Tuesday, June 29, 2010

One Demonstration Two Prides Two Cities: Tel Aviv Istanbul (Part One: Tel Aviv)

PART ONE: Tel Aviv (See Photo links at end of post)

From my former posts and the news most people can pretty much figure out that I was caught in a whirlwind of events. Unfortunately, like so many people in the Middle East daily events which we see on the nightly news have a way of influencing our daily and personal lives. From my pasts posts also some of you will also remember that I made a conscious decision to not sit idle in self-exile but to bring myself back to the state I was in before graduate school; one of activism and speaking out.

During the last month I participated in three events which I will present also in pictures in links you can see at the bottom of this post. Following the incident of the Israeli raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara I found myself caught in the middle. After leaving Turkey, I arrived to Israel and like so many leftists knew there was going to be a demonstration on the first Saturday following the event which occurred on Monday morning (May 31). First of all Saturday June 5th was the anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, marking the subsequent 43 year occupation of the Palestinian territories. No longer one needs to look in the newspapers to find out when and where a demonstration is; already a few days before the demonstration I found out on facebook that Peace Now, Meretz, the Israeli Leftist Hadash party, and other leftists groups were holding a demonstration entitled “this government is sinking all us –meaning- bringing us all down.

In total about 6000 people demonstrated with the greatest turn out being the Jewish and Palestinian members of Hadash (the Communist party). However, even if the Zionist left Meretz party and Peace Now produced a small group, they turned out in greater numbers than the last demonstration I participated against the Gaza Raid in December 2008. Of course, with the Labor party completely abandoning the Left, the days of demonstrators reaching 50,000-100,000 are over. Importantly, the demonstration was widely broadcasted on Turkish television showing that there is an opposition in Israel and de facto challenged the radical voices in Turkey who try (and somewhat successfully) to convince the Turkish population that the Israeli state is one only of killers and a war mongering people, with their rhetoric basically gushing out anti-Semitic slogans. Furthermore, for me the demonstration was a sign that if the Israeli left does some real soul searching they might even have a chance to rebound from the massive defeat of the last elections.

The next demonstration I went to was more of a party than a demonstration. The annual LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) Pride parade in Tel Aviv has turned into a massive show of force where serious topics are mixed with a love and pride, attracting this year around 100,000 gay and straight participants/protestors. Starting off with politicians and members of the community, we were reminded that even in Tel Aviv where we live in an open liberal paradise we cannot forget that last year’s armed attack on a gay youth organization, killing two members and injuring over 15, still remains unresolved. This tragic event was relatively uncovered in the foreign press once it was clear that it was not a “terrorist attack” but done apparently as an “inside job” – by an Israeli Jew. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Tel_Aviv_gay_centre_shooting_spree) And as Israelis are so trained to do, at the official opening of Pride we all stood a moment of silence for those killed and injured in the attack, and honored one of the victim’s mother who presented a moving speech of what it was like losing her son and her role in the LGBT parent support group.

The main parade this year had to compete with two other “alternative” parades which focused more on protest figuring that we cannot be “free” as long as we are oppressing Palestinians. However, these small alternative parades also joined the official opening, which was followed by the exiting of thousands of people to the beginning point on Bograshov Street. From there the floats took off and thousands upon thousands more joined in for what would become one of the most festive events I have witnessed in Israel outside of Independence Day celebrations. The march ended at the beach where a huge party lasting until the beginning of Shabbat (7:00 pm).

What was most surprising was the fact that twenty years ago only a few hundred people would have joined in. For the secular Jewish society in Israel, living an alternative lifestyle has become somewhat of a norm, with gays and lesbians serving in the army, receiving rights that in the US would seem impossible, and adopting and bringing children into the world. Further, more and more religious Jews are coming out and demanding that the religion take them into consideration and offer them expression to their natural feelings. Still, we should not forget that two major communities were not present: the ultra-orthodox and the Palestinians citizens of Israel. In reference to the latter, there are LGBT Palestinians organizations in Israel however co-existence in Pride exists mainly in Haifa, with no visible presence of Arab organizations in Tel Aviv. Of course, there were Arabs intermingled within the thousands of people. However, historically Tel Aviv, the first “Hebrew city” has never been friendly to the indigenous Palestinian population despite its large “liberal” population and their voting for the “left” parties.

In the end it is important to state that even if it seems as if Pride was only a great huge outdoor party, it is indeed a demonstration of pride and it is very political. Israel has taken great steps to allow the LGBT community to thrive. Still if we are not careful the bubble of Tel Aviv can burst. Poverty and war –and the lack of will among its leaders to reach a peace agreement- are serious threats to the stability of the State in general, not to mention to the community.

I would like to take this opportunity also to state that the new trend in Gay Pride parades worldwide to bash Israel while remaining blind to their own injustices is in itself an injustice. On the other hand, the trend of the Israeli foreign ministry to portray Israel as a leader of gay rights in the Middle East as a way to discredit Iran, Hamas, and other countries and organizations is also an equally unrelated pathetic use of human rights to gain irrelevant points in a long worn out conflict.

