(I wrote this in 2011, in response to the negative reactions I got from Jewish friends living in Israel and abroad, when I told them I was living in Turkey, admittedly I was kind of angry at the time).
Ever since the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010, analysis of Turkey’s “new” relationship with Israel has focused entirely on what Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan says in his official statements, ignoring the points of view of 75 million Turks.
Sure, Erdogan is in charge but it is not as simple as that. Rumor has it that he staged several manipulations to Turkish elections (e.g. trying to change the voting date to the centre of secular holiday time so his opponents would be forced to choose between taking a holiday or casting a vote, offering winter jackets to citizens in the east for their loyalty), indicating that he feels he needs to play dirty to win. As such, it can be argued that many Turks do not share their leader’s political values. Nonetheless, Erdogan is the most distinct Turkish leader since Ataturk, at the start of the Republic, and it’s everyone’s best guess that he’s after power and prosperity to align with the country’s Ottoman roots. The question begs, how does a country locked between the European Union on one side and Syria/Iran on the other, gain economic prosperity and regional power? Taking a development standpoint, firstly, it would need trading partners, and secondly, it would need access to energy resources.
Initially, in keeping with Turkey’s traditionally secular values, the government went about achieving these objectives by turning to the European Union, making a request for membership. But as we all know, the EU snubbed Turkey. Perhaps due to its significant population, perhaps because Turks are not majority Christian, perhaps because of the “Kurdish problem’ or the Armenian history, or for whatever the reason, Turkey’s EU bid was hopeless from the start. Moving forward, how did the EU and Americas expect the Turkish Government to proceed with its economic objectives? Could they have guessed that a power driven leader would not remain isolated from his neighbors leaving his country to economic stagnation? He, meaning Erdogan, didn’t.
The Islamic Republic of Iran does not sell or stock any American products; most Iranians have never heard of “Doritos” or other global brands emanating from the USA. So other than consuming Iranian products, the country imports from its allies or, non-enemies, more likely. As such, many consumer products, such as apple juice and other everyday items, are imported from Turkey. This makes Iran an important trading partner for Turkey. With regard to energy resources, Turkey’s demand for energy is growing but with social and environmental concerns barring their dams construction, and loan conditions specifically forbidding wind and solar projects, Turkey is turning to other resources to fulfill its energy needs for example, Venezuelan oil. Nuclear power (expected to be financed by the same country offering the loans forbidding wind and solar energy projects) is on the Turkish horizon but that’s will take awhile. Turkey needs energy now and it’s going to take it from countries willing to trade with it regardless of their foreign policies. What I mean to say is that Turkey puts its economic interests first, and that some of its foreign policy decisions can be viewed from this perspective, instead of, say, a more ideological standpoint.
Returning to Turkey, Israel, and the Jews. It has come to fashion to discuss Turkey’s relationship to Israel but Israel and the Jews should not be separated in this case; it makes little sense when you consider the fact that every other Muslim nation to denounce Israel also expelled their counties’ Jewish populations and that Turkey has not done so. In fact, 2010 was the first year in which the Turkish government officially held an official service for holocaust memorial day. Moreover, there are Turkish police officers stationed outside synagogues 24/7 and extra armored buses commissioned for the high holidays. State funded security at synagogues demonstrates the countries commitment to protecting its Jewish citizens. Furthermore, on a more personal note, when young Turks in Izmir or Istanbul ask my religion and I say that I’m Jewish, they react with awe and interest not once have I received a negative reaction.
It might be popular to discuss Turkey’s foreign policy interests from an ideological perspective but in this case, economics might be more important. As such, it follows, that if publicly criticizing a nation such as Israel improves a relationship with neighboring trading partners, Turkey should not be judged so harshly for it. Despite their overt criticisms, Turkey has managed to maintain a reasonable friendship with Israel, for example, sending water bombers to the assist with forest fires in the Carmel last year. And, Turkey’s rich history of helping Jews should not be forgotten or made unimportant.
It is reasonable to assume that the average Turk hasn’t got anything against Jews. Turkey has a long history of helping Jewish refugees; welcoming them after their expulsion from Spain and saving Jews from Rhodes Island during the Second World War. Publicly protecting Turkish synagogues, which were bombed previously by Arab tourists, demonstrates the country’s commitment to protecting the safety of its citizens, Jewish or other. Turkey has a relatively positive relationship with Turkish Jews, and historically with Israel, if criticizing the flotilla incident opens more trade opportunities with countries on Turkey’s borders then diaspora Jews and Israel should not take it personally.
In conclusion, the “new” or strained, Turkish-Israeli relationship may be more about Turkey’s efforts to promote economic prosperity rather than speculations about rising Islamist fronts. In any case, there’s a lot more to Turkey’s relationship with Israel than a few official statements made on a particular day by a current leader. Turks are proud, and yes, they reacted to the flotilla; however, this does not mean that they are West-hating, Jew-hating, terrorists. The flotilla incident gave the current government the excuse it needed publicly criticize its neighbours’ enemy to gain more credibility in the neighbourhood and, it follows, more trade contracts. This does not automatically mean the Turkish government have transformed into a Jewish enemy. It certainly does not mean that average Turks are the enemy. Whatever the Erdogan Government’s motives are most Turks are curious, kind and friendly whenever they meet a Jew.