Louis Fishman : “Regardless of how many walls we build, and even with protecting our skies with Iron Dome, there is no alternative to peace”

Louis Fishman has a very colorful personality. Having lived on and on for the last decade in Istanbul, he speaks very good Turkish and understands well enough to enjoy your jokes. He even says that "he feels himself at home here." (As an assistant professor, he holds no academic arrogance at all!) Fishman currently teaches at Brooklyn College CUNY. In the past, he has taught at Bilkent, Sabanci, Okan and Bahcesehir University.

October 15, 2014


As an expert on Turkish, Israeli/Palestinian, Middle East affairs, he is about to finish writing a book on Late Ottoman Palestine. We made an online interview and talked about his book, anti-Semitism across the world and Turkish-Israel relations.


Let’s start with your book Louis, ‘The Rise of Jewish Political Hegemony and Palestinian Protest’. How do you read Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a historical perspective?

My book focuses on the Jewish and Palestinian communities in late Ottoman Palestine. For the first part of the book I examine and define the parameters of a proto Palestinian nationalism, what I define as a ‘Palestinianism/Filistinlilik’. Then I move on to look at local Jewish community, where the local Ottoman Jewish community started to create bonds with the Jewish newcomers who were adopting Ottoman citizenship, which created a new Jewish identity of localism within Palestine, Eretz Israel. Lastly, I will see how this played out within the Ottoman context, in Istanbul, where you had both Jews coming to study and work in Istanbul, and Palestinian parliamentarians in the Ottoman Parliament.

In my point of view, the conflict actually starts during this period. While these two communities often worked together as Ottoman citizens, tensions arose, and the two communities, Palestinians and Jews were set on a track of conflict.    


Considering the verbal attacks, which targeted you on social media during the Gaza War, can you talk about an overall anti-Semitism in Turkey or do you think it is more to do with issue-based anti-Israeli sentiments?

As a person who has spent so many years here, I see myself mostly at home in Turkey. What I observe is recently, any foreigner that writes about Turkey critically will be subject to verbal attacks by people. Be it Soma or any other topic…However, we have to keep in mind that Turkish journalists are also subjected to similar campaigns. However, there is no doubt that if you are a Jewish and by chance you are also an Israeli, the attacks often multiply. Simply, it is hard for them to hold back some of their anti-Semitic feelings, often making slurs about Jews, or cursing only due to the fact that one is Jewish.

For instance the story which appeared on diken.com.tr website about the professor who tweeted about the Holocaust train, Treblinka. This government official got awarded a prize by TUBITAK, after they already knew about his racist tweets.

And then, there is also the fact that a radical newspaper is being distributed on Turkish Airlines. Can you imagine a crossword puzzle with a Hitler picture is being distributed globally elsewhere? This means that the government is also supportive of or at least turns a blind eye to a certain degree anti-Semitism in Turkey. And when you don’t sanction anti-Semitism, it grows. On the positive side, there was an outcry among many Turkish citizens who showed solidarity with Turkish Jews during this summer and who officially condemned the above mentioned hate speech directed at me.


How do you explain Turkish-Israeli relations when discursively the two countries confront each other in politics, whereas in the economic field their cooperation continues at full speed?

It’s realpolitik. Regionally Israel needs Turkey and Turkey needs Israel. Especially with the war in Syria, in terms of trade and reaching different markets, Turkey has used in the recent past Israel’s ports without going through the customs, directly heading to Jordan and from Jordan to other Gulf countries. The continuation of economic relations conveys the message that “We can deal with Israel without dealing with the government.” In my point of view it is a positive sign. Both countries are the two most stable countries in the region. Despite this, we have to keep in mind that the relations are currently at an extremely fragile state and can easily deteriorate if steps at mending them are not taken seriously by both countries. 


From a global perspective, do you think anti-Semitism is on the rise? Particularly with respect to the protests and attacks took place in Europe?