Part Two “Istanbul Demonstrations and Pride” will be posted in a few days along with a link to the photos.

Link to pictures of the Tel Aviv Demonstration and Pride



Link to short TRT coverage of the Tel Aviv demonstration (in Turkish):


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Getting the Word Out: Attempts to Show the “Other Side,” in the aftermath of the Gaza Flotilla

From the moment I heard about the incident last week, I decided to work to show each side (Israeli and Turkish) the “other side.” When interviewed in Istanbul by the Emmanuel Rozen for Israel’s Second channel, I was skeptical of what the media wanted. Well it turned out that I, along with another Israeli friend, were “cut” from the show. Clearly, it was not the narrative he wanted to hear. We were not scared and we openly criticized Israel, and were also critical of Turkey. Needless to say, his show ended up only portraying Israeli businessmen and their “wives” packing up and leaving Istanbul, or opting to stay and live under the fear of being “knocked-off.” The show ended with the Israeli (of Turkish origin) coming to the conclusion that his textile factory might have to be moved to Romania, and Emmanuel Rozen saying “farewell” to Istanbul for the last time since (perhaps) it will no longer be possible for Israelis to travel to the beloved city. Israeli TV Channel One also aired a special new story about Istanbul on their weekly Friday night “Yoman” broadcast. In this story, Istanbul was portrayed as if had turned into the “Islamic” Republic of Turkey, making numerous comparisons with Iran. In short, the Israeli television, quite similar to the Turkish television coverage, opted out to exaggerate the situation and to induce fears.

It was for this reason, I was so happy to meet the TRT (Turkish State Television) television crew in Tel Aviv at the protest I participated in against Israel’s action against the Humanitarian Aid ship, and against the (continued) 43 year occupation of Palestinian territories. While Turkish television was filled with pictures of the Israeli soldiers capturing the ship, and of Israeli politicians expressing a stance so defiant that even most Israelis would find difficult to accept, TRT and the Anatolian Press Agency wanted to show Turkey that there is a different side to the Israeli public. While they questioned the protestors about their feelings, I turned towards them and spoke Turkish. Quite shocked, they turned the camera towards me and I stressed how sad I was over the incident and that if any blame is placed it should be on the government and not the army. The clip along with many other voices of Israelis was aired on primetime Turkish television and reproduced on online sites also in the format of an article. From some friends, I learned that in general this protest had wide-coverage in Istanbul.

Following the demonstration, I agreed to meet with the crew to provide a more in depth interview. For this I organized two more Israeli academicians to join in: Dror Zeevi and Tsameret Levi, both who have lived in Turkey for an extended period of time. This show should be aired on a special program sometime next week. For this interview, we shared our thoughts about the current situation, Israeli-Turkish relations, and our experiences of living in Turkey. I think it should be stated that regardless of what we said on Turkish television, such interviews are a step in the right direction, working to salvage what we can from the “good-old” days.

We should remember that without Turkey it will take an even longer time for Israel to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians and Syria. Furthermore, Israelis also need Turkey, and not only in terms of billion dollar tank deals. We need Turkey since this was the only Middle Eastern country where Israelis could be Israeli, explore new cultures, and strengthen academic and personal ties (the list goes on and on).* Lets hope that more attempts at defusing the situation, as the case with TRT, will be become more widespread in Turkey and in Israel.

*In the future, I hope to write a blog generally addressing why strong ties between Israel and Turkey will benefit both countries, and the Middle East in general.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Divided between Turkey and Israel: the Days following the Gaza Flotilla Incident

During the last few days I have been emotionally bombarded by the wave of reactions to the Gaza Flotilla Incident. My facebook page seemed to reflect my multiple personalities of living in three cities: Istanbul, Tel Aviv, and New York. One facebook friend placed a Israeli flag, with the star being replaced with a swastika, while another Turkish friend called to condemn all expression of anti-Semitism. One Israeli friend praised Israel’s actions as “self-defense,” calling his friends to join a protest in front of the Turkish embassy, while another Israeli friend called Israelis to demonstrate against the Israeli attack of innocent civilians. My Palestinian friends expressed their solidarity with the Turkish victims. My American friends were divided.

In Turkey, personal reactions were similar to those I witnessed during the Second Lebanon War. In general, it is strange when friends start to tell you to keep a low profile (due to being an Israeli citizen among other things). However, at the same time it is comforting since it was done with good intentions. While I did not poll my Jewish and other non-Muslim friends, no one could deny the tension; however, some of my Turkish friends (both Muslim and non-Muslim) thought that this was preposterous to think that the Jewish community would be attacked in retaliation. However, clearly it was not baseless with Prime Minster Erdogan numerous times reminding Turkish citizens of the need to protect the Jewish community, and in one speech he even went so far to make it clear that all Israelis whether consulate workers, tourists, or businessmen should be treated with the utmost respect and not be targeted. Lastly, it should be noted that as usual in such times, one Jew wrote an apologetic letter to his “Turkish brothers,” explaining to them about how Turkish Jews have far stronger ties with Turkey than Israel.

