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Double standard for the neighbor– Paul Auster and Turkey

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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?

Eleanor Kilroy

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13 Responses

  1. Bravo on February 2, 2012, 11:46 am

    erdogan loses a lot of points for even responding to this; makes him look incredibly petty and insecure. and really, bringing up this “hypocrisy” of auster was really a sophomoric attempt to sidestep the charge that turkey is suppressing human rights

    he wasn’t even going to attempt to defend the arrests and suppression of free speech in his country?

    auster won that round hands down.

    • ofern on February 2, 2012, 12:33 pm

      Well, Auster does not win hands down in the context of his photo-op with buddy Shimon (a war criminal).

    • Blake on February 2, 2012, 3:09 pm

      Bravo: He never mentioned Israel’s imprisonment of children in his response, nvm the THOUSANDS of other Palestinians in prison from ALL walks of life. I don’t think he sounded petty at all. What will Turkey lose? Turkey is one of Europe’s fave tourist destinations, does not need an agent provocateur zionist to visit it.

    • heartbeatt on February 2, 2012, 5:25 pm

      It is not about winning. Turkey’s abuse of human rights can be addressed and so can Israel’s, despite all the lobbying and millions invested to prevent this. BUT Paul Auster’s ignorance of actual human rights abuses in Israel, in Jerusalem and in the Palestinian territories IS breathtaking. Add to that Israel’s widespread exploitation of culture and even gays (pink-washing) to detract attention from these abuses. It is every artist, writer, musician’s responsibility to be informed as far as possible about, in this case, Israel. Paul Auster should read the following: Putting out a contract on art.
      Perhaps Paul Auster should also try to understand the reasons behind the US Scholars’ Delegation Calls for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel:
      I would advise Paul Auster to inform himself, to investigate what exactly is going on in Jerusalem. He should take a trip to a Palestinian village where peaceful demonstrations take place, where the villagers are constantly harrassed by settlers, where every move is ordained by the IDF, where men and children shot, tear-gassed, are picked up and imprisoned and kept without trial, where people cannot move freely, cannot work, where children’s education is undermined and their health as well. All part of the plot to make people’s lives so unbearable that they leave in droves
      – and voilà! – more land for the settlers. Only someone who is willfully blind cannot see this.
      Israel has become a shameful country and if it were not for the billions pumped into it by the US, it would long ago have had to adapt to the very region in which it exists.

  2. pabelmont on February 2, 2012, 1:11 pm

    If there is a prize for wonderful words, “whataboutery” should win it!

    If there is a prize for pretending to human rights concerns, Auster should win it.

  3. Nancy Kricorian on February 2, 2012, 1:43 pm

    Thanks, Elinor! The arts blog of the New York Times covered this yesterday, and I posted the following comment in response:

    “One can agree with Paul Auster about the terrible state of press freedom in Turkey, and disagree with his view of Israel as a bastion of free speech. In the name of state security, in addition to its regime of military censorship for the local press, the Israeli government regularly deports and imprisons journalists who try to expose the truth about Israel’s brutal occupation of the West Bank. Israel has also recently passed a law that penalizes organizations and individuals who call for a boycott against Israeli products and institutions as part of the global non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, which attempts to hold Israel accountable to international law.”

  4. Shmuel on February 2, 2012, 1:46 pm

    Attn: Paul Auster

    1 Feb. ’12: Sharp increase in administrative detention in 2011; one detainee on hunger strike for 46 days
    Administrative detention violates the right to liberty and the right to due process, since the detainee is incarcerated for a prolonged period on the basis of secret evidence, without charge or trial.

    Over the years, Israel has held thousands of Palestinians in administrative detention for periods ranging from a few months to several years. The state has also administratively detained a number of Israelis, including settlers, for periods of a few months. There were times during the second intifada that Israel held over a thousand Palestinians held in administrative detention.

    Statistics on Administrative Detention

    As of Dec. 2011, Israel is holding about 300 Palestinians in administrative detention in facilities run by the Israel Prison Service (IPS).

  5. marc b. on February 2, 2012, 2:42 pm

    yes, mr. auster, i can hear the chant right now celebrating press freedom in israel. ‘we’re no. 92! we’re no. 92!’,1043.html

    how does it feel to be looking up the index at nicaragua and croatia?

    • Blake on February 2, 2012, 3:14 pm

      Or, according to that list, even at# 133 Israel (extra-territorial).

      It’s so good it has to get 2 mentions.

  6. Justice Please on February 2, 2012, 6:25 pm

    Yep. Kudos to Auster for boycotting anything at all, because most people wouldn’t even bother. And equally kudos to Erdogan for calling Auster out on his double standard. And it would be very hard to find something in Turkeys human rights record that compares with Operation Cast Lead.

  7. Shmuel on February 3, 2012, 2:18 am

    Oren Yiftachel on Israel and Turkey, and the illusion of democracy in the former:

    Despite this reality, the dominant view regarding the democratic nature of Israel continues to rule supreme, augmented by the durable operation of many important democratic features (distinct from structures), especially competitive politics and a free press. The Israeli democratic image has also been promoted by academia, the media, political rhetoric and congratulatory self-appraisals. It has had an enormously positive impact on the state’s international status, enabling Israel to maintain a regime which structurally discriminates against non-Jews, but avoids the kind of international pressures and costs suffered by structurally discriminatory regimes such as Turkey, Serbia or Slovakia.

  8. piotr on February 3, 2012, 3:43 am

    “no writers or journalists are in jail.”

    Allegedly, in 1936 (?) the social column of Vogue was very terse in one issue: “In August, there was nobody in New York City.” Seven million of nobodies but who cares about THEM!


    Once while “surfing” I stumbled upon a news+photos magazine edited by a few young people in Gaza. One was quite exuberant because he managed to buy a camera. He decided to make photos of a demonstration at a crossing to Israel. He was shot into spine and paralyzed. 6 months later he posted that he is in Turkey, in rehabilitation, praised God and thanked well wishers, two sentences from a broken man. 22 years old.

    Strangely enough, Israel does not have good press in Turkey.

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