Work and Days

Should Jews Apologize to Turkey or Go Back to Poland and Germany?

Memo to Ambassador Tan

The Turkish ambassador to the United States has a long op-ed in the Washington Post asking for Israel to apologize to Turkey for the Gaza flotilla incident, and urging the U.S. to pressure Israel to act accordingly. It is an important document since Amb. Tan couches his argument in moral terms — Israel  illegally detained a ship on the high seas of civilian peace activists and human rights workers, killed Turkish citizens, and violated international law.

There is, of course, no mention by Tan of the origins and nature of the Turkish “peace” group that organized the gambit. Only in passing does the ambassador mention the rallying cries of the protestors (e.g., “Whatever the aid carriers may have chanted in opposition to Israel, this was a humanitarian initiative.”), after failing to note the chants, in fact, included both calls for a new holocaust (“Shut up, go back to Auschwitz” ) and glee about Americans killed on 9/11  (“Don’t forget 9/11”).

If anyone might be offering apologies, it should be Ambassador Tan, or at least an explanation for why a ship left a Turkish port headed for a planned confrontation. A ship, it should be added, staffed in large part by the Insani Yardim Vakfi organization, which according to American and European intelligence chiefs is a terrorist organization with ties to al-Qaeda — an apparent conclusion that formerly a Turkish government used to share when it periodically raided the IHH’s compounds.

But on a larger point, the sanctimonious tone of Tan’s piece is depressing. Turkey currently quite illegally and against world opinion sponsors the occupation of Cyprus. Nicosia is a far more divided city than Jerusalem. The Turkish government has killed far more Turkish Kurds than the Israeli government has Palestinians; it has zero tolerance for foreign human rights organizations that have wished to investigate the treatment of Kurds in Turkish prisons. Turkish fighter aircraft are not always so careful to stay on their side of the Aegean.

As far as the request that Americans pressure Israel, that is an odd wish from a society that continually broadcasts gruesome anti-American serials on its television channels, and now has chosen to reach out (far more even than the Obama administration) to the terrorist-sponsoring regimes in Teheran and Damascus that are responsible for a number of American deaths in Iraq. When Turkey has felt its own security threatened, it has had no problem with warning of an invasion of Syria or crossing Iraqi borders. Demands don’t work well in the Turkish-American relationship, as we remember from the U.S. House of Representatives’ request that the Turkish government offer some sort of regret for the genocide of the Armenians — a declaration that outraged the present Turkish government. Ambassador Tan evokes history, particularly the Ottomans and World War II, to cement his argument of past Turkish tolerance. Some of us who study Mediterranean history are not quite impressed by either the human rights record of the Ottoman sultanate or the Turkish role in the second World War, especially the German-Turkish friendship pact of June 1941, days before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. My problem is that when I travel abroad, whether in Vienna, Cyprus, or old Smyrna, I am reminded of a different sort of past.

Many of us who have had positive feelings about Turkey in general and the Turkish-American relationship in particular have seen this past week’s events as a reminder of how different the present Turkish government wishes our relationship to evolve. Turkey’s present reset diplomacy had long ago convinced the EU to have second thoughts about extending membership to Ankara. And despite the protestations of our own foreign policy establishments, most Americans sense that the end of Turkey’s participation in NATO is only a matter of when, not if. Turkey wishes to reestablish, mutatis mutandis, its old Ottoman role as the more legitimate voice of the Sunni Muslim world. And that means it must sound radical to Muslims and sober and judicious to Westerners — and sometimes it tries both at the same time, as we now witness.

(If I were Greece, I would be somewhat anxious: its bankruptcy will mean a cut in military forces quite soon; it has gratuitously offended the Northern Europeans who will not be eager to lend it any more foreign aid, military especially; for 30 years anti-Americanism has been the mother’s milk of Greek politics, so Americans have come over to the Greek way of thinking that our shared NATO heritage is, well, at best a Cold War anachronism and at worst an embarrassment. And all this transpires at a time when an ascendant Turkey wants to carve out a new radical identity and seems to increasingly brag about its Ottoman past [note to Greeks: violently protesting against Israel will not impress Turkey, should it plan on revisiting Cyprus or re-adjudicating the nebulous Aegean border.])

