Monday, May 10, 2010

"Israel-Turkey Relations: New Challenges"

100 people, mostly over 50 years of age, came to Stephen Wise Synagogue on the upper west side to hear former ambassador of Israel to Turkey from 1998-2001, Uri Bar-Ner, speak. The former ambassador referred to himself as "an optimist" and his talk reflected that self-identification. Bar-Ner began his discussion of Turkish-Israeli relations by reminding the audience of three historical facts:

1) Turkey was a haven to Jews after the 1492 expulsion from Spain.
2) It deported no Jews during World War II.
3) It was one of the first countries to recognize Israel in 1948.

Since the Madrid Conference in 1991, military relations between Turkey and Israel have strengthened. Turkey has provided air space for long-range aerial exercises, a luxury Israel does not possess at home. The military relationship also affected Israel's relations with the Kurds. "We stopped helping the Kurds in northern Iraq because of Turkey," reported Bar-Ner. In addition to military ties, relations extend into the American political scene, where American Jewry has prevented passage of bills in the American Congress calling the genocide of Armenians in 1914-5 a genocide. Economically, the relationship has also developed. Trade has grown from $600 million in 1998 to $3.5 billion today.

In terms of the present-day relations, 500,000 Israelis visited Turkey two years ago, and the number is near that figure this year after a slight fall off. That number is second only to Germany. Of course, the ascendance of Erdogan since 2002 has had a deleterious impact on Israel-Turkish relations. Not surprisingly, the American Jewish leadership has soured on Erdogan and would not meet with him last December when he was in the United States. Bar-Ner accredited Erdogan's rise to two factors:

1) His election was a protest vote against the corruption of the present government.
2) The EU has repeatedly rejected Turkey's entrance into the EU.

In fact, in 2001, a high level EU official said that the EU wouldn't accept Turkey because, "We want to keep the EU a Christian club." When asked during the Q&A whether any people or countries were supportive of Turkey's entrance into the EU, Bar-Ner replied, "No. And the most vigorous opponents are Sarkozy and Merkel."

Currently, Erdogan's party holds 330 of 550 seats in the Parliament. Turkey will hold an election next year. At present, support for Erdogan's party is down from 47% to 30%. The two opposition parties combine for 50%.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Egyptian Intellectual

Tonight, several members of the listserv, American Jewish Independent, were privileged to hear a unique Egyptian intellectual, who will here be referred to as Hanafi, discuss the state of the Arab-Islamic world in a luxurious Fifth Avenue apartment. Hanafi's talk centered on the role of the Saudis in Middle Eastern politics. To start, he explained that, though during the Middle Ages there were four schools of Islam, including the schools of Hanafi and Hambali, an alliance between a Hambali sect called the Wahhabis and the proto-house of Saud in the middle 1700s, led to the dominance of Islam by the Hambali-Wahhabi-Saudi coalition in the post-World War II era. Hanafi was critical of the American-Saudi relationship, in general.

Hanafi made several remarks that gave interesting clues into his outlook and his evolution as a commentator on the current state of the Middle East:

1. "I'm a great admirer of Anwar Sadat, but his vision did not extend beyond an Egyptian nationalist narrative, which sought to stick it to the British."

2. The recent Arab League offer to Israel reflects its "isolation from reality," as it dictated terms as if it was the winner, not the loser in past wars.

3. "I like Attaturk very much."

4. "Mubarak would like his son to succeed him. If he does not, the military will take over. If he does, the military will still eventually take over the country."

5. The Egyptian government, like all Arab governments, is "an alliance of ignorance and corruption."

6. "I agree with Bernard Lewis who says that 'Wahhabism is like the KKK taking over Texas and enforcing its version of Christianity there.'"

7. "The British encouraged Wahhabism to flourish in order to defeat the Ottoman Empire."

8. At one point, Hanafi referred to "the old Marxist inside me." At another point, he said, "I am from a corporate culture."

9. "Objectivity and tribal sociology do not match."

10. Baradi, who has challenged Mubarak electorally, "is very valuable."

11. "Remember that Hamas was once simply called the Muslim Brotherhood Branch in Gaza."

12. "American aid to Egypt must be tied to conditions."

13. "Egypt was a Mediterranean society until it started to look to the southeast."

Monday, May 3, 2010

Relativism And Reporting On The Arab-Israeli Conflict

Gershom Gorenberg highlighted the first event of a new organization at Columbia University, a campus in need of as much help as it can get since the notorious Joseph Mosad likely gained tenure - the matter is strangely still not official. Danny Hertz, son of Eli Hertz, the director of Myths & Facts, co-founded the new organization known as Campus Media Watch.

The other speakers featured were Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum, Senior Fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University; Dexter Van Zile, a Christian Media Analyst for CAMERA; and Charney Bromberg, the executive director of the non-profit Meretz USA for Israeli Civil Rights and Peace. The panel thus was split two and two between pundits who are likely to criticize the Palestinians - Teitelbaum and Van Zile - and those who are likely to criticize the Israelis - Gorenberg and Bromberg.

Van Zile was the most impressive of the panel. During the Q&A, when asked how one can reconcile Palestinian incitement to violence with the Palestinian desire for peace, he simply said, "I don't think that you can." During his fifteen minutes at the microphone earlier in the evening, he discussed the views of the church that he grew up in and how he decided to leave it because of its dysfunctional narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Regarding Gorenberg, the most famous member of the panel, I was surprised and a bit pleased when he expressed disappointment at the questions during the Q&A, which were highly politicized. "People are writing questions with their made-up minds and asking us to respond to their made-up minds. We are here to provide information to genuine questions, people seeking to complexify their view." A call for complexity was the note on which Gorenberg ended his comments, calling upon the students to not be on this side or that side but to be on the side of complexity. Such an appeal may be the most successful appeal possible on college campuses because it fits in with the general program of university education. But, it also had a ring of relativism to it in that it denies that one can come to a clear, determinate understanding of a topic through the acquisition of knowledge. For this reason, I remarked to one of the audience members after the event that Gorenberg was the most sophisticated member of the panel. I didn't mean that as a compliment.

