. 

Upon hearing that Israelis were among the injured, Irem Aktas, a low-ranking member of AKP who headed one of Istanbul’s AKP women’s branches and a declared Erdogan fan, tweeted that she wished death upon the Israelis injured. The hateful tweet took off like wildfire, retweeted by Turks disgusted by her words, and migrating quickly to the international press; not surprisingly, her sentiments received some praise as well. 

However, unlike past incidents, when extreme anti-Israeli rhetoric, often bleeding into blatant anti-Semitism, has not only been sanctioned but at times even coopted by AKP government officials and their zealous supporters, this time – commendably - party officials came out strongly against Aktas. She now faces disciplinary action and possible dismissal from the party

This move by the AKP comes at a time when Turkey and Israel have been putting serious efforts at renewing ties. Last January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who until recently never missed an opportunity to publically disgrace Israel, shocked many when he stated that it is not just Israel that needs Turkey but “we also need Israel.” In fact, during the last few months Turkey has made numerous statements that makes it appears almost as if it is courting Israel. 

Turkey’s reconciliation with Israel has more to do with geopolitics than a new found love for the Jewish state. Since relations between the two countries went sour, Turkey has lost most of its regional clout. This is true in Syria where it has lost a great deal of its influence and, following the downing of the Russian jet last October, a new need for natural gas arose, which Israel is able to answer. Lastly, Turkey’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia—an unspoken ally of Israel—also came at a cost, while its relations with Egypt are still strained.    

Domestically, as a diversion from clamping down on opposition voices and the seizing of media outlets, cutting a deal with Israel would give it much needed credit with Washington. This is of the utmost importance now also due to Turkey’s renewed war in its own backyard, as it takes on the PKK in the southeastern Kurdish populated regions, which has led to flagrant human rights violations and death of innocent civilians (with hundreds of dead among Turkey's own forces). 

Last night, during a press briefing related to the bombing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked about the talks between Turkey and Israel. He took a very diplomatic stance, stating “We have encountered some delays in this process, not from a lack of trying but due to fundamental issues,” and that the goal was to reach “normalization.” Netanyahu also commented on Aktas’ tweet, calling it “outrageous,” and stating that he received assurances that action would be taken against her.

Even if the major stumbling block standing in the way of Turkish-Israeli reconciliation seems to relate to the Gaza blockade, it could also be a key to the solution. Israel isn't budging on Turkey’s demand to lift the blockade, but it might be leaning towards a partial lifting to satisfy Turkish demands, and in return Israel could plausibly demand guarantees that the Turkish government stop using Israel as its public punching bag and take steps at combatting anti-Semitism within its ranks. In that sense, perhaps Saturday’s bombing could be a turning point in relations.  

An agreement would also allow Turkey, if it really was interested, to invest in the West Bank and Gaza, and to begin to take real steps at making Palestinian lives better in place of the usual empty rhetoric. Nevertheless, the bombing once again highlights the fact that it is actually Turkey that now is in desperate need of renewed relations with Israel, while Israel has time on its side, knowing that in the current situation in Turkey, relations between the two countries only can remain limited in scope, or at least until some stability returns. 

For now, unfortunately, any hope for Israeli tourism to Turkey as a step towards normalization will have to be put on hold as well, not least due to the Israel foreign ministry's travel advisory warning against travel to Turkey. Sadly, the Israeli group who set out Saturday to discover Turkish culture and food became a part of a dangerous sequence of violence in a country over its head in grave issues that leaves no one untouched.  

This article appeared in Haaretz on March 20, 2016, click here for link