Guest Post: Actually, Israel Is Unique

April 22, 2013 § 4 Comments

Last week I argued that supporters of Israel – myself included – would be better off dropping the “pro-Israel” terminology, and that one of the reasons that Israel is not viewed as a normal state is because Israel’s supporters create a Manichean dichotomy that inadvertently keeps Israel a state apart. My brilliant and talented Israel Institute colleague Margaret Weiss, who holds degrees from Princeton and Georgetown and was formerly a Research Associate at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, disagrees with me, and so today I hand over the reins of O&Z to her so that she can explain why I am wrong:

I agree wholeheartedly that the pro-, anti- terminology that is inevitable in any discussion about Israel does Israel more harm than good.  I also agree that it is not very meaningful for one to reduce one’s thoughts about a country which, like all countries, is multi-faceted and complex, to the terminology of “liking” or “disliking” it.

But I think Michael is incorrect in pinning the blame for this categorization more heavily on the pro-Israel camp.  He writes that “Israel is virtually the only country in the world in which its supporters press people to loudly declare this support,” but it is in response to the pervasive demonization of Israel in the world that Israel supporters have adopted the pro-Israel categorization.  Through no fault of its supporters, the Jewish State is perpetually in the spotlight, to a degree that far exceeds the country’s size and influence in the world.

Michael also argues that “the pro-Israel delineation unnecessarily defines support for Israel according to an extremely high standard and creates a threshold that keeps people out who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily be so situated.” In discussions with people who label themselves pro-Israel over the years, I can recall very few, if any, instances in which the individual had no criticism of the Jewish State. Nor do Israel’s supporters unthinkingly and blindly agree with everything that Israel does.  Israel’s supporters understand that the label does not obviate criticism.  At the same time, it is also clear that some, for political reasons, adopt the pro-Israel label while indicating through their words and actions that Israel would do well to remove itself from the map.

I also disagree that it is the fault of Israel’s supporters that Israel is not viewed as a normal state.  Michael cites the expectation on the part of Israel’s supporters that the US should protect Israel at the UN with its veto power. But this expectation does not reflect the belief that there is never room to criticize Israel. Rather, Israel’s supporters know that even as dictators worldwide further restrict their people and people all over the world endure war crimes, torture and genocide, the UN focuses its attention on Israel.  In 2012, for example, the UN General Assembly adopted 22 resolutions targeting Israel and just 4 on the entire rest of the world despite the crimes of the Assad regime against its people, to offer just one example.  And this figure is representative of a trend in that body, dating back to the Zionism is Racism resolution of 1975.  If there were any hope of the UN acting in a fair and unbiased manner, Israel’s supporters would not adopt such a black-and-white approach.

The difference between Israel and a country like the U.K. is that even Argentinians who hate the U.K. and want them to leave the Falkland Islands, don’t expect or want the U.K. to leave the U.K.  The same cannot be said of Israel.  In the unique case of Israel, some of its detractors believe the state should not exist, period.


More On Ambassador Ricciardone and Fazıl Say

April 18, 2013 § 1 Comment

Yesterday I wrote a post taking the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, to task for his comments on Fazıl Say as reported by Hürriyet Daily News. According to HDN, when asked by reporters to comment on Say – who was sentenced to a 10 month suspended prison sentence for comments deemed to be insulting to religious beliefs – Ricciardone quoted his brother as saying, “A very bad piano player hit the wrong key.” I interpreted this comment to mean that Ricciardone believes that Say was out of line and that the Turkish court system acted appropriately in prosecuting and convicting him, and I was accordingly unsparing in my criticism of the ambassador. Since the piece quoting Ricciardone was published in HDN, which is an English language newspaper, the Turkish language version of the same paper – Hürriyet – has run a one paragraph article in which the quote attributed to the ambassador is slightly different. Hürriyet relates the line as, “Çok fena, piyanist yanlış tuşa bastı,” which translated means, “Too bad, the pianist pressed the wrong key.” To me, there is no substantial difference between this iteration and the original iteration, as I interpret this second version in the same way; the clearest and most obvious reading is that Ricciardone is making a joke about the Say case and implying that Say got himself into trouble for saying the wrong thing.

As I noted yesterday, Ricciardone has gotten into hot water with the Turkish government for being critical of crackdowns on journalists, the army, and general violations of freedom of speech. Indeed, I wrote in the last paragraph of my post, “kudos to him for his previous efforts to highlight abuses of democracy by the Erdoğan government.” That element is what makes this situation such an odd one, as given the entirety of his track record, I am surprised that our ambassador would say something so seemingly callous about the Say case and give cover to the Turkish government to defend Say’s verdict. Nevertheless, the quote as reported appeared to stand for itself, which is why I did not hesitate to be harsh with my criticism.

