Monday, March 22, 2010

Home to Israelis and Palestinians: Jerusalem, a Shared City

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lest We Speak: the AKP and Freedom of Expression

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

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

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

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

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

*A detailed list of articles relating to issues of Freedom of Expression can be found on Bianet at the following site: