Travels and Travails into Autocracies: Past, Present and Future

A 2023 Journey to Türkiye, South Africa and Israel

In my enthusiastic naivete of autumn 2022, I wanted a trip to see family abroad. Dear Cousin Sybil in South Africa made it plain that 15-hour flights to America were no longer in her wheelhouse, and various Israeli relatives, beckoning since my initial 2019 foray into retirement, were now “Covid accessible.” While Jean demurred from long flights, I’d go anywhere. 2023 was to be all about “yes” and I was excited to get that underway with a flourish.

Cheaper flights could be booked on Turkish Airlines, and what the heck, why not spend 36 hours in Turkey? A quick sprint overnight to Istanbul’s Old City, a day tour of the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, and Topkapi Palace, and I’d be on my way to Johannesburg.  A nice way to adjust to the trip’s new time zone.

But post booking, events, both tragic and profound, intervened.

In Türkiye and Syria, the toll of horrendous earthquakes which occurred both during and right before my arrival now approach 50,000 dead.  An ongoing and worsening failure of the electrical grid resulting in rolling blackouts (load-shedding) and roiling politics (poisoning of the national administrator when he was blowing the whistle on corruption), is gripping South Africa.  And oh yes, Israel elected its most right-wing government in history, resulting in hundreds of thousands of protesters hitting the streets and yet more spasms of violence between Palestinians Arabs, Jewish West Bank settlers, and Israeli government police and military forces.

The streams between democracy and autocracy seem particularly fluid now within these three pivotal world nations.  All three have their feet in both “the West” and the “2nd World” of Russia and China. Their stances on the war in Ukraine, as the most significant current example, are complex and nuanced.

In Türkiye, growing autocratic rule by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be tested by an election set for May. The legitimacy of previous elections has been called into question by human rights NGOs, and some see the next vote as the last chance before anti-democratic rule settles in for a long run.  Both a part of Europe and a part of Asia, Türkiye borders Syria, Iran, the republics of the old USSR and the cradle of democracy in Greece.  It was the center of what was most certainly one of the most powerful realms the world has ever known for 600 years – the Ottoman Empire. So, it’s been pretty good at pulling off autocratic rule, and might find that comfort zone again.

In South Africa, the miracle that was the relatively peaceful transition from White minority rule under Apartheid to the Rainbow Nation vision of Nelson Mandela continues to both inspire and deeply disappoint.  There has been a complex shift over 30 years from centralized, systemic brutal authority to broadly condemned governing incompetence and corruption. A growing “anti-white” party regularly disrupts parliament. The white wealth bubble remains, with inequality, if anything, even worse than in the old regime. And yet… any yet… it all hasn’t fallen apart.  Violent civil war has not taken place.  A genuine black middle class has expanded.  And public facilities are legally open to all.

In Israel, the new government is proposing or enacting, amongst other changes, legalization of West Bank settlements, expanded differentiation between the rights and privileges of Jews and non-Jews, and limitations on the authority of the judiciary. When I asked my friend David “doesn’t this all seem existential to you?” he replied that Israel always feels like it’s on the existential precipice. Yet somehow, this feels different to me. Autocracy and democracy measured on the balance sheet once again.

The above all seems purely political; a far cry from my initial motivation to see family. But anticipate that these travel reports will be bits of the personal and the social. As usual, context illuminates, but people are the reason to move about the world. And so far – as you will soon read – what amazing people I have met!   


6 thoughts on “Travels and Travails into Autocracies: Past, Present and Future

  1. Daniel,

    Well said, well spoken.

    I’m looking forward to reading the continuing saga of your journeys and journalism.

    I admire your spirit of adventure and venturing.

    I think that Powder Puff was actually the best traveller in my family.

    Happy Purim Ahead! [cid:255d557e-a2c0-4ea0-8b71-a7cff8659a5a] Fur gezunterhayt! – Travel in Good Health!

    Zei shtarke! Mit liebe

    Andrea ________________________________


  2. Hello Daniel, well your timing was what it was,but we take what we get at a certain age. Looking ahead to hearing of relatives and also the political realities, good work. Earl


  3. Diving deep into churning waters has its excitement and its lessons, but it seems you left Florida off your list! Hi to all the mischpoke for me.


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