After I posted yesterday’s blog, it was suggested to me both publicly over Twitter and privately that Ricciardone’s comments could be interpreted in another way, which is that he was criticizing the decision rather than Say. In this reading, his reference to the bad piano player or the pianist means the court, and it is the court that hit the bad note. I think this is a stretch based on the actual comment, but I certainly cannot rule it out, particularly given Ricciardone’s recent history of trying to draw attention to Turkey’s more egregious behavior when it comes to violating freedom of expression. I consequently reached out to the ambassador in an effort to see if he was accurately quoted and whether he would like to clarify his comments, since as readers of this blog hopefully have seen, I am not a flamethrower and I do not harbor an ideological agenda but try to be the best and most accurate analyst I can be. I am not a journalist so I am reliant on what is reported by other but if I got this wrong, I wanted to be able to clarify, correct, and apologize for any mistakes I may have made. Following my reaching out, an embassy spokesperson got back to me today and said, ” The ambassador’s remarks were taken out of context.”

Now, is it possible that Ambassador Ricciardone was criticizing the court’s decision and expressing sympathy for Say, and that he did it in a clumsy manner that got misinterpreted? It certainly cannot be ruled out, and as I said, it would make sense based on the sum total of what we know that he would come down on Say’s side rather than the court’s side. On the other hand, interpreting the line that way requires some mental gymnastics, and the claimed missing context to the comments has not been provided, and most importantly the quote itself has not yet been disputed. So those are all the facts as I know them, and I will leave it up to my readers to decide what Ambassador Ricciardone intended when he commented on the Say case. I will say for myself that if Ambassador Ricciardone intended to express his support for Say and to criticize his conviction, then I unreservedly and without hesitation retract my strident and harsh comments from yesterday and personally apologize for maligning the ambassador, although I am not entirely sure that I am convinced of this interpretation of events quite yet. If there’s more on this to come, I will keep you all posted.

Occupy Our Embassy In Ankara

April 17, 2013 § 5 Comments


Earlier this week, Turkish pianist Fazıl Say was handed a 10 month suspended jail sentence by a Turkish court for the crime of insulting religious beliefs. Say’s sentence was based on a series of tweets he wrote a year ago quoting the famed medieval poet Omar Khayyam and voicing the belief that thieves and stupid people are always religious believers. In order to stay out of prison, Say has to avoid a relapse of his alleged crime for the next five years. Say is actually fortunate to be a famous and high profile person, as were he an ordinary Turkish citizen, he would already be serving time in prison and would not have had his sentence suspended, as the case of Abdulkerim U. – who was sentenced to six months in jail for insulting the prophet Muhammad on Facebook – vividly demonstrates.  In a move that perfectly encapsulates in one short moment the essence of Prime Minister Erdoğan and what makes him both a successful and infuriating politician, he responded to reporters’ questions about Say by smiling and saying, “Do not occupy our time with such matters.” Unsurprisingly, other government officials followed Erdoğan’s lead in dismissing concerns about the verdict and even justifying it, such as EU Affairs Minister Egeman Bağış who declared the need for people to learn to respect that which is sacred to others, which will no doubt come as great consolation to, say, Turkey’s Alevi community, which is used to having its beliefs and rituals routinely mocked by the prime minister.

On the other hand, observers who are not AKP members were not quite as non-plussed as Erdoğan and his coterie of followers. CHP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu did not pass up the opportunity to hammer away at the government and questioned whether Turkey actually has a justice system and declared that democracy in Turkey is at stake, and a variety of columnists including Yavuz Baydar and Murat Yetkin have both criticized the substance of the verdict and noted the damage to Turkey’s image abroad. Amnesty International also weighed in, calling the verdict a “flagrant violation of his [Say’s] freedom of expression,” and the EU expressed its concern and called on Turkey to take care in respecting freedom of speech. As is apparent, everyone outside of the AKP is taking the Say case very seriously and recognizes it as a stain on Turkish democratic aspirations.

