Thursday, May 30, 2019

Erdogan Has Just Made a Huge Mistake

Haaretz: "By cancelling the Istanbul elections, Erdogan has annulled a core tenet of democracy in Turkey. But it’s not an act of power: it’s an act of weakness, over-reach and exposes his increasing vulnerability"

The banging on pots, pans and saucepan lids, the whistling and the hooting from cars started almost immediately in neighborhood after neighborhood of Istanbul last night.

News was spreading of Turkey’s Supreme Election Council’s decision to annull Istanbul’s municipal mayoral election – disqualifying the anti-Erdogan opposition’s most resonant win from the local elections held on March 31.

Ekrem Imamoglu, who had swiped the huge metropolis away from Erdogan’s AKP, was stripped of his mayoral office just weeks after he had been certified as the winner. 

Imamoglu, a relative unknown before the mayoral campaign who has captured mainstream support not least among those who assumed Erdogan and his party had become invincible, took ownership of the moment. Addressing a hastily-organized rally in central Istanbul, he gave one of his best speeches to date.

He struck a defiant but upbeat note: "No one can block this nation’s democracy…we will never give in, because I know that when I walk, I will never walk alone," but is joined by the 16 million residents of Istanbul, working for all the people and not for the special interest groups with whom the AKP is inextricably linked.

He described the electoral commission’s ruling as a "treacherous decision" - his own CHP party's deputy chair called it "plain dictatorship" - and called for a unified effort to fight on: "They are trying to take back the election we won. You may be upset, but never lose your hope."

And he offered an optimistic but determined phrase as his campaigning slogan: "Everything is going to be just fine." That slogan, #herseyçokgüzelolacak, is already trending as a hashtag in Turkey. 

The EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that Turkey was in breach of its commitments as member of the Council of Europe: cancelling the elections "go against the core aim of a democratic electoral process to ensure that the will of the people prevails."

The Turkish Lira is also feeling the weight of the decision: it dropped sharply, standing now at 6.13 to the U.S. dollar. 

Imamoglu has already experienced what concerted political pressure orchestrated by Erdogan and his AKP looks like. On election night, the AKP candidate Binali Yilidirim, an Erdogan loyalist and former prime minister, declared victory even before the counting was over, despite clear data points showing Imamoglu holding the lead.

But Imamoglu pulled through and his slim victory of about 18,000 votes remained firm, even when it was reduced by numerous recounts demanded by the AKP.

It was a historic win – not only a humiliation for Erdogan, whose political career has always been tied to Istanbul, but a victory against stacked-up odds: serial underhand attacks by the AKP who turned state TV into their own private campaigning medium.

The Election Council’s decision to cancel the election was based on a strange technicality: that some polling officials were not civil servants – indicating that they had indeed capitulated to government pressure. It’s worth noting that opposition parties have failed numerous times in their attempts to challenge election resultsin the past, both in national and local elections.

Even before the March 31 elections, many correctly predicted that the nation’s capital, Ankara, was well in the reach of the opposition, not least because of Turkey’s economic woes - rising inflation and a crashing lira.

Istanbul, however, was a different story. A win for the opposition CHP seemed purely aspirational. This is Erdogan’s home turf, where he started his political career as mayor in 1994. For decades, the AKP performed well as the city’s rulers, cleaning it up and installing a state-of-the-art metro system. By 2010, Istanbul had become an international hotspot, attracting artists, tourists and businessmen alike. 

Following Erdogan’s violent crackdown on the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the AKP ran offtrack, handing over enormous infrastructure and building contracts to pro-government conglomerates. Since the economic crisis hit, over-ambitious half-built housing projects litter the city. 

The city’s much-vaunted new international airport, a stunning feat in size and capacity, has become a black hole for investors, and a literal grave for unseemly numbers of workers who died on the project. At least the economic downturn has meant Erdogan shelving his grandiose Kanal Istanbul project, a 30 mile seaway connecting the Black and Marmara seas. Experts had warned it risked extensive  ecological damage. 

