The Turkey Israel Connection

In January 2009 the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attracted considerable media attention, at home and abroad, for his spat with the Israeli Premier, Shimon Peres, at the Davos World Economic Forum. Apparently, Mr Erdoğan couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to berate his Israeli counterpart for his country’s recent actions in the Gaza conflict. Undoubtedly, there has been a cooling of relations between Turkey and Israel in recent years, especially since the accession to power of Mr Erdoğan’s AK (Justice and Development) Party.

Perhaps, then, it’s a good time to take a look at this event in the broader context of history, particularly when Turkey is being increasingly challenged to accept the accusation of ‘genocide’ against the Armenian people.

One important point that must be noted at the outset, of course, is that both Turkey and Israel are relatively ‘new’ nations – the Republic of Turkey was founded as recently as 1923, while Israel became a nation in 1948. At the same time, however, it must also be recognised that the peoples of these two ‘modern’ states have lived as neighbours for more than a millennium. Turkic invaders entered Anatolia in force after defeating the armies of the Byzantine Roman Empire in 1071 CE. Already Muslim, they mixed and intermarried with the predominantly Christian peoples they had conquered, establishing states and empires culminating in the 600-year Ottoman Empire, which lasted until it was finally dissolved after the end of the First World War. It is probably fitting, then, that its successor state, the Turkish Republic, was the first Muslim nation to recognise officially the fledgling nation of Israel.

In my previous post, we looked at the complex procession and interplay of religions that have taken place in this part of the world over three millennia of history. The so-called ‘clash of cultures’, referring to the face-off between the Christian West and the Islamic East, is largely a western construct. Its roots lie in the desire of the medieval Bishops of Rome (Popes) to add the muscle of temporal power to their presumably less satisfying spiritual leadership. In the Near and Middle East, it has been a different story.