Everyone outside of the AKP, that is, with one notable exception. U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone’s comments on the subject of Say’s sentence were that his brother David Ricciardone, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge, remarked to him that “a very bad piano player hit the wrong key.” Yes, you read that correctly: our government’s official representative in Turkey not only declined to condemn what is clearly a gross miscarriage of justice and a blatant violation of democratic values and practice, but tacitly endorsed the court’s decision and joked about it with reporters. I suppose that the good people of Massachusetts are fortunate that Judge Ricciardone is a state judge rather than a federal judge, since his understanding of the First Amendment seems to be on par with that of my 10 month old son. Moving onto the bigger culprit here, it is inconceivable that Ambassador Ricciardone’s initial reaction is one of anything other than outrage. Yes, we don’t want to be meddling in another country’s internal affairs and we want to respect laws abroad that are different from our own, and we also want to maintain a good relationship with the Turkish government, but none of that applies here. Plenty of Turks, both individually and institutionally, are criticizing the Say verdict to the high heavens, and so this does not fall into the category of respecting another culture. This is an instance where if we have any respect for our own democratic values, we are compelled to make it crystal clear that what has taken place with regard to Say and to Abdulkerim U. and to the other hundreds of Turkish citizens who get prosecuted on similar charges is completely unacceptable in our view. Ricciardone instead has chosen to act as a lackey for the Turkish government and turn a blind eye to behavior that we routinely call out on other occasions, and it is evident to me that this is becoming a chronic problem in our relationship with Turkey.

Both publicly and privately, U.S. diplomats who are in charge of our Turkey policy talk about the country as being more democratic now than it has ever been, and while acknowledging some problems with freedom of speech, the overarching and worrisome issues are generally swept under the rug in a disturbing fashion. As I noted a year ago, the U.S. needs Turkey on a host of regional issues, and so it studiously ignores Turkish bad behavior and sticks to the party line about the strength of Turkish democracy. It is one thing, however, to pretend that a problem does not exist, and quite another to contribute to that problem worsening. I am going to assume that the U.S. will express its displeasure with Turkey over the Say verdict behind the scenes, but backing up the government in such a public way like Ricciardone did is enormously damaging irrespective of what goes on later behind closed doors. Ricciardone has been criticized in the past, including just a couple of months ago, by the Turkish government for perceived interference in Turkey’s internal affairs, and kudos to him for his previous efforts to highlight abuses of democracy by the Erdoğan government, but it appears as if his response has been to go way too far in the opposite direction in an effort to curry favor with Ankara. If that is the case, his completely out of line and inappropriate response to the Say verdict should be the impetus for him to take a major course correction immediately.


The embassy says that Ambassador Ricciardone’s quote was taken out of context; please read my follow-up post –

Rethinking The Idea Of Pro-Israel

April 16, 2013 § 11 Comments

Back when I was a college senior majoring in history with a concentration in medieval Europe, I decided to write my honors thesis on William the Conqueror’s claim to the throne of England. My argument was that contrary to the universally accepted view among historians of that era, William did not actually have a legitimate legal claim to the throne and that Norman historiography was concocted ex-post facto to make it seem as if he did in order to justify the Norman invasion in 1066. Given that the House of Windsor and all of their forebears trace their lineage back to William, in making this argument I was casting aspersions on the legitimacy of the English royal house, and yet nobody ever asked or cared to know whether or not I was pro-England. Such a question would have seemed ridiculous and would have carried no resonance, as nobody thinks of themselves in such binary Manichean terms when it comes to our former colonial overlords. Whether one enjoys vacationing in historic Albion or detests England for its damp weather and the English insistence on referring to potato chips as crisps, people simply do not divide themselves into pro-England and anti-England camps, and neither do they feel the need to loudly declare their proclivities as a way of staking out political and ideological territory. Despite the close connections between the U.S. and Britain at all levels of state and society, whether or not someone supports Britain is not a political issue.

I now spend much of my time writing and thinking about Turkey. Sometimes I write things about Turkey that are complimentary and sometimes I write things about Turkey that take its government to task, and yet not once has anyone queried whether I am pro-Turkey or anti-Turkey, nor have I ever felt pressured to mark myself as one or the other. I am vociferous about my love of the country, its people, its culture, its food, but I can’t imagine ever describing myself as “pro-Turkey” only because it would seem like a ridiculous category in which to place oneself. If I walked around proudly tying my identity to this notion of being pro-Turkey, what would it even signify? Would it mean that I approve of everything the Turkish government does? That there is something about the metaphysical properties of Anatolia that I favor? That I just happen to like baklava and su boreği? I can tell you which academics and policy folks are hawkish on China and which ones are not, or which prominent DC thinktankers believe that the U.S. has been too tough on Russia since the end of the Cold War and which advocate for an even tougher approach, but I have never heard them labeled as pro-China and anti-China, or pro-Russia and anti-Russia. There is a reason when it comes to states, we generally do not define ourselves in relation to them as pro or anti.

