After more than a year of silence, Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold – a former Israeli ambassador – met Monday in Rome with his Turkish counterpart, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu.
The two men sat away from the glare of media cameras and quietly began to renew the contacts between Jerusalem and Ankara, along with other senior Israeli and Turkish officials. Gold, an appointee and longtime associate of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, was tasked with exploring the potential for cooperation between Israel and Turkey.
The move comes in the wake of Turkey’s recent parliamentary polls, which left the AK Party led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the minority for the first time in a decade. This has opened the possibility that Turkey, a former ally, might consider renewing its diplomatic ties with the Jewish State.
Erdogan pulled Turkey’s ambassador from Israel and cancelled three joint military drills following clashes aboard a flotilla vessel owned by the Turkish IHH organization. The Mavi Marmara was participating in a six-vessel flotilla (three were Turkish-flagged) sent to deliberately – illegally — breach Israel’s maritime blockade around Gaza.
The terror activists on board the ship launched an attack on Israeli commandos who boarded to redirect the vessel to Ashdod port. Eight Turkish-born fighters and one American, all of whom were armed, died in the battle. The incident prompted venomous rhetoric from Erdogan, who immediately cut ties with Israel.
In a gesture of conciliation, Israel eventually apologized for operational errors that might have led to the deaths of the Turkish nationals and offered compensation to their families. Nevertheless, then-Prime Minister Erdogan was not appeased and refused to renew ties unless Israel also dropped its blockade of Gaza, a security measure that helps prevent terror groups in the enclave from importing weapons and other contraband from their generous Iranian benefactor.
Although Israel had discussed dropping the blockade, the escalation of rocket attacks against the south led to a counter terror war in Gaza last summer. This prompted Erdogan to rev up his offensive rhetoric anew against the State of Israel. Once again, the Turkish leader found a reason to sabotage renewal of ties, claiming the attack on Gaza by Israel proved Jerusalem “does not want normalization.”
Although trade has continued uninterrupted throughout, diplomatic communication has been maintained with Israel via the director of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
Oddly, the stores in the Jewish State have been and still are filled to the brim with Turkish products, from housewares to clothing to food stuffs and more.
Even during Operation Protective Edge last summer, Israel allowed Turkish pilots to land and take off from Israeli airports in order to airlift medical patients from Gaza.
There has, however, been a complete halt to Israeli tourism to Turkey, a sector which once brought millions from Israel to the Turkish economy.
Within Turkey itself, the Israeli embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul both came under vicious attack by mobs last summer; the Jewish community also felt Islamist rage. Jews were told by some AK Party-linked columnists they should “pay” for the “crimes” of Israel in Gaza. They were egged on by Erdogan’s anti-Israel remarks.
Other Turkish citizens, appalled by the outpouring of hatred, denounced the rhetoric and called for a show of brotherhood with their Jewish neighbors. They reminded the public that Jews have contributed to Turkish society for more than two thousand years. Jews were found living in Anatolia, in fact, as far back as 2,400 years ago.
Compared to the many thousands of Jews who once graced the flagship nation of the Ottoman Empire, however, the current Jewish community in Turkey is very small and maintains a low profile due to fears of reprisal. Upon the rebirth of the State of Israel in 1948, there were 80,000 Jews living in Turkey: today there are only 17,300 out of a total population of 70 million.
Few are willing to publicly identify themselves as Jews; even fewer are Torah observant. Most have assimilated and do their best to blend completely into Turkish society. They are aided in this effort by the majority contention that in Islam a man may marry a Jewish woman. Those who are worried about their daughters marrying out of the faith or their descendants disappearing from the Judaic Tree of Life have made – or are making – plans to emigrate. Those who do not either remain in order to strengthen those who cannot leave, may no longer feel the issue is relevant, or have simply given up.
Yet it was the Ottomans under Sultan Orhan who gave permission in 1324 to Jews living in Bursa to build the Etz ha-Hayyim (Tree of Life) Synagogue, which remained in service until just 50 years ago. Western European Jews were invited by Muslim sultans to immigrate to the Empire twice, and once by Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati (1454) during the time of the Ottomans. Four cities in particular became centers of Sephardic Jewry during that time: Istanbul, Salonica, Tzefat (which later returned to Israel by way of the British Mandate) and Izmir (also known as Smyrna), where the Tu B’Shevat seder was developed in the 17th century.
According to the 2015 Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Global 100 index of anti-Semitism, 69 percent of Turkish citizens hold some type of anti-Semitic belief. During Operation Protective Edge, there were 30,000 Turkish-language positive tweets about Hitler and Nazi atrocities against Jews. A Pew Research Center Poll found in November 2014 that 86 percent of Turkish citizens hold a negative view of Israel.
It is hard to be Jewish in today’s Turkey, where hatred of Israel, the Jewish State, has been publicly nurtured and encouraged from the very echelons of government. One questions whether renewal of ties between the two countries will come in time to reverse this terrible trend, or whether it is already too late.