The first sign that the AKP’s hold over Istanbul was waning was in the 2017 referendum, when the residents rejected Erdogan’s bid for centralized power which he won nationally by 51%. In the 2018 national elections the AKP made a transient comeback.

But with the economy in disarray, high unemployment, and a clear and wide CHP coalition-building strategy up to and including the largely Kurdish HDP party, Imamoglu’s victory in the mayoral elections built on recent years’ opposition momentum and closely mirrored the 2017 referendum results.

Before these elections, plenty of observers declared that Erdogan and his AKP could not afford to lose Istanbul, and that they would do everything in their power to win - even if that meant stealing the elections. The electoral commission’s decision clearly validates their prediction, and Erdogan’s attempt to nullify a core tenet of democracy.

But that’s not the most significant lesson from what’s happened in the last 24 hours in Turkey.

The cancelation of the Istanbul elections is actually a worst-case scenario for Erdogan and the AKP. The over-confidence its hardcore supporters had in the party’s ability to win - or, some might argue, in their ability to pull off widespread fraud - has turned into nothing less than a political fiasco on a scale the ruling party has ever encountered. 

We are witnessing a newly-vulnerable party apparatus - insecure, weak, and divided. A party that has hit political bankruptcy. All this, playing out in the public sphere, not behind closed doors. This is nothing short of an embarrassment for the AKP.

Such a blatant flouting of laws and norms should never have happened, but it has. And now, even in the eyes of some of once-enthusiastic supporters, the AKP has illegitimately taken away the mandate of the people. People are angry, and they certainly have a right to be.   

Yesterday’s Election Board ruling indeed marks a sad day for Turkish democracy, but it certainly does not mean that the game is over. It is clearer than ever that the AKP, even after 17 increasingly authoritarian years in power, has not and will not gain a total political monopoly over Turkey – and that the stamina and perseverance of the opposition cannot be understated. 

That diverse and potentially fractious opposition needs to stay on track, united, and absorb the wise and responsible lead of Imamoglu himself, who from the beginning has sought to keep his campaign positive and not be trapped by deliberate provocations. 

The opposition must go into the Istanbul campaign 2.0 knowing that it has won this election once before. The political momentum, vigor and natural justice is on its side. It is Erdogan and the AKP who have invited this fateful, uphill battle on to themselves.

*This piece was originally published in Haaretz on May 10, 2019. Please click here for the link.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Netanyahu and Erdogan Agree: Their Political Foes Are Traitors and Terrorists* [Or a look into how the Israeli and Turkish political systems are more similar than you might think]!

Haaretz: Both Turkey and Israel face elections, and both leaders are playing from the same ethno-nationalist political playbook. But in Turkey, the leftist opposition is still alive and kicking - even from jail."

It was a rare occasion: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - famously averse to being grilled by Israeli reporters – late last week made a surprise visit to the country’s most popular TV news outlet for an impromptu interview. The channel’s two political reporters seized the rare moment and interrogated him about yet more accusations of corruption and other campaign queries. 

But they certainly didn’t ask him to justify his calling the Arab parties in the Knesset supporters of terrorism. And they certainly didn’t challenge his recent remark that, "Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People - and them alone."     

That comment sparked international condemnation, not least from Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s top aide, Ibrahim Kalin, tweeted: "I strongly condemn this blatant racism and discrimination. 1.6 million Arabs/Muslims live in Israel. Will Western governments react, or keep silent, under pressure, again?"

Both Israel and Turkey are deep in election season, with Turkey’s municipal elections coming up on March 31, and Israel’s national elections on April 9. A perfect time for mud-slinging, not least on Twitter, between the two countries, who maintain strong economic ties despite their regular, often hypocritical, spats and deep foreign policy chasms. 