That is, of course, unless we are talking about Israel. Everyone by now is familiar with the way that anyone with an opinion about anything having to do with Israel is immediately placed into one of two categories out of which it is increasingly difficult to escape. You are either pro-Israel or anti-Israel, and rarely is there room for a gray area. This relentless push to categorize comes from both sides, but in many ways it is actually driven by the pro-Israel camp. The stridently anti-Israel camp plays its role in this – and a quick perusal of the comments section of any foreign policy magazine article on Israel will quickly reveal the way the terms “pro-Israel” and “Zionist” are hurled as epithets – but it is the pro-Israel side that does a more thorough job of drawing boundaries. Politicians, pundits, journalists, and others are dubbed with the pro-Israel seal of approval, and those who are critical are dismissed as anti-Israel. While this is generally seen as a winning strategy, in many ways it actually does Israel more harm than good. As someone who firmly and unabashedly identifies with the pro-Israel camp, this 65th Yom Ha’atzmaut provides an occasion to reassess whether this marking of territory is actually productive.

The rush to proudly declare people and groups as pro-Israel harms Israel in two ways. The first is that it perpetuates a view of Israel as somehow different and as a country apart, and not in the sense of being a shining city on the hill but as a constant outsider. Israel is virtually the only country in the world in which its supporters press people to loudly declare this support, whether it be through large displays of strength in numbers like the annual AIPAC Policy Conference or through the omnipresent and explicit pro-Israel branding of Jewish groups and organizations. It reinforces a notion of Israel as an oddity and conveys a sense of insecurity among its supporters, as if without these constant reminders Israel would wither away. This is in no way to minimize the enormous security challenges that Israel faces, as the challenges facing Israelis are both real and constant. Nevertheless, as long as the world is forcefully divided into supporters and detractors, the normalcy that Israel craves will forever be elusive. Israel is not viewed as a normal state because its supporters do not allow it to be viewed as such. It is one thing to personally identify with Israel, and another to work to bring as many people into that same fold who have no real reason to identify with Israel any more than they would other Western democracies. The grassroots effort to get politicians to declare their undying love and support for Israel strikes an odd note to my ears, as I am unaware of any similar move by supporters of other countries. It creates a certain mystique surrounding the Jewish state that has some benefits but also some significant negative externalities. As someone who first visited Israel as a two year old, has been back nearly twenty times, and has spent a year living there, I know why I strongly identify with Israel and feel a deep personal connection to the country. Less clear to me is why it makes sense to encourage politicians with no real personal connection to Israel to express the same sentiment. The perception of strength that it creates is a false one that actually ends up backfiring.

Second, the pro-Israel delineation unnecessarily defines support for Israel according to an extremely high standard and creates a threshold that keeps people out who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily be so situated. For instance, if someone supports a strong relationship between the U.S. and Portugal, believes that the two should have tight military and diplomatic ties, would like to see visits by each country’s leader to the other’s country, but does not think that the U.S. should use its Security Council veto on Portugal’s behalf every time there is a resolution that unfavorably targets Portugal, we would say that this is a person who is favorably disposed toward Portugal. But because being “pro-Israel” implies a certain set of stances, including that the U.S. wield its veto in the Security Council to protect Israel from unfair treatment, someone who argues that Israel should have to fend for itself in the United Nations would find it difficult to gain the pro-Israel label. Similarly, someone who supports every public position advanced by AIPAC but also thinks that the U.S. should press Israel to return to the 1967 borders is guaranteed to be viewed as squishy when it comes to being pro-Israel because this position is seen as being outside the mainstream boundaries of what it means to be “pro-Israel.” The problem with this is that it consigns people who are sympathetic to Israel in most, but not all, situations to the outside of the club looking in, and in doing so alienates plenty of people who are inclined to give Israel more leeway than your average person. Marking boundaries strengthens in-group cohesion, but also makes your group smaller than it needs to be. It reminds me of the debate over whether having enumerated rights in the Constitution ends up being a good thing by clearly laying out lines that the government cannot cross, or actually unnecessarily limits the rights that citizens enjoy by implying that any rights not explicitly laid out do not exist.

If Israel is to ever be seen as just another country – and this would unmistakably be a good thing – the pro-Israel label needs to be left behind. When people no longer feel the need to shout their pro-Israel bonafides from the rooftops, it will be the proof that Israel has finally achieved normalcy, and that will do more for Israel’s security than a host of policy conferences will ever do. Let’s take the occasion of Israel’s Independence Day to rethink whether the term “pro-Israel” makes sense, and let people who are inclined to support Israel do it however they see fit.

