Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Turkey: The Ball is in Your Court

Turkey: the Ball is in Your Court

As an Israeli living in Turkey off-and-on for a decade, I have seen relations between the two countries quickly deteriorate during the last year. Groups hostile to Israel have always existed and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories during the last few years have become somewhat of a norm. However, following last year’s war between Israel and Hamas, the two countries relations have deteriorated at such a speed that one wonders if the current debacle is part of a long term shift in Turkish foreign policy.

A little over a week ago, Prime Minister Erdogan announced the Israel was banned from taking part in a NATO military maneuver due to the Israeli’s action in Gaza. With a lot on Erdogan’s plate, such as the forging of new ties with Armenia, and the opening up of a public discussion about the Kurdish issue, it seemed like the perfect time for one of his seasonal public shaming of Israel, which happens time-to-time to distract the Turkish public from more pressing internal questions.

It should be noted that I protested Israel’s massive bombardment of Gaza, and the great death and destruction it caused. Furthermore, I believe Turkey has every right to criticize Israel; even in light of its own past. However, after viewing the television program Ayrilik, where Israeli soldiers are shown shooting Palestinian children point blank with no remorse, spitting on corpses, and setting up firing squads, I can no longer remain silent. This program dehumanizes every Israeli and is incitement at the highest level. It is a disgrace to Turkey and how its national television (TRT) agreed to air such a show is even more abhorrent.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is tragic enough and sadly has been held hostage by the pursuit of ratings. Israel bashing in Turkey is no more than a cheap shot that unites large parts of the political sphere from Islamist to leftist. The level of violence depicted in the program competes with the Turkish show Kurtlar Vadisi (The Valley of the Wolves), which was reprimanded as a result of its displays of bloodshed. Ayrilik, was aired at eight in the evening, and was rated for the general public, meaning the show was considered suitable for children to watch. These are the same children that were forced to stand for a minute of silence for the Palestinians during the Gaza campaign, which is not even done for Turkish soldiers or civilians killed in battle or terrorist acts. Placing hate in the minds of children, and older views alike, can only hinder efforts to reach regional peace, and I cannot fathom anything positive coming out of it.

Simply put, the repercussions of such a show can be tragic. Regardless, if the television producer can distinguish between an Israeli and a Jew, for many viewers, this is just confirmation of Jews massacring Muslims. During the Gaza Campaign, the Turkish Jewish community was subjected to pressures they had yet encountered, with protestors freely exchanging anti-Semitic gestures (not to mention the media). Numerous times during my last visit, I heard cases of Jews saying their time has come to leave Turkey. Ironically, many of them feel they will have a safer future in Israel. Who can promise the safety of a community in light of such blatant incitement?

Lastly, the other victim in this brouhaha is the peace itself. Turkey, as an ally of both the Jewish state and of Arab states, is one of the few countries who was capable of brokering a deal between Israel and Syria, and in my opinion, was well-suited to become a main broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Prime Minster Erdogan has proven his ability to take courageous steps on many fronts, most recently at reconciling his country’s differences with Armenia. However, the ball is in Turkey’s court and Erdogan’s recent actions towards Israel, and the Turkish television program, has only painted Turkish politics as petty, and has shown that he perhaps is not the bold politician he thinks he is.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Summer 2009 Part Two

Part Two of the Summer Series
The First Trip: Canakkale

Moving beyond Istanbul, is similar to moving beyond New York, and in some senses Tel Aviv. The urban bubble which I have chosen to close myself in –at least for now- is hard to exit. I find myself stuck within clear cut borders unable to exit. Since being in New York for example, I never venture beyond a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan. My only exit is the airport, and usually this is to fly to Istanbul. And, even when I fly to Tel Aviv, it is now via Istanbul.

During the last few years that I lived in Istanbul, I remained mostly within Sisli-Taksim-Tunel districts. Even to go to Besiktas seemed out of the way. However, during my first two years in Turkey, I lived in Ankara, and was able to travel around to such places as Cappadocia (one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen) and to Ayvalik, where I was studying Ottoman Turkish in a summer program. There was also the one summer that I went to Diyarbakir, Mardin, and Hatay. Yet for three years, I had not gone father than Kadikoy, a neighborhood which entails crossing the Bosphorus to get to.

My first trip this summer, when I would exit Istanbul, was to Canakkale, with the students of my study abroad course. One major component of this course, entitled Narratives of Turkey: Making History Making Memory, is to question how national narratives are created through monuments, art, museums, and music. Therefore visiting the war memorials, housed in the mass graveyard of Gallipoli where easily 100,000 soldiers died fighting in one of the most drawn-out and bloody battles of all times, seemed appropriate. Particularly interesting to me, was to see the different war monuments of the ANZAC and Turkish contingents so close to one another, situated just a few miles from one to the other. This in some sense reminded of war monuments in Israel, where in the Galilee the Jewish villages/cities have their monuments with the names of their martyrs placed in the center square, and then just a few miles away you can find monuments commemorating the Palestinian martyrs placed in the center of the Arab villages or cities.

Undoubtedly, the Turkish war monument is overpowering in size, which in scope resembles Anitkabir, Ataturk’s tomb in Ankara. Directly across from the monuments are the symbolic graves, which I am sure most forget that there are actually no bones within this exhibit. The yard housing these massive graves are organized by region and city of the once Ottoman Empire: names from Jerusalem, Damascus and Beirut can be found near those of Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara. Quickly, one can identify the names of Jewish and Armenian soldiers who died along side of their Muslim counterparts, ironically at the same time that the fate of Armenians in the Ottoman lands would be sealed forever.

Like any war monument, whether in Israel or the US, Germany, Russia, or Japan, these architectural structures shape our identity, and are essential in forming some longing camaraderie with those soldiers who died for different realities and under different circumstances. Historically, for the students it provided them time to reflect about World War One in general and at the same time politics of monuments. I was indebted to Cigdem, our guide, who in addition to my lectures, provided us with the different and even counter narratives. For me, the trip was important since as a historian of the late Ottoman period, I was able to come to one of the many spots that would change Turkish and Middle Eastern history forever, and would play a major role in the construction of a modern Turkish identity. Recently, in one of my classes at Brooklyn, a student reminded us that with history we should not ask ourselves “what if” questions. However, when writing about any great battle I think we all are tempted to ask, what if this had turned out differently!

next entry: From Kars to Trabzon