Triggered by Kalin, Netanyahu lashed out against Erdogan: "Turkey’s dictator Erdogan attacks Israel’s democracy while Turkish journalists and judges fill his prisons. What a joke!" Not to be outdone, at an election rally Erdogan described Netanyahu as a "tyrant who slaughters 7-year-old Palestinian kids."

This exchange was a salutary reminder to Palestinian citizens of Israel not be too quick to embrace support coming from Turkey. Despite Ankara's sympathetic tone towards them, the Turkish president is not a champion of minority rights. Erdogan and his ruling AKP party have serially smeared the largely Kurdish minority supporters of the leftist HDP party as terrorists, and more generally constantly engaged in delegitimizing Turkey's Kurdish ethnic minority.

Despite the histrionics between them, how close, in fact, is the rhetoric employed by Erdogan and by Netanyahu regarding the politics of citizenship and exclusion in their respective fiefdoms. 

For these elections, Netanyahu seems to be taking his political maneuvering straight from Erdogan’s playbook.

Like Erdogan, who since last June’s crucial presidential and parliamentary elections built a coalition with the far-right MHP party to survive, with its Kurdish citizens, their dignity and rights paying the price, Netanyahu’s move to bring the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party into the Knesset - with Israel's Palestinian citizens paying the price - was also a desperate move born of political necessity. 

Both leaders were forced, and  not so unwillingly, to turn towards ultra-nationalist parties and rhetoric to maintain their control. But that move was facilitated by the sympathy that a sizeable proportion of both the Israeli and Turkish public buy into the same broad school of racist and nationalist narratives, and are either enthusiastic about - or not bothered by - the exclusion of each state's largest ethnic minorities, around 20% of the overall population.

Both Turkey and Israel are ethno-nationalist states that insist their minorities have to conform to the national needs of the majority, rather than in the path taken by most liberal democracies, where the majority recognizes the needs of - and protects - the minority. 

While Kalin was quick to bash Israel’s Jewish Nation State Law, it’s worth remembering that within the Turkish constitution, "Turks" alone are enshrined as the citizens of the state; Kurds and other ethnic minorities are not recognized in law, and Erdogan has not made any efforts to alter this during the 15 years he has been in office.  

Kurds are denied the right to education in their mother tongue. Palestinians in Israel study in Arabic from K-12, but are denied the right to study in their mother tongue at university level. 

And the similarities don’t stop there. 

In Israel, the new anti-Bibi opposition hope, the Kachol Lavan party, has made it clear from the start that it will only form a government with "Zionist" parties, a code word for excluding Arabs, just as many in Turkey’s main opposition party, the CHP, would never stomach governing alongside the mostly Kurdish HDP. 

Back in 2016, some of the MPs from Turkey’s secular CHP even joined forces with the AKP to lift the parliamentary immunity of HDP Kurdish MPs, with predictable results: those parliamentarians now sit in jail.

In the last Knesset, Israeli Labor party MKs joined forces with the Likud to try to lift the immunity of the outspoken Palestinian nationalist of the outgoing Knesset, Balad MP Haneen Zoabi, and have tried in the past to block her from running in elections. Many Israelis wish for Zoabi the same fate as  another outspoken woman MP, Sebahat Tuncel, from the HDP, who sits in a Turkish jail. 

Certainly, there are still opposition parties in both Turkey and Israel who would consider sitting in a government with the mostly Kurdish HDP or Arab parties respectively, but it is clearly a taboo for the mainstream parties – and for much of the public. 

This ethno-nationalist consensus considers members of the Jewish and ethnic Turkish majorities who do join forces with the oppressed minorities as traitors. 

In Israel, the leftist Hadash is a historic Jewish-Arab party, even though the majority by far of the voters are Palestinian. When right-wing parties tried to get the Palestinian nationalist Balad party banned earlier this month, they also targeted Hadash’s outspoken Jewish activist, Ofer Cassif. Both bans were overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court. 

