Double standard for the neighbor– Paul Auster and Turkey

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
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Israeli President Shimon Peres talks to Paul Auster at the 2010 International Writers’ Conference in Jerusalem. Photo by Sasson Tiram.

A fine stand American novelist Paul Auster is taking: boycott a country (in this case, in its entirety – no time for selective boycotts), and you can help expose, and attract immediate international condemnation for human rights violations.

Auster to the daily newspaper Hürriyet in Turkey: “I refuse to come to Turkey because of imprisoned journalists and writers. How many are jailed now? Over 100?” he said, adding that Turkey was the country he was most worried about. 

Turkish prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan responded: “If you come, so what? If you don’t come, so what? Will Turkey lose prestige?” Erdogan then mocked Auster for having visited Israel in spite of the bombs and white phosphorus it has dropped on Gaza, saying: “Supposedly Israel is a democratic, secular country, a country where freedom of expression and individual rights and freedoms are limitless. What an ignorant man you are.”

While Turkey’s record on human rights (of which freedom of expression is just one right protected under international human rights law) is appalling – and I make no excuses for it– it is impossible to dismiss Erdogan’s accusation of hypocrisy as mere whataboutery, especially in light of Auster’s statement issued yesterday in reply to the former’s outburst: “Whatever the Prime Minister might think about the state of Israel, the fact is that free speech exists there and no writers or journalists are in jail.”

I’m struggling for breath now. How and where to begin? The political context in which human rights defenders, writers and journalists are jailed in Israel/Palestine is resistance to military occupation, illegal colonisation and the ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people. Exposing Israeli war crimes costs even Jewish-Israelis dearly. Whistleblower Anat Kamm was sentenced to four and a half years in October 2011 for leaking 2,000 classified military documents obtained during her service with the IDF. The documents, which were leaked to Haaretz reporter Uri Blau, revealed that the killing of two Palestinian militants by Israeli security forces in the West Bank contravened a 2006 Supreme Court ruling on targeted assassinations.

In a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January, the Committee to Protect Journalists expressed alarm over ongoing attacks on and detention of journalists in Occupied Palestinian Territory as well as over a recent series of developments that restrict freedom of the press in Israel. They add: ”These developments come on the heels of an anti-boycott law passed in July, under which any media report deemed by authorities to be supportive of a campaign to pressure Israel via boycott is a civil offense punishable with excessive fines. As with the defamation amendment, the plaintiff need not prove to have suffered any harm in order to win financial damages.”

This admirable political tactic an American author is making public use of – a non-violent form of protest – is a punishable offence in the Jewish ethnocratic state of Israel.

There is free speech in Israel, you insist, Mr Auster? Last year the Israeli Knesset Ethics Committee punished Member of the Knesset, Haneen Zoabi (Balad), for participating in 2010’s Gaza flotilla, forbidding her to take part in all Knesset discussions until the end of the summer session – a decision Zoabi called “the decision of an automatic right-wing, racist majority.” She maintained in the face of this suspension that her participation in the Flotilla constituted “legitimate political activities, which are the right of every citizen, and certainly of a Knesset member…I upheld my right to political activity and freedom of expression, and did not break the law.”

At every cultural event in Israel, the country’s President Shimon Peres can be found standing or sitting next to an internationally-renowned writer or performer, grinning inanely – the face of a war criminal expressing childlike wonder and gratitude. Why then does Auster look at him so fondly? Is it out of pity or genuine admiration that his strongly held convictions have fallen away? Auster’s statement of Wednesday ended on the matter of sacred rights: “it is my firm conviction that in order to improve conditions in our countries, in every country, the freedom to speak and publish without censorship or the threat of imprisonment is a sacred right for all men and women.” 

Auster attended the 2010 International Writers Conference at Mishkenot Sha’ananim. The community overlooks occupied East Jerusalem, which the Israeli government has officially, and illegally, annexed, as well as Israel’s Separation Wall that is being constructed through land confiscated from Palestinians. I must then, regretfully, echo the Turkish Prime Minister, when he asked of Paul Auster: How can you not see this?

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