Turkey has put dozens of academics on trial for terrorism charges — for signing a petition supporting peace with Kurdish citizens. A group of dissident Israeli academics traveled to Istanbul to attend their trials.
It’s not uncommon to run into a political protest in Istanbul. What you probably won’t find every day is a group of Israelis invited to Turkey to join a demonstration outside one of Istanbul’s main criminal courts, particularly after nearly a decade of frayed relations between the two countries.
The Israelis, four members of a group called “Academia for Equality,” were there in a show of solidarity and to witness the public trials of nearly 150 academics in Turkey facing terrorism charges for signing a petition against their government’s assaults against its Kurdish citizens, including the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and reports of massacres.
Turkish academia has been decimated since a failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in mid-2016 — some 9,000 academics have been purged from universities in the country, including 500 who were fired for signing the petition about Kurds. It is virtually impossible for them find work, and many are forbidden from traveling abroad.
The 150 or so trials, which officially began on December 5, 2017, are scheduled to continue through May 2018. The indictments are almost identical: “disseminating propaganda for a terrorist organization,” which comes with a maximum prison sentence of 7.5 years.
For the Israeli academics who came to support their colleagues, the days leading up to the trip were rife with an anxious excitement. Not only have Turkish authorities taken an unexpectedly harsh line with even international activists and organizations in recent years — the Turkish chair of Amnesty International has been imprisoned for the past eight months — but the relationship between Turkey and Israel has seriously deteriorated over the past decade, largely over the latter’s treatment of the Palestinians. That tension, which at times has boiled over to the point of hatred, was precisely what made the Israeli delegation’s visit so pertinent, delegation organizers on both sides said.
“Your presence here and your critique from inside Israel is the real basis for solidarity,” Asli Odman, who teaches urban and regional planning at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, told the delegation outside the court.
Hüda Kaya, an elected representative of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the largest opposition party in the Turkish Parliament, told the group: “I know that there are those in Israel-Palestine who want peace, and are persecuted in the same way [as in Turkey]. It is very meaningful that you are here.”
The group of Israelis also joined their Turkish hosts at demonstrations on January 29 and 30 outside the Çağlayan Justice Palace — the largest courthouse in Europe —in the bustling Şişli district of Istanbul. At the request of the Turkish group, they held a press conference. Security was relatively light, and members of the crowd held banners in support of the academics.
Yaara Benger Alaluf, an Israeli academic based in Berlin who traveled to Istanbul as part of the delegation, spoke there of her solidarity with the persecuted academics, tying it to the struggle for academic freedom in Israel-Palestine:
“We too are citizens of a state that is denying the rights of an oppressed people, whose rights we support,” Benger Alaluf told the crowd. “While dissenting Israeli academics do not face assaults as grave as those you confront bravely, we recognize that the danger you face, looms over us as well.”
Inside the courtroom, Academics for Peace activists sat alongside their Israeli colleagues, translating every mundane detail of the proceedings. The judge, flanked by the prosecutor, towered above the defendants and their respective attorneys as the charges against them were read aloud. One by one, the academics denied any connection to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — which has been fighting an armed insurgency against the Turkish state since the early 80s — or terrorism.
“I find it incredibly surprising that talking about an important problem in the country I love is interpreted as a crime,” said Büşra Ersanlı’, a professor of political science. “It is my right to criticize the leaders of the country. This is freedom of expression.”
Eda Aslı Şeran, an independent law researcher, said that the days when the petition was circulated were full of violence and anxiety. “I did not hesitate at all and signed it immediately. There was only one thing on my mind: the violence must end.”
There is hardly anything novel in the attempt to label dissidents and supporters of proscribed groups as terrorists. But a wholesale, broad-daylight persecution of academics seems almost surreal. As Judith Butler and Başak Ertür write on the Critical Legal Thinking blog: “One might generously try to reconstruct what has happened here as a profound misunderstanding, but it is, in fact, a willful distortion and reversal of the clear meaning of the petition… The aim of the petition was to transform a violent conflict into a non-violent negotiation that could bring about peace. And yet that word, ‘peace,’ becomes code for ‘terrorism.’”
Few are better acquainted with this sort of Orwellian wordplay than Israeli dissidents.
“The suppression of academics in Turkey is part of a global trend,” explains Benger Alaluf. “We see this happening in Israel as well, where academics have been fired for expressing dissenting political opinions, where the authorities have had conferences cancelled, and where the state is trying to impose a ‘code of ethics’ that would prevent academics from expressing their political opinions in the classroom. Luckily, we have not yet been put on trial.”
“In Palestine, things are far worse,” Benger Alaluf continues. “Students and faculty are regularly arrested and forbidden from traveling abroad, while Israeli forces repeatedly raid Palestinian universities, carrying out arrests and confiscating equipment.”
Israel and Turkey are similar in that they both target academia as a means of masking past injustices, she adds. “It is no surprise that both governments are targeting academia, which is often a bastion of voices that challenge the dominant state narratives.”
In Turkey, the state want to suppress any attempt to dredge up the ghosts of the past, including a bloody history of violence against ethnic, religious, and political minorities that was part and parcel of the founding of the modern Turkish state, Benger Alaluf argues, adding that Israel is no different. “Like Turkey, our history is marked by state violence, including the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, the kidnapping of Yemenite babies in the 50s, the subjugation of Mizrahim — and the occupation.”