As for Bromberg, an apparent lightweight, in conversation afterward, he referred to Netanyahu's cabinet as "mad men," used the f-word when referring to the last American president, and assured those within ear shot that "the majority of Palestinians want peace."

The audience did contain a few potential and actual rabble-rousers, including the repulsive self-hating blogger Philip Weiss. Students wearing keffiyahs laughed to one another during the comments of Van Zile. Nevertheless, a strong showing of reasonable students and professionals gave the event an overall aura of respectability.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Carter's Visit to Gaza Unabashedly Cast Symptathetically

"Carter, in Gaza, Urges Hamas to Meet Demands"; by Taghreed El-Khodary and Isabel Kershner; A6

Although Jews on the Left, such as Jon Stuart Leibowitz, are quick to state their discomfort with pro-Israel Christians, they are welcoming to Jimmy Carter, whose Christianity is at the heart of his destructive efforts to legitimize Hamas.

In their report on Jimmy C's visit to Gaza, El-Khoidary and Kershner mislead readers. Early on, they remark on Ismail Haniya’s “conciliatory tone," evidenced by advocacy for "the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.” Yet three paragraphs later, they concede, “Hamas leaders have said they will never recognize Israel, and will offer only a long-term truce, not a full-fledged peace treaty, in return for a Palestinian state.” Had these bits of information been placed together, as they could have been, the reporters could not have cast the tone as conciliatory.

Israel is cast villainously, for it “continues to impose a punishing economic blockade.” Unsurprisingly, this language is an echo of one of Jimmy’s talking points, which is a call to end Israel's blockade of Gaza.

Carter’s rhetoric is characteristically uncharitable toward the Jewish state, as he laments “the deliberate destruction that has been wreaked against [Palestinian] people” during the January Gaza War and suggests that Israelis treat them “more like animals than human beings.”

The report closes with a report from HaMoked and Gisha, two intensely ideologically-driven Israeli organizations. "Carter in Gaza...” could provide a case study in bias against Israel at NYT. Jimmy C's visit is cast in sympathetic terms, and the only Israelis who are given voice are those who are far from affirmative about the Jewish state.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Israeli PM Gives a Speech, But Kershner Focuses on the PA's Positions

"Netanyahu Backs Palestinian State, With Caveats"; By Isabel Kershner; A1

Today, on the front page, Isabel Kershner reports on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv yesterday. Toward the middle of the article, IK editorializes, “[Netanyahu] seemed to offer little room for compromise or negotiation."

To substantiate her claim, she cites Netanyahu’s rejection of “the Palestinian demand for a right of return for refugees of the 1948 war and for their millions of descendants.” Kershner then explains why Palestinians maintain this demand without similarly explaining why Israelis reject it.

Of course, the demand is connected to Israel’s character as a Jewish state, a matter that arose repeatedly in Netanyahu’s speech. Given that, the expectation is that Kershner would connect the dots for readers. In short, Israelis reject the demand because it would compromise the Jewish character of Israel. One would think that in covering a speech by an Israeli leader that the goal would be to convey the Israeli position in depth. By taking the occasion to explain the Palestinian position, however, Kershner demonstrates a subtle bias toward the Palestinian Authority.

IK is at her best when she allows events - and Israelis - to speak for themselves. At the article's conclusion, Kershner prints a fact that NYT is loathe to confront - "[The speech] largely expressed the consensus in Israel." And, as President Shimon Peres says, it was "true and courageous.”

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Lieberman May Improve Israeli-Russian Relations, as American Support Wanes

"Israel's Foreign Minister Cozies Up to Moscow"; By Clifford J. Levy; WK1

Levy does a successful job of framing Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's visit to Moscow in the context of the Obama administration's diplomatic overtures to the Arab and Muslim world.

The warm relations and easy flow of conversation with Russian leaders demonstrate one of the assets Lieberman brings to his position.

The report is fair, with one minor exception. Levy writes,
"With a new diplomacy-oriented administration in Washington and a new hawkish one in Jerusalem, the various parties in the region are trying to...test one another."
Contrasting "diplomacy-oriented" with "hawkish" evidences a bias. For example, a bias in the opposite direction would characterize the Obama administration as pacifist or dovish. Simply conveying that the American administration is diplomacy-oriented and the Israeli administration is not would be most appropriate.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Letter-Writers Embrace Tuesday's Opinion Piece on Egyptian Jews

"The Uprooted: A Sad Mideast Legacy"; Letters; A30

Of the six letters published in response to Tuesday’s opinion piece by Andre Aciman, which recounted the expulsion of Jews from Egypt, five are overwhelmingly supportive. A Moroccan and a Libyan Jew as well as an Armenian Christian confirm the horror endured by non-Muslim, non-Arab people in the last several decades in Muslim lands.

Letter-writers make several important points:
  • “Vibrant Christian communities, including Armenians and Greeks, also suffered from discrimination in Arab countries, leading many to flee. A paucity of cultural diversity has arguably contributed to the Arab radicalism seen today,” writes Stephan Pechdimaldji.
  • “Israel always welcomed Jewish refugees into its society. In stark contrast, Palestinians have been kept in refugee camps throughout the Arab world, pawns in the long battle with Israel,” writes Edwin Andrews.
  • “One cannot forget that nearly half the population of Israel is made up of refugees from Arab countries and their descendants,” write Vivienne Roumani-Denn
and Maurice Roumani.