Tag Archives: turkey

My latest in Al-Akhbar English: Israeli politicians, media and intelligence push for more conflict with Turkey

The “Periphery Doctrine” has been a cornerstone of Israel’s strategic approach to the Middle East since the state’s foundation. Devised by David Ben Gurion and Eliahu Sassoon, an Israeli Middle East expert who became Israel’s first diplomatic representative in Turkey, the doctrine was based on maintaining alliances with non-Arab states and ethnic minorities in the region as a counterweight to pan-Arabism. Though three countries — Iran, Ethiopia, and Turkey — became key regional allies of Israel, Ben Gurion was keenly aware that the relationships were temporary, and could not substitute for peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors (something Ben Gurion ironically tried to manufacture through his “activist” foreign policy of unilateral military strikes and disproportionate force). From Turkey’s perspective, the relationship with Israel was never a proper strategic alliance, but rather a means of establishing leverage against nationalistic Arab governments.

This week’s events delivered the death knell to the terminally ill Periphery Doctrine. Following the Palmer/Uribe report’s factually flawed claims about the legality of Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to apologize for Israel’s execution-style massacre of 9 activists on the deck of the Mavi Marmara — “We need not apologize!” the Prime Minister boomed three times during a recent press conference — the Turkish government significantly downgraded its relations with Israel. Turkey not only expelled Israel’s ambassador from Ankara, it suspended all military relations between the two states. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested further sanctions will follow, exposing Netanyahu’s bravado as empty and self-destructive.

Read the rest here.

Being Jewish in Turkey, before and after the Mavi Marmara (part 2 of 2)

Yesterday I published the first of two interviews I conducted with Turkish Jews during a brief trip to Istanbul. The first interview is here. In the second, I spoke with “B,” a media professional in her late 20′s who studied at a liberal arts college in the United States. As with “E,” B was adamant that I not reveal her identity, telling me that she was “really scared” of complicating her situation at work. In our interview, B expressed the same cultural outlook as E and a similar attitude to Israel: while she complained that its actions towards the Palestinians affect her negatively as a Jew in a Muslim majority nation, the situation remains abstract and disconnected from her identity. In both cases, I found my interview subjects to be wise beyond their years. “I never took security for granted,” B told me. “I’m more ready for battle than [Americans]. So it’s completely logical that I would survive more easily in a challenging situation.”

Our interview follows:

MB: On a basic level what is it like being Jewish in Turkey and do you feel like you stand apart from the majority of Turks?

B: Being Jewish in Turkey has its ups and downs. Jews have an accent and when we speak in Turkish we stand out. I don’t know where it comes from but probably from Ladino. In the last 70 years Jews were pushed to speak Turkish and were constantly told the slogan, “Citizens speak Turkish.” At home the accent comes from your parents. It’s like a whisper. In the US for Jews the accent comes out when you are upset. Imagine if it came out without being angry!

MB: So how does that affect you in your daily life?

B: In the social world you are aware that you are an other. You can’t be sure what anyone’s idea of the situation is. But in the social arena you’re often surrounded by others like you. In the business world being Jewish is sometimes positive because we are seen as good at commerce and Jews almost always repay their debts here.

But to be honest I would say I’m putting in more effort than ever at work because the moment I slip up, I become the foreigner. At work there are always a few people I have to win over. I have to prove my Turkishness to them somehow. And then these people see me as “the good Jew.” But they don’t represent the general consensus. And I wouldn’t say there is any anti-Jewish movement in the country even though we are an easy target when people look for someone to blame.

MB: Why don’t you simply confront those people at work instead of trying to live up to their standards?

B: If someone came out and said, “the Jews are horrible,” I would confront them for sure. But sometimes it’s better to lead by example. Consistency will prove that I’m a good person.

MB: Yesterday “E” told me that Israel’s actions sometimes cause problems for the Jewish community here. Do you agree?

B: Definitely. The big problem is that whenever something happens with Israel we automatically become “Israelites,” not Jews. I don’t see myself as an Israeli Jew — I’m Turkish. But whatever happens in Israel affects us here and safety becomes an issue. Some people here have fish minds and can’t distinguish between Jews and Israelis.

MB: So how has the phenomenon played out in your personal life?