Postmodern anti-Semitism

Yes, yes, I know — faulting Israel is hardly anti-Semitism. But note the obsessive focus on Israel, especially from the left. So take any issue: occupied land? Why do we not evoke Ossetia, Tibet, or Cyprus? Or for that matter Prussia?

Take a divided city? How about Nicosia?

Take disproportionate force? Try the leveling of Grozny?

Targeted killing? Our own Predators have killed more than Israeli air attacks.

The killing of Muslims? India and China trump Israel.

Wait — the issue is U.S. aid? OK, are we “shocked” that Egypt gets billions and harasses human rights activists, stifles democracy, and tortures its own?

No, the issue is blockading Gaza? So Turkish and European flotillas are off the Egyptian coast?

No, no, the problem is the detention of third parties in international waters? So President Obama has ended, as promised, rendition (remember the movie?)? Hardly.

Yes, the Arabs have hundreds of millions, Israel seven. Yes, they have oil, the Israelis none. Yes, libel a Jew and it’s cute, libel the prophet and go into hiding. And yes, Israel is a surrogate often for anti-Americanism. But all that said, it is still strange that so many Westerners focus such antipathy and attention on Israel over precisely the topics that they otherwise ignore in other countries.

It is not anti-Semitic to discuss divided cities, occupations, the use of force, blockades, refugees, etc. It is, when all these topics mysteriously appear only in reference to Israel so as to suggest it is somehow singular in its transgressions.  I somehow know who Rachel Corrie is, but not any of the names of tens of thousands of Kurds in Turkey, or Chechens in Grozny, or Tibetans in China, or Egyptians in Cairo. Why? I know the rough square mileage of “occupied” Palestine, but not the acreage of Turkish-controlled Cyprus.

The doyen of the White House press corps, Helen Thomas, put it best when she wondered why the Jews didn’t just go back to Poland and Germany. Think of that for a second — a million thoughts spark: well, Helen, that’s where 6 million were gassed. Or, Helen, some Jews have been in “Palestine” from pre-antiquity. Or, Helen, some 3rd-generation Israelis have been in Israel as long as your family has been in the United States. Or, Helen, exactly how do you envision the process of removing them? Trains to Haifa, where boats head to “processing centers” in Bremen and Gdansk? Perhaps the Iranian quick way?

I realize Ms. Thomas is in her dotage, but had anyone else voiced anything similar about any other particular group, they would be banned from the White House press corps, rather than feted. Case closed.


1. I will discuss The Father of Us All today on Book-TV on C-span at 8:45 EST, and 5:45 out here in California — a small talk I gave at the Capitola book store near Santa Cruz.

2. I went to Huntington Lake to scout out our planned June 10 (next Saturday) hike to Kaiser Peak. The road to the stables, our starting point, was still not entirely cleared of snow. In fact, snow is everywhere. Locals cannot quite remember anything like the present landscape; the cool May and enormous pack conspired to turn June into April. The lake is not full, as flood releases empty it for the expected huge late melt. Snow is on both sides of highway 168. The ski slopes are still white. And I think many of the gullies and ravines on the route up will be blocked. All of which means Bruce Thornton and I will reschedule for July 10th, a Saturday. We will start at 7AM for Kaiser from the stables parking lot, and welcome any who wish to talk on the way up, at the summit, and on the way down (3-4 hours up, 2.5-3 down). In a month, it should be clear and dry. (Usually I go up around June 1 with no problem, but this isn’t any year, despite Sec. Chu’s prognostications that our farms in California are about to dry up and blow away.) Hope to see some of you on July 10, but think we would have been soaked if we tried next weekend.