In order to say that there is a global rise, we need a systematic study to see if anti-Semitism has risen over the years. But there is no doubt that the opposition to Israel sometimes turns into anti-Semitism, as was the case both in Turkey and in some European countries this summer. This is unfortunate and of course we need to speak out loudly at any acts of anti-Semitism we witness. However, at the same time, we need to applaude those who go out and genuinely are fighting for the Palestinian cause. Unfortunately, at times, Israel also plays the Holocaust card and Nazi card, such as when it compares Hamas to Nazis or Hitler, which does a lot damage to people who fight anti-Semitism.


Do you think the press coverage during the Gaza War had an impact on the rise of anti-Israeli sentiments across the world?

It was a PR failure simply because there was no way that you could make it look nice, with such a high percentage of Palestinian civilians killed.

It’s all about the peace process…If Israel was moving towards the peace, then perhaps the opposition wouldn’t have been so strong. In fact, it is hard to claim that the last Gaza campaign was just some glitch in the system. It is becoming common every two years or so. And unfortunately in this round the two sides reached a difficult stalemate allowing the pain and suffering to continue on both sides. In my opinion, this stalemate was directly connected to the fact that Turkey and Israel were at polar opposites. While Hamas relied on the support of Turkey and Qatar, Egypt remained defiant against Hamas, giving Israel the green light to continue with the campaign. Nevertheless, I am extremely cynical against anyone calling Hamas a resistance. These rockets are going to bring much more harsh Israeli reaction. Nevertheless, nothing justifies the mass amount of civilian death on the Palestinian side.


Long before the Gaza War, there has been a debate whether pro-Israel lobbies were losing their leverage on the US policy-making. Do you think this is the case in the states?

Even if Israeli lobbies are finding wall-to-wall support in the American Congress and the White House, there seems to a slow but steady transition of young people in the US who see that it is not the Palestinians blocking the way to peace, but Israel. While Israel has relied heavily on US support the changing trend should be taken notice of and lead Israel to understand that it needs to take serious steps at reaching a peace agreement in order also to convince the American voter that their support for Israel is not in vain. This is important since it is only a matter of time that the voter starts to question massive US support without results. The two recent votes in the Swedish and British parliament to recognize Palestine should send a message to Israel that it needs to move forward and take serious steps towards reaching a peace agreement.   


Is there a way to overcome the dilemma, which rests on Hamas’s denunciation of Israel’s existence and therefore Israel’s refusal to negotiate with a ‘terrorist’ organization?

First, any Israeli negotiations should be vis-a-vis a Palestinian unity government. Israel and the US should encourage Palestinian unity and reconsider their past refusal to recognize a unity government, as we saw last spring before the breakout of the conflict. Once Palestinians see Israel is genuine, Hamas will also need to adapt their stance to the new reality. Parallel to this, if countries are serious about peace, they will take on a global Gaza initiative-ensuring their investments only go to humanitarian causes, and economic development-not to arms. Turkey also has to understand that if it is serious about helping Palestinians it will need to work constructively with Israel and that its harsh stance towards Israel has not helped the Palestinian cause, but has just increased regional polarization.


Finally, what’s your take on the prospects of a long-term peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians?

Unfortunately, I am not hopeful. Israel has dragged its feet for so long that it cannot even offer its own population hope for the future. The Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has made courageous steps at reaching an agreement (which he was close to securing before with Ehud Olmert). Both Israelis and Palestinians need to look towards the future and reiterate that a future working together will provide peace and security for both sides. The alternative is continued war and bloodshed. As an Israeli citizen speaking, and as a father whose daughter lives there, we need to understand that regardless of how many walls we build, and even with protecting our skies with Iron Dome, there is no alternative to peace. Our future is tied to the Palestinians future, and vice-versa. It is time for Israel to take serious steps towards peace, and reiterate a "different world is possible," The first step in reaching this is to recognize the failure of the current politicians at reaching this. Of course, fault needs to be placed on the Palestinians as well; however, as an Israeli citizen I need to first and foremost shout out loud where we have gone wrong, and focus on our shortcomings.



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