Back in Turkey

Recently I returned to Istanbul, Turkey. Some things have stayed the same, some things have changed; however, to give this bog a little focus I’ve decided to stay on my previously discussed topic of Jews and Judaism in Turkey rather than bore you with my innermost neurotic thoughts. Since I’ve been back (5 months now) I’ve had three Turkish, Muslim friends ask me if they can go to synagogue with me. Now, I don’t usually go to weekly services so I’ve mostly brushed them off but finally I gave in and have agreed to take my friend Mehmet, a bicycle tourist guide, this Saturday.

The interesting thing about synagogues in Turkey is that you wouldn’t notice you’ve passed one even if you happened to stroll right by it. When I was living in Izmir two years ago and searching for a place to celebrate Yom Kippur, I had to go on a wild goose chase to find the only operating Synagogue in Alsancak neighborhood (the clearly marked synagogues are unfortunately no longer active). When I eventually did find a French women, to ask her Turkish friend, who happened to have a Jewish friend from childhood, where the Synagogue was and, after I eventually located the corner where it was supposed to be, the police man stationed outside tried to throw me off by telling there wasn’t in fact a Synagogue behind the wall he was guarding. I had to wait three hours for service to finish and the routine population of 11 worshipers to exit the building before I could run interference and introduce myself, at which point all was nearly lost when none of them spoke English. Fortuitously, we shared some common colonial influences and both spoke French.

Long story short, Jewish life in Turkey is hidden behind camouflage walls. Though this is an important security measure, it also has a negative counter effect; Turks who want to learn about Judaism have an extremely hard time doing so. What is unique about Turkey is that you have a place where the security threat is real but at the same time you have masses of locals who are curious about Judaism.  I guess this explains the number of requests I’ve gotten to chaperone Turks to Synagogue, they see me as their only ticket to visiting another culture.  In fairness, the local Jewish community did host  open celebrations for European Day of Jewish Culture this past October but what are those curious about Judaism supposed to do the rest of the year?  I guess that’s why I’ve decided to chaperone Mehmet to Shul this Saturday, I feel some kind of duty to counteract the collateral effects of preserving security. In the end, we all want to get along and in the end well all want to do what we can to contribute to a quiet and calm mutual understanding between cultures.


Purim in Paradise (March 2012)

There are no Jews in Fiji, sure there are a few transient expats such as myself, rumored to be scattered across the archipelago, but not a community, not a synagogue.  Nevertheless, Fijians harbor a certain fascination with the Jewish people, and with Israel.  Mysteriously enough, Israeli flags hang sporadically in local windows. This in tern led to a certain fascination which I developed about the role of Judaism in Fijian life. To explore further, I took advantage of an opportunity to celebrate Purim, Fijian style.

The last time I celebrated the holiday Purim, was roughly 15 years ago. As children, we would all dress-up in costumes as characters from the story, and bake hamantashan treats; it’s the secular Jew’s version of Halloween. For the Messianic Fijian Community, the celebration is different, but same same.

On March 8th 2012, I celebrated the Messianic Perspective of Purim (Esther) with the Klesis 24/7 Ministry of Suva, Fiji.   The Klesis 24/7 Ministry was started by Minister Barak John and his wife Missy, in December 2000. It is located in a working class neighbourhood of Suva, the capitol of The Fiji Islands. The prayer chapel is on the second floor and there is a day school below that teaches an American Christian curriculum.  Minister Barak says he was always interested in the “Hebraic roots” of his faith and eventually got in touch with the Kadesh Ministry in Jerusalem; Then began a long period of repenting and renouncing their past culture. He and his family changed their names, in fact the whole congregation did! Missy told me some members of the congregation had been disowned by their families or ridiculed BUT she reports, Messianic Fijians are nevertheless happy with their new faith and culture.

I was the second Jewish visitor they had hosted. When I entered the service I greeted everyone with the Fijian word “Bula” and was quite surprised to be greeted with “Shalom” in return.  Messianic Fijians are big supporters of the Jewish people and of Israel, although they are not actually Jewish themselves.  Messianic Fijians believe Yeshua, or Jesus in English, is the Messiah for the Jews and Israel.   They read the King James Bible in English, old and new testament.  There is a giant Magen David at the front of the chapel on display and Israeli flags waving. The supporters’ dress is casual, slacks and Bula t-shirts, they haven’t reached the costumes stage of Purim yet, the year 2012 was actually their first Purim celebration (talk about timing!). The service began at 7:30pm precisely, with Worship Songs to begin. The songs had a nice melody and the Worship Leader, Isaak plays a mean piano. Personally, I found the spontaneous wailing of a woman at the front a bit much, nevertheless considerably more bearable than the Methodists preaching in my apartment building.  During the singing, there stood out a line that to me summarizes their faith nicely “we the gentiles of the earth shall be joined to Yisrael.” By 8:15pm we had reached the time for the reading of the Megilah what they refer to as the Book of Esther.  This was particularly enjoyable as it was very interactive. Each person of the congregation (about 100 or so) got up to read a verse, and there was the usual booo-ing and cheering at the mention of key names.  After that, at about 9:40pm, Minister Barak was joined by Isaak for “Communion Song,” and bread ripped of a mini challah (!) was passed around with small cups of wine.  At 10:00pm the Purim feast was served!

As I reflect upon the evening, I realize the experience had sort of a comforting effect on me. Fiji is the first destination I have been to not to have even the tiniest of local Jewish communities. When confronted with such a reality, I guess you can have one of two reactions, first, forget about your religion and assimilate, or second, get totally weirded-out and leave. For me, celebrating Purim with the Messianic Fijians provided a middle ground, a way to connect to my roots while not feeling completely alone in a land where I was the only one of my culture. There are some things from the Messianic Fijian culture that I will adopt, for one: they add coconut to their Israeli salad, delicious!

The Messianic Fijians hope to build the first Synagogue in Fiji one day. They are also eager to visit the State of Israel.  Eliah, the friend who brought me there, hopes to join the Israel Defense Force. If you do get to meet them, you can expect to be greeted with a friendly “shalom” by a very welcoming people.

Turkey-Israel Relations 2011

(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.