In the midst of all of this, I was interviewed by Israel private Channel Two station about what it was like being an Israeli in Turkey, together with an Israeli woman who is studying in Istanbul. As I have lived in Turkey off and on for years I experienced less pressure to leave the country. However, this student was bombarded by family and friends pleading with her to return home immediately, as if at any one moment she would be lynched. The truth is that this is the last thing which occurred to me and as individuals the threat seemed limited. However, in my opinion, there is no doubt that “official representatives” of Israel were in immediate danger and thus were wise to leave.

Arriving to Israel yesterday (Thursday, June 3) to participate in my daughter’s school program, I had to make clear both in Israel and in Turkey that I was not “packing my bags” and escaping with what I had. Here in Israel, while many are defending the IDF’s right to defend themselves on the ship, most people when asked agree that it should have never reached this stage, and that simply isolating the ship in the ocean without engaging in any physical contact with the protestors would have been ideal; in other words, it seems that most Israelis are silently opposed to this government’s lack of experience in dealing with issues of defense and public relations. I imagine demonstrations against Israel’s reaction and the Gaza blockade will be held on Saturday evening and will report to all if I take part. Then there are those who are demonstrating for Israel’s right to defend itself across from the Turkish embassy. There is a limit to such audacity (hutzpah) and like some of their Turkish counterparts who do not understand why at all they are demonstrating, I will relate to this phenomenon in a separate blog hopefully.

Lastly, I wanted to end with two people who I thought really provided me with a glimmer of hope. One was a Turkish man I met on the flight to Israel who decided to attend his friend’s wedding in Israel despite the situation. Clearly, he was against Israel’s actions but did not find it proper to boycott his friend’s ceremony. Second, there was a fellow who I met on the bus going to the northern Tel Aviv region. He was working on a project to bring Turkish students to Israel, which unfortunately fell victim to these events. However, even while hesitantly supporting Israel, he seemed determined to continue to work to strengthen ties between Turkish and Israeli citizens. For me this was important to see. In the end, we are all human and it is in the worst of times we need to struggle to go against the current and to retain personal ties even when our nations go to war, or in this case a virtual war on the screens of our televisions.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Gaza Flotilla: the making of a Greek Tragedy

While I will be elaborating more on the Israeli attack on the Gaza Flotilla, today I will offer some limited thoughts. First and foremost, and most sadly, the outcome of foreign ships trying to break the Israeli blockade itself would not have reaped such a tragedy. However, once coupled with the Turkish contingent it was clear that both sides were in for a showdown. For me, the weekend was spent thinking about how and when this clash would happen. Like a Greek tragedy, it was clear that there would be no good ending to this story. The activists would fight a victorious battle and not give into Israel occupying their ship. Would they radically fail? No, their lost battle would turn them into heroes. They could not have wished for a better outcome.

The clear loser in all of this is Israel itself and its international legitimacy. What was the Israeli government thinking? Why did they not simply line battleships and literally block the entrance of the ship. Yes, a diplomatic brouhaha would have ensued with serious international negotiations setting in. However, having your soldiers board a civilian ship in International Waters? What a pathetic use of soldiers, placing them in place of negotiations. Thus it needs to be clearly stated: Israel in the end, no matter how they play the cards, is the guilty party. Guilty of killing civilians not in their territory; guilty of sending an ill prepared capture of the ship; guilty of causing irreparable damage to Israel’s image. As eloquently stated by Yossi Sarid, this was the work of “Seven Idiots in the Cabinent.” http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/seven-idiots-in-the-cabinet-1.293418

Also the Turkish government needs to take a share of the blame. Why did they not intervene? While Prime Minister Erdogan and his Foreign Minister were traveling throughout South America, did not think to derail this tragedy. They certainly knew that these ships were full of woman and children and that some sort of clashes would ensue. Once again, Erdogan has failed; how will he defuse the massive wave of anti-Israel protestors? Will he be able to extinguish the fire that has been ignited? Will he be able to progress a peace initiative? Certainly, the worsening of relations with Israel will only make a peace agreement even farther away.

In this article, I have yet to mention criticism of the Free Gaza Campaign. Since I have been writing this blog, I have stated that I am against the blockade of Gaza. The Turkish contingent represented by the radical IHH (Insani Yardim Vakifi) foundation has shown their true colors in the past. The fact that the Free Gaza Campaign joined forces with them also shows what a desperate state of affairs they are in. Indeed, it was a reckless decision by the Campaign.

What is makes this case a Greek Tragedy however is the fact that Israel so willingly entered the trap and proved to the world that like in Gaza, they will use military force when they really should be negotiating.

Stay tuned for more......