The Jewish constituency in Hadash (running on a joint ticket with Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al party) often is ignored by Israeli pundits, and even those among the Zionist left, who simply brush off Hadash as an "Arab" party. They’re the same Jewish leftists who remained silent when Hadash’s center in Tel Aviv was recently raided by right-wing activists. Ironically, the Israeli police ended up arresting a Hadash activist, and not those attacking the political gathering. 

They’re the same Jewish leftists who were so repulsed by Netanyahu’s newfound love for the successors of the Jewish supremacist rabbi Meir Kahane, but did not utter a word at the banning of Cassif. While most of the Zionist left just ignores the small minority of Jews standing in political solidarity with Arabs, the right wing in Israel actively denounces them as traitors.

There's an easy comparison in Turkey, where Erdogan recently mocked the HDP co-chair, Sezai Temelli, who is not Kurdish, after he said he thought the HDP would sweep the vote in Kurdistan (southeastern Turkey).  Erdogan's response? "Look at the man, he is not even a Kurd," adding that if he really loves Kurdistan, "there is a Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. So he can go the hell there."

Sounds familiar? It is the exact mirror image of the common Israeli anti-leftist trope: If you love Palestinians so much, go live in Gaza under Hamas.  

Few dissidents from the Israeli Jewish left are willing to join the Palestinian minority in a unified party. But in Turkey, the HDP has found far more success in bringing over ethnic Turkish voters.

In fact, the HDP is a coalition of leftist Turkish parties that joined together with a Kurdish majority. That alliance has fueled electoral success in three national elections since 2015, crossing the 10% threshold implemented decades ago to keep Kurdish nationalists out of parliament. 

This unique precedence of unity within a political party between Turkish leftists and a Kurdish majority not surprisingly inspired Ayman Odeh, the head of Hadash, who in 2015 was often compared to the HDP’s now imprisoned leader, Selahattin Demirtas, as an example of how to create a innovative political reality. The HDP also has caught the attention of the growing Jewish-Arab protest group Omdim BeYahad (Standing Together), which focuses, like the HDP, on civil rights struggles that build bridges between Jewish and Arab activists. 

In fact, the Israeli Jewish left could learn a lot from the HDP. Fearing it won't cross the electoral threshold, the leftist Meretz party worked day and night to run together with Israel’s Labor party – and failed. Why didn't Meretz look to Hadash or the Arab lists for a joint list? That kind of coalition building would have shaken up the Israeli political system and created a serious leftist movement to challenge Israel's growing fascism. 

For most Israelis, comparing what they consider to be a perfectly well-functioning democracy with the authoritarianism of Erdogan's Turkey is ludicrous.

How does Israel resemble a country where the Kurdish political leadership is behind bars, which jails its journalists and has suffocated any real opposition voices? It's all a far cry from what is happening in Turkey...Or is it? 

We can't speak about Turkey’s treatment of Kurds without speaking of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, those under almost 52 years of occupation. Do we need reminding that Gaza's Palestinians are regularly shot on the border while protesting? How many Palestinian civilians have died as result of airstrikes? 

Have Israelis forgotten that the Palestinian politician Khalida Jarrar was held for two years in Israeli administrative detention with no charges being brought against her? And, what about the hundreds of Palestinians held and judged by a military, not civil, justice system? How many more minors, like Ahed Tam/imi was, are behind bars? 

The truth be told, both Turkey and Israel, whose own propaganda marketed them for years as the only democracies in the wider Middle East, have maintained control of their ethnic minorities through a system of political and actual violence.

And, while Kurds can integrate into the Turkish political world if they forfeit parts of their identity, that’s not an option for the Palestinians citizens of Israel. Does that make the Turkish system better than Israel's? 

Consider the flip side: Is Israel, which maintains a façade of democratic equality but rules over 2.5 million people with no right to vote in its elections, better than a country that regularly jails its political dissidents? 

