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Israel remains a beacon of stability in region

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As Israel celebrated its 65th anniversary last week, the world’s attention was focused, appropriately, on the horrors of the terrorist attack in Boston. The events in Boston caused even the worrying developments in North Korea – and its threats against South Korea and the United States to fade from media view.

Meanwhile in the Middle East, with a great many Arab countries from Libya to Yemen in one state or another of crisis or instability, Israel remains a beacon of stability and a model for the region.

A good news story in the April 15 Times of Israel reported on an Independence Day party that Israel Advanced Technologies Industry (IATI), a high-tech umbrella group, threw in Tel Aviv.

The celebration showcased Israeli innovations and contributions to multinational technology companies before a gathering of ambassadors and diplomatic staff from over 40 countries. According to the Times, many of the world’s top tech companies with research and development branches in Israel – including Microsoft, Google, Oracle, IBM and Yahoo – spoke about “how Israeli technology contributes to the bottom line of both their parent corporations and the state.”

Drawing on data provided by IATI, the Times reported that “[o]ver 250 multinationals have research and development centers in Israel, 80 of them Fortune 500 companies, with a majority (66 per cent) belonging to U.S. companies. During 2011, international tech companies bought out 83 Israeli start-ups (many of which were either converted into or merged into existing R & D centers), with the buyouts amounting to $5 billion.”

This is just a small part of a much larger story of great importance to Israel’s well-being, even if it is usually overshadowed by less promising political developments involving Israel’s neighbours.

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Looking around the region, no country remotely compares to Israel’s hard-earned reputation as a “start-up nation” – although Turkey remains the only other country with a fairly healthy economy. Despite hostility from Turkey’s prime minister, the state maintains surprisingly solid trade relations with Israel.

Last week, however, Turkey made news for quite a different reason.

 The April 16 Globe and Mail carried a Wall Street Journal story from Istanbul that described the suspended jail sentence handed to Fazil Say, a famous Turkish concert pianist, composer and cultural ambassador. His crime? Insulting Islam in some of his Twitter posts.

According to the Turkish courts, Say’s 10-month suspended sentence remains in effect for five years as long as he doesn’t re-offend by “explicitly insulting religious values,” as the law reads.

In response, Say released the following statement: “On behalf of my country, I’m sorry about the decision reached at the end of the trial. I’m disappointed in terms of free speech. That I have been punished despite an absence of guilt is disconcerting not so much for me, but for freedom of speech and belief in Turkey.”

Indeed, with the threat of incarceration hanging over his head, Say will either remain defiant or decide to self-censor. In any case, the effect of his sentence is to inhibit others who dare to speak freely.

In the past few years alone under the Islamic-oriented but “democratic” government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has jailed more journalists than either Iran or China.

Say is neither the first nor most famous cultural figure to incur the wrath of Turkey’s very limited tolerance of free speech.

In 2005, Orhan Pamuk, the country’s most famous writer (and a 2006 Nobel laureate), faced up to three years in jail on charges of “insulting Turkishness” for telling a Swiss newspaper that “30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians were killed in these [Turkish] lands, and nobody but me dares talk about it”.

Only under an international barrage of criticism did Turkey drop the charges. Still, Pamuk felt compelled to flee his native country temporarily. And although the law was amended in 2009, Pamuk was ordered in 2011 to financially compensate six people who brought the original complaint over his comment for offending their “honour and self-respect, as well as the feelings of belonging to a nation.”

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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