An ode to Erdogan: Make peace with Israel

(Published in Israel Hayom on Friday, December 9, 2011)

Ince arrived in Israel last week, this time donning his poet’s hat. He took part in Helicon’s Shaar International Poetry Festival in Haifa. At age 75, the thick-bearded intellectual and native of the Mediterranean city of Mersin radiates lively energy while maintaining a caustic, earthy sense of humor.

Opinionated and confrontational as always, the combative poet – whose love of his country, its scenic landscape, and its people is reflected in his wonderfully descriptive and patriotic works — has just one request. In our meeting in downtown Tel Aviv, he asks to be quoted as directly as possible, without any extraneous analysis or commentary. That way, if Erdogan criticizes his comments, Ince can unreservedly stand behind them.

“Turkey was never a Muslim country,” Ince argues, addressing a widely held Israeli perception of his country. “This has always been a secular country. I don’t like it when Turkey is referred to as a Muslim country. That is incorrect. There are many Muslims who live in Turkey, but the second clause in oyr constitution explicitly states that Turkey is a democratic, secular and social republic.”

Nonetheless, less than two months ago I visited Istanbul, and the impression I came away with was that both the Turkish leader and Islam enjoyed widespread support in the street.

“It is true that most Turks voted for Erdogan, but I believe that just 10 or 20 percent voted for him just because they were Muslims. The rest voted for Erdogan because of the change in the economic situation, the advances made by the country, and the openness to globalization that he represented. Still, a large portion of the Turkish public doesn’t like Erdogan. In the politics of the Middle East, one needs to ask people if they support the diplomatic steps taken by Erdogan in the region, particularly when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I have no doubt that on economic issues, most Turks support him, but this is just a small part of the big picture.”

Ince falls silent momentarily before adding: “Don’t forget that in 1948 Turkey was the second country after the U.S. to recognize Israel.”

“Secular, not Islamic”

As a journalist, Ince was dispatched to Israel a decade ago for a lengthy stay. During that time, he authored numerous articles about the religious, historic, geographical and social background of the state. This series of articles was turned into a book and published in Turkey. The experience also deepened Ince’s familiarity with the holy texts of all three monotheistic religions, as well as his extensive historic knowledge of the Middle East. Both understandings led him to the inescapable conclusion that Turkey and Israel needed to stand side by side as allies.

“The situation in the Middle East, especially when it comes to the Palestinian issue, is identical to what took place in Babylon 3,000 years ago,” he said. “The Middle Eastern geographic landscape is complex, and it has always been in a state of chaos. At every stage of history, various civilizations and sectors came along and joined every religion – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”

“Last week, I stayed at the Colony Hotel in Haifa, which is located in the city’s German Colony,” he continued. “In the distant past, a wealthy German man lived there. In 1895, the German Kaiser visited there, and he brought with him 250 Germans and Austrians. They all bought property and settled in Haifa. But the land at the time was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. That was why the Kaiser and the Ottoman Empire came to an agreement whereby if Germany emerged victorious in World War I, the Germans could get their hands on Palestine. The English won the war, and the rest is history. The name of the hotel still bears remnants of this chaos and is indicative of the perpetual state of conflict in the Middle East.”

How do we move forward from here?

At this point, Ince offers his political appraisal of the situation in Israel and how he thinks it should act in dealing with its neighbors. “I believe that Israel cannot ever give back the Golan Heights to Syria, both for security reasons and also because of the civilian enterprises that have risen there,” he said. “On the border with Gaza, Hamas rules, and the Palestinians don’t want to settle the conflict. This is a very complicated situation.”

“Into this situation enters Turkey,” he said. “Before Erdogan came to power, Turkey took a balanced approach toward Israel and the Palestinians. Turkey had economic, scientific, technological, and military ties with Israel because Israel is an industrialized and scientific country while the Arab states are not. They have oil, and that’s it. When Erdogan shifted his behavior toward that of the leader of an Islamic state, he chose the Palestinian side. Yet he is not the prime minister of an Islamic country, but a secular country. He forgot these facts, and that is the reason for the deterioration in ties between Israel and Turkey.”

“Turkey doesn’t need the EU”

Ince recalls how important Jewish culture is to him and how avidly he follows its latest trends, even when he is not in Israel. “I have many Jewish friends in Turkey,” he said. “This is a very important community to our country, because these are Jews who have come to a secular state. I know them very well. They are open, moderate, and modern Jews, and there are important people and intellectuals among them. All of Turkey’s Jews are my friends.”

Ince said that he never hesitated to visit Israel, even at the height of the diplomatic row with Ankara. “That is my way of defending the companies and the economic, agricultural, and scientific cooperation between Turkey and Israel,” he said. “In your holy texts, it says: ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning, let my tongue cleave to my palate.’ If there is peace between Israel and Turkey, then there will be peace in all of the Middle East. We need to pay attention to this.”