Turkey and Israel can find plenty of mud to throw at one another, but the unseemly contest ends up exposing their own oppressive systems. In this war of words, no one comes out clean. 

And everyone loses. The Kurds and Israel’s Palestinian citizens struggle night and day for even basic rights with impoverished political capital. But perhaps the bigger losers in this gaming of democracy are Israel’s Jews and the Turks, who fail to see that the only path to a true democracy requires solidarity with and support for the ethnic minorities among them. 

This article was originally published in Haaretz on March 27, 2019. Click here for the link.

Istanbul's 'Fake Auschwitz': What Happened When a Turkish Movie Gala Recreated a Nazi Death Camp on the Red Carpet*

Haaretz: "The 'Cicero' movie premiere's red carpet led past a makeshift death camp, with SS guards, barking dogs, barbed wire and Achtung! sign. The backlash, which came not just from its tiny Jewish community, tells us something about Turkey today."

For the last few months, Turkish cinema buffs have anxiously been awaiting the opening of a home-produced World War II spy thriller.

The movie, entitled "Cicero," focuses on the life of the infamous Nazi spy Elyesa Bazna, who - in his capacity as valet to the British Ambassador to Turkey in Ankara, Sir Hugh Knatchbull-Hugessen - passed on top secret information to Hitler’s forces during 1943-1944. The spy who photographed a trove of top-secret documents was already the subject of a 1952 Hollywood movie, Five Fingers, starring James Mason. 

The Turkish film enjoyed great initial success at the box office - until photos of its opening gala event in Istanbul began to spread over Twitter.

Indeed, this was not your usual premiere screening. The production team wanted their upscale opening night crowd to actually sense the atmosphere of the World War II era in which the movie was set – so they went, unwisely, for full immersion. 

So the red carpet led to a makeshift concentration camp, equipped with SS guards and a vicious German shepherd barking in the background, with tattered remnants of inmates’ clothes strewn across a barbed wire fence on which was hung a sign: Achtung!

What made this faux-Auschwitz all the more strange, gratuitous and incongruous was that the movie itself is not at all focused on the Holocaust or on death camps, even if it does bring in the tragedy of German children who were victims of the T-4 Nazi euthanasia project. That at least would explain the toys and small shoes piled on top of the red carpet – but not the death camps, to which they were not sent.

Indeed, in an interview that took place following the screening, the producer, Mustafa Uslu, explained that the genocide of the Jews had already been presented on film so many times he decided to focus on a different aspect of the Nazis’ murderous policies. This of course begs the question why he opted for the sensationalized Holocaust setting for his gala, if he originally did not think it was "new" enough ground to be a central part of his film.   

The gala evening’s strange WWII recreation was only briefly covered by the giant media outlet Haber Turk, which ran the story under the headline, "The Nazi Concentration Camp Gala." The bare "which-celebrities-were-spotted" report used a normal tone, and didn’t question the visuals or propriety of partying alongside the props of genocide. With most Turkish media outlets subject to government pressures not to stir controversy, it is no wonder that no other major outlet tackled the topic head on. 

Indeed, had it not been for a Turkish tweet last week, that strange and distasteful evening would have gone mostly unnoticed. In his tweet, film critic Firat Yucel commented cynically that today’s Turkey would have forced Hannah Arendt to "[re]write the Banality of Evil," in addition to poking fun at the fact that it was reported many onlookers were "moved" by the theatrics.

Shortly after that, the story was shared by Ivo Molinas, the editor of Turkey’s Jewish newspaper, Salom. In his tweet, Molinas angrily asked: "How can we explain this [event’s] inexplicable ignorance and insensitivity?" 
Within no time, a Twitter storm was ignited, and in less than 24 hours the movie’s producer, who was ironically in Germany at the time, officially apologized to the Turkish Jewish community for the gala’s grotesque Holocaust theme and Nazi decor.