Abuse Of The Press And Press Abuse

April 5, 2013 § 2 Comments

While the large number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey is getting increasing attention in the Western media and from press NGOs, an even more widespread – and in some ways more insidious –  problem is press intimidation. Journalists in Turkey are under all sorts of pressure not to criticize the government, and end up engaging in self-censorship or are forced to limit what they write by their editors, who are themselves squeezed by the government. This pressure comes in the form of overt intimidation, such as when Prime Minister Erdoğan publicly attacks the press collectively or even singles out individuals for criticism, and comes in the form of de facto bills of attainder, such as when the Doğan Group was fined nearly $3.8 billion in taxes following an investigation into charity fraud that implicated government officials. Reporters and columnists are afraid to write anything about the government, the AKP, or Erdoğan that will be perceived as too harsh, and so much goes unsaid.

In this week’s Economist, Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman details how this process works by relaying how advisers to the prime minister will call an editor to complain about a columnist’s work, that columnist will be asked to tone things down, and will be then fired if he or she does not comply. Zaman notes that anything that has a whiff of scandal about the government gets buried, as do stories about Turkish support for Syrian rebels and Turkey’s role in transferring arms shipments to Syrian groups from the Gulf. None of this is new ground, but Zaman’s piece is especially notable for its timing: after starting to write her essay but before it was published, she was fired from her job as a columnist at Turkish newspaper HaberTürk for – you guessed it – being overly critical of the government. It will be interesting to see if the issue of journalist intimidation gets more traction now outside of Turkey given that Zaman is the Economist’s Turkey correspondent and frequently writes for other American and British publications. In any event, this type of behavior is enormously damaging to Turkey and is bound to backfire. By doing everything it can to protect its reputation at home by staunching criticism, the government is only ensuring that its reputation abroad takes a hit, and government officials’ loud proclamations about Turkish democracy ring hollow as long as reporters and editorialists do not feel free to speak their minds because they are constantly worrying about their job security.

On the flip side, Israel this week provided a good example of why sometimes journalists who are free to write whatever pops into their heads might sometimes want to think before putting down something particularly egregious. Amira Hass, a columnist for Ha’aretz, wrote an ode to Palestinian stone throwing on Wednesday, opening her column with, “Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule. Throwing stones is an action as well as a metaphor of resistance.” In advising that some guidelines be developed, she wrote that limitations “could include” – rather than should include – throwing rocks at civilians or at children, although Hass naturally does not want to dictate to Palestinian stone throwers who their targets should be. She went on to make some actually positive and useful suggestions on how Palestinians might implement classes on civil non-violent disobedience and better educate themselves to document Israeli military abuses, but when that stuff comes after you have laid out the divine right of violent stone throwing, it tends to get lost in the ensuing maelstrom. The Yesha Council has accused Hass of inciting violence and filed a police complaint and lodged another complaint with the attorney-general, which will undoubtedly lead to Hass being seen in some quarters as a martyr for press freedom and journalistic integrity.

Hass’s column is largely reprehensible. Not to disturb the righteous indignation of Hass and her supporters, but throwing stones at civilians is inexcusable violence under any guise, and Israel’s military and settler presence in the West Bank does not justify using potentially deadly force against Israeli civilians. Lest you think this is hyperbole, stones thrown at cars in the West Bank in the last two years have killed Asher and Yonatan Palmer – the latter an 11 month old infant – and put 2 year old Adele Bitton in critical condition, in addition to causing numerous other civilian injuries. Calling out stone throwing does not mean that I condone abusive Israeli military behavior in the West Bank, of which there is plenty, since anyone who reads me knows that I do not. But aren’t most of us taught at a very early age the simple maxim that two wrongs does not make a right? In what world is serious violence a “birthright” or a “duty” except to a seriously fevered mind? Just as the attempted lynching of Jamal Joulani for no other reason than his being an Arab hanging out in West Jerusalem was odiously inexcusable, so is throwing rocks at Israelis for no other reason than them being Jews daring to set foot in the West Bank. It would be great if Palestinians lit upon a successful strategy for non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation, and a mass movement along those lines would force the Israeli government to actually change course. In contrast, continuing to advocate violence against Israelis based on the logic that stone throwing is a pittance compared to Israeli machine gun fire is guaranteed to be a losing strategy that perpetuates Israeli control of the West Bank forever. It is wonderful that Hass is free to say whatever she pleases, and it is one of the ways in which Israel’s system of government is far more advanced than Turkey’s, but let’s not pretend that Hass’s abuse of her freedom of speech is a courageous act when it is nothing more than advocacy of violence hiding behind a morally superior attitude and haughty anti-imperialist mask.

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