“I get the impression that the people of Israel yearn for peace, because since 1948 they have built a state, a developing civilization,” he said. “The land here has been cultivated remarkably, the cities and villages are built beautifully, but they will not withstand a war. One does not build in this fashion in order to defend the land and to remain in a state of war. If Israel wants to adopt a defensive policy, that policy needs to be aimed toward peace. A policy of attack will be the end of Israel.”

Are you claiming that Erdogan reacted aggressively toward Israel because he identified similar traits in the Israeli leadership?

“You don’t have to be influenced by extremists, not in the Arab world, and not in general. If your enemy commits suicide, will you also choose to kill yourself?”

So what is motivating Erdogan?

“Europe and the U.S. gave Erdogan a role – preserving the political status quo and the stability in the Middle East,” he said. “Look at what is happening all around. In Tunisia, people are going to the ballot box and that country is on the verge of turning into an extremist Islamic state. Libya is already an Islamist state. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is rising to power. And in Syria? There is chaos.”

“Amidst all of this, Turkey has a very significant role, but Erdogan is making a lot of noise and overestimating his strength and that of Turkey. Erdogan dreams of becoming the father of the Arabs, but this is impossible because the Turks are not Arabs. They are secular. They ruled the Arabs for 500 years, but they never united to form a common entity and culture. There have always been distinct differences. The Ottoman Empire protected the Arabs, and the Arabs owe their independence and their existence today to the Ottoman Empire.”

Many Turks are disturbed by the prospect of Turkey entering the European Union. What is your opinion on this issue?

“Turkey has a strong economy. Even in Israel, I saw products that are made in Turkey. If an Israeli wants to buy a car, he has many options that are made in Turkey. Right now, we don’t need the European Union, and in my view Turkey needs to avoid admission. With the entire continent is in the throes of a deepening economic crisis and given what has happened in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. Turkey is growing and developing at a rate of 7 percent per year. On the other hand, the Europeans themselves are opposed to admitting Turkey as a member of the EU. Nobody is saying that this is because Turks are Muslim, but it is obviously the real reason.”

“The poet is the soul of his people”

Like many of his compatriots, Ince is displeased with the international community’s position on one contentious issue: the Armenian genocide. “I prefer not to use the word ‘genocide’ in the context of the Armenians,” he said. “There is only one instance of genocide in history, and that is the Holocaust. The Germans killed the Jews solely because they were Jews. That was organized murder. There were the Nuremberg Laws as well as an ideology and a carefully planned intention.”

“The massacre took place even though the Jews and the Europeans did not collaborate with Germany’s enemies, nor did they seek to undermine Germany,” he said. “On the other hand, the Armenians cooperated with the Russian czar during the First World War. They wore Russian army uniforms to the battlefield, where they fought the Ottomans and became an enemy of the Ottoman Empire. They launched a civilian guerilla war against the Ottoman army.”

So you oppose the repeated demands that Turkey recognize the Armenian genocide?

“There was a war during which the Ottoman Empire killed close to 1 million Armenians,” he said. “Yes, this happened. But the Armenians, for their part, killed half a million Turkish citizens during the war. This is history. This was the reality during the war. I spoke about this at length with Armenians who immigrated to France, and they of course did not agree to listen to or accept my position. But I stand behind my opinion, even at my advanced age.”

Ince was born in southern Turkey in 1936. In his youth, he excelled at French language and literature. He even moved to Paris in the 1960s. For 13 years, he worked at a Turkish radio and television conglomerate. Then, in the early 1980s, he moved over to Hurriyet, where he has worked ever since.

Over the years, Ince has earned accolades and awards for his work, which includes poetry, prose and translations from the French. He was awarded the Turkish Language Association award for translation in 1978, the Max Jacob Award (France, 2006), the PEN International Award (2001), and the Penio Penev Prize for literature (Bulgaria, 2010). He is also the recipient of the French government’s Order of Knighthood (1990). His books have been translated into French, Greek, Bulgarian and Macedonian. His poems have been published in anthologies and journals in twelve different languages.

“The poet is the heart and soul of his nation,” Ince said, leaning back as the conversation turns toward cultural issues. “An industrialist or a banker does not represent his country, but a poet does so very well and expresses the zeitgeist that emanates from his homeland. Change comes slowly, like the sunrise. So the poet always needs to increase the light that he shines and to try and exert influence.”

Don’t you think that classic poetry has lost its strength given popular culture’s takeover of all aspects of culture in the 21st century?

“Popular culture is missing the strength and significance that higher culture provides. It is impossible to put them on the same plane. Poets and poetry cannot be replaced by other things. At the time that radio emerged, people thought that it would wipe out everything that came before it, and that cinema would do the same thing. Yet we still have the theater and opera and classical forms of written expression.”

“We have always had popular culture. In the 19th century, it was popular novels and fairy tales. Popular culture represents the rustles of a period of time, but it does not stand the test of time. High culture has the authority to change mores. It is the art form that creates meaning and turns into classics – whether in music, literature, film, or poetry. In order to create something good, it has to be of high quality. That is the only way it will stand the test of time.”