For a start, the Muslim religion always recognised the debt it owed to its predecessor faiths, Judaism and Christianity. To Muslims, Jews and Christians are also ‘people of the book’ – followers of a great monotheistic belief system with shared history and common prophets. The ‘Christian’ crusades of the 11th to the 13thcenturies, it can be argued, were more attempts to unite Western Christendom under the Popes of Rome, and assert its superiority over the East, whatever faith they espoused, than the more commonly held belief of a confederation of the righteous aiming to free the Holy Lands from heathens and unbelievers. As evidence of this, we can take the fact that the army of the Fourth Crusade took time, on its way to fight the Muslims, to besiege, conquer and despoil the Christian capital of Constantinople, 250 years before the Muslim Ottomans set foot in it. It has also been argued that, prior to the Crusades, genuine Christian pilgrims from other lands were not prevented from visiting and paying homage at sacred sites in the city which is sacred to all three religions.
Little of this, however, directly concerns modern Turkey. Of much more relevance to our discussion here are the actions of the Ottoman Empire since, at least in Western eyes, there is an undeniable connection between the two. 1453 is one of those dates in history that are interpreted by some as marking key transitions from one age to another. In this case, it was the year that the Ottomans, led by their youthful Sultan, Mehmet II, known to Turks as ‘the Conqueror’, finally succeeded in entering the city of Constantinople. However, far from representing the defeat of a glorious empire, the Ottoman victory was more of a final symbolic act. The Byzantine capital was, by this time, merely the rump of a former mighty empire, with a population estimated at no more than 50,000.
The city that Mehmet the Conqueror envisaged as his own imperial capital required repopulating – and the Ottoman policy knew no nationalistic exclusivity. The Sultan brought Greeks and Armenians as well as Turks from other cities to assist in the economic resurgence of the conquered city. Churches were restored as mosques were built, and the cosmopolitan character of Constantinople / Istanbul was established from the outset. The various communities had their own specialisms in terms of occupations, and each contributed its own areas of expertise. So, towards the end of the 15thcentury, when Mehmet’s successor, Bayezid II opened his welcoming arms to Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, he saw it as a natural step in the economic strengthening of his empire. The Jews brought financial expertise and other trade skills which the Ottomans needed. Neither Turkish ethnicity nor Islamic belief were prerequisites for citizenship.
It is a fascinating feature of the Jewish community in Istanbul that most of them trace their ancestry back to the Sephardic refugees who made their home in the Ottoman Empire after the forced conversions and persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition. While Turkish is their first language today, their rituals and music preserve the Judaeo-Spanish dialect known as Ladino, which they brought with them from their homes in the Iberian Peninsula. As an aside, contrary to popular belief, it was Jews and Arabs who were the main target of the Spanish Catholic Inquisitors at that time, rather than Protestants, whose Reformation had barely begun, and certainly not in Spain.
A sub-branch of the Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire was the dönme, followers of the 17th century self-styled Messiah, Sabbatai Zevi. This gentleman made himself unpopular with the Ottoman establishment at the time, and he and his supporters had to convert to Islam in order to remain within Ottoman borders. It is said, however, that they maintained their Jewish faith and rituals behind a Muslim façade. Unlike the Spanish, the Ottomans were, apparently content to accept the ‘conversion’ at face value, and refrained from applying unpleasant methods to identify backsliders. Two of the better-known private educational foundations in Istanbul today, FMV Işık and Terraki, are reputed to have been founded by the dönme community in Salonika, whence they moved after the population exchanges following the Turkish War of Independence.
Several sources set the number of synagogues in modern Istanbul at twenty-one, with a further eleven in Izmir, and a sprinkling in other Turkish cities. By contrast, modern Thessaloniki, formerly, during Ottoman times, regarded as the largest Jewish city in the world, has three. At that time known as Selanik, the city became part of Greece in 1912. Subsequently, a huge fire in 1917 destroyed much of the city including most of the synagogues and left many of the Jewish community homeless. After the Nazi occupation of Greece in 1942, Jews were rounded up and sent to death camps. The mortality rate is reported to have been 98%.
The Republic of Turkey maintained its neutrality for most of the Second World War until the final months. During the war, however, several Turkish diplomats did their best to alleviate the suffering of Jewish people under threat from the Nazi extermination machine. Behiç Erkin was Turkey’s ambassador to France from 1939 to 1943. During this period he worked to identify members of the Jewish community who were of Turkish origin, and to persuade the Nazi authorities that they should be repatriated to Turkey. His efforts are believed to have saved thousands of Jews from removal to concentration camps.
Necdet Kent, Turkish Consul-General in Marseilles, is recognised as having put his own life at risk to save Jews from transportation to Nazi camps. Stories are told of how he boarded a train loaded with Jews of Turkish origin bound for Germany, refusing to get off until the Jewish prisoners were allowed off too.
Selahattin Ülkümen perhaps saved fewer souls, but paid a higher price for his humanitarian efforts. As Turkish consul on the island of Rhodes during the Second World War, he worked to have many Jewish families shipped to Turkey to save them from Nazi round-ups. After Turkey abandoned its neutrality in the last months of the war to side with the Allies, his house was shelled by the Germans and his young wife fatally wounded. He himself was interned in occupied Greece until the war ended.

Undoubtedly there have been incidents in subsequent years where Jewish people have been victimised in local incidents – but for the most part, Turkey, and the earlier Ottoman Empire, have an exemplary record of good relations with the Jewish community, in
comparison with their European neighbours. Turkey has at times acted as a mediator in Middle East conflicts involving Israel. There is a free-trade agreement between the two countries, and Israel is an important supplier of arms to the Turkish military.
Prime Minister Erdoğan has a tricky task as leader of a secular, parliamentary democracy with its strategic location on the fringe of the Middle East. Much of his predominantly Muslim electorate undoubtedly sympathises with co-religionist brethren suffering from Israeli expansion (and missiles). Continually fobbed off by Europe in their attempts to join the European Union, Turkey will inevitably look to form partnerships with more accommodating neighbours. At the same time, Turkey remains committed to gaining acceptance among the civilised nations of the world – and friendship with the USA and Western Europe is a prerequisite for this. Politics, for the most part, is a business of compromise. Perhaps a little grandstanding on Mr Erdoğan’s part in front of his Islamic neighbours abroad and supporters at home is understandable, in the circumstances.

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