What’s striking about the outrage the incident caused was the large impromptu coalition that formed to protest it. It was not left to the tiny Jewish community of about 15,000 people to express disgust at the demeaning use of the Holocaust for commercial purposes, but thousands of other voices of protest converged from multiple sectors of Turkish society, both secular and religious, and pro and anti-government. 

In fact, it was this point that was missed by the producer’s apology, which should not have only been directed at the Jewish community but also to all those Turkish citizens who were legitimately offended. That solidarity also provides us with an interesting window into today’s deeply divided Turkey.

It’s more likely than not that this incident was triggered by inexplicable ignorance, rather than explicit anti-Semitism. But the support the Jewish community received in protesting the event serves as yet another example where Turkish Jews have enjoyed growing solidarity in response to cases of anti-Semitism on social media and within the public sphere. 

It is this part of the story that often goes missing in the numerous news reports that paint the Turkish Jewish community as suffering daily persecution, but misses out on the dynamism and agency of the community itself. 

It would be foolish not to recognize that the Turkish Jewish community is indeed facing difficult days. It is an aging community beset by the emigration to friendlier shores, both religiously and economically, of its younger generations, and Jewish communal life operates under extreme security measures, in the wake of past attacks on its organizations and synagogues. 

Then there are the moments when the community is subjected to verbal attacks and threats when Turkey and Israel get into one of their many spats; not to mention the conspiracy theories regularly splashed across the pages of the pro-government press, and anti-Semitic statements that reach all the way up to Erdogan and his inner circle. Even when those accusations are not specifically targeted at Turkish Jews, that hardly makes them any less anti-Semitic, hurtful, or offensive towards members of the community.

And, for those sensational headlines that Jews are fleeing from Turkey, one too need to remember that their emigration needs to be placed within the context of the general rise of secular Turks leaving the country due to the failing economy and rise in authoritarian laws. And, like this group of new expats, many of the Jewish emigrees often keep one foot in Turkey, for family and cultural reasons – just in case their new lives abroad do not materialize as they had hoped.  

One of the greatest developments that goes unnoticed about the Turkish Jewish community is how it is strengthened from within by its outreach towards Turkish society at large. That can be argued is the core reason we are witnessing the very vocal support against anti-Semitism, or, in this case, the outrage over the film gala.

That outreach includes lighting Hanukkah candles in public forums, and opening synagogues for concerts and educational events. Then there is the community’s promotion of the International Remembrance of the Holocaust Day and the memorials held for the victims of the 1942 Struma boat sinking, when hundreds of desperate Jewish refugees died just miles away from the Istanbul during World War II.

For these events, Turkish government officials are invited to take part, giving them official status. No less important is the presence of community members on social media regularly tweeting Jewish-related news in Turkish on numerous topics of interests. 

In addition to the communal newspaper whose readership goes beyond the Jewish community itself, there is the online site Avlaremoz (Ladino for "Let's Speak"), where young voices from the Jewish community, together with allies, provide critical analysis of news events related to the Jewish community and monitor closely anti-Semitic acts.

The platform also highlights historical events and is far more courageous in engaging in once taboo topics within their own community, such as LGBT issues, and Jewish relations with other communities: not only Turkish Muslims, but also to other non-Muslims, such as Greeks and Armenians. 

Certainly, the gala incident highlights the complex relationship between today's Turkey and its Jewish community: prevalent anti-Semitism, but also strong voices raised in defense of Jews and against other forms of hate speech.

Those voices are also synecdoches for a different Turkish future than the constrained and narrowing present. Just as the Jewish community transformed along with Turkey during the first part of the 2000s, questioning their history and rethinking their place in society, there is still significant parts of Turkish society, which - even if you don't see them protesting on the streets - are still there, and are committed to a more open, pluralistic Turkey.  

*This piece was originally published in Haaretz on February 5, 2019. Please click here for the link.