B: I can give you an example. I was importing lingerie for five years. When Israel began bombing Gaza, I was importing all these brands from the states. And a trade magazine for the lingerie retailers [in Turkey] put out a boycott list that focused on Jewish owned brands. My brands were on the list. I’m not a public person so it’s hard to know that I’m Jewish at all. But my brands were listed because I’m Jewish. Who am I? How do you know who I am? The magazine was a small publication in some rural city. I only knew about the boycott list because some salesman found it and showed it to me.

The boycott also spread on Facebook. Who knows if it distinguished between Jewish and Israeli? The page said, “The owners of these brands help Israel in its efforts against Gaza.” What the hell do I have to do with Israel? These people don’t know the difference between Jews and Israelis. And the extremists take advantage of this [lack of distinction].

MB: What about after the Mavi Marmara incident? What was it like for you and other Turkish Jews?

B: Everyone was scared to go to malls or synagogue. Not that I ever go to synagogue but in times of trouble I limit my risks. During the crisis some protesters blocked the entrance outside the Israeli consulate and were waving flags and shouting. Even if I wasn’t Jewish I would have been scared to go there. This wasn’t a peace march. The crowd wanted blood. If it came out that I was a Jew, what they have done to me?

MB: Do you think the government played a productive role at all?

B: The Prime Minister [Recep Erdogan] took a stand saying Jews are not Israelis, they are Turkish. He made the differentiation clearly. That was a very positive thing for us.

MB: Are you a Zionist? It seems like Israel does not factor into your identity very much.

B: I’m not a Zionist. Israel is an abstract place for me just like France. But there is a connection as a Jew and it is a safe haven in a sense. They are welcoming you with open arms and there is a sense of community. At least it’s better to be attacked as a community than on your own. Of course I’d rather go to London but if another Holocaust happens where will I go?

MB: Do you seriously think the Holocaust could happen again? It seems a little far-fetched to me.

B: Maybe? Who knows? It happened before and no one expected it.

MB: Do you have any interest in learning more about the history of the conflict in Israel-Palestine? Or what about taking a tour of the West Bank and seeing the occupation up close for yourself?

B: No, I don’t think I’d be interested in something like that. Right now Israel’s just an abstract place. I have been three times. Basically I go to the beach in Tel Aviv and come back.

MB: What do you think about anti-Zionist Jews and do you have any here in Turkey?

B: Whether a Jew is Zionist or not has nothing to do with their faith in Judaism. That’s not the issue for me. The issue is non-Jews failing to distinguish between Jews and Israelis. And of course [in the Turkish Jewish community] anti-Zionists would be accused of being self-hating. But who would even take such a stand? We’re not political here. Our only concern is self-preservation.

MB: When you studied in the US what were the principal differences you noticed between yourself and American Jews, and between you and Americans in general.

B: I went to a Bar Mitzvah in the US and it was like a Broadway show. It was for entertainment purposes and educational. For us in Turkey, Judaism is about religion. We get together for our ceremonies and in the synagogue, where many of our melodies come from traditional Ottoman songs, and I find solace in that.

On the more general question, the way I grew up is different from the way Americans grew up. I never took security for granted. I’m more ready for battle than they are. So it’s completely logical that I would survive more easily in a challenging situation than an American. That’s why America reacted the way it did to 9-11. Their whole naivete bubble popped in a day.

MB: What was is it like for you personally being in America right after 9-11?

B: For a long time I had worn a Chai necklace. But I eventually took it off, like I just didn’t feel like wearing it anymore. But after 9-11, suddenly I wasn’t Jewish enough because I wasn’t Ashkenazi, I was Eastern, and I have an Arab sounding last name. At my college I had to advertise that I was Jewish so I wouldn’t be seen as a Muslim. So I suddenly put my necklace back on and everything was okay. When I’m over there I feel a level of safety as a Jew.

MB: Your experiences remind me of a term that was used to describe Jews in the US but isn’t really used much anymore: “insider-outsider.”

B: Exactly. We are living with a foot in both worlds. But it’s hard to get through the door when you can’t use both feet.


Being Jewish in Turkey, before and after the Mavi Marmara (part 1 of 2)

During a brief trip I recently took to Istanbul, I had the chance to interview two members of the local Jewish community, which is one of the largest and most cohesive Sephardic communities in the Jewish diaspora. My primary interest was in how Jewish life has changed in Turkey since Israel’s deadly raid on the Mavi Marmara, but we also discussed the social characteristics and history of Turkish Jews.

Numbering around 26,000, Turkey’s Jews are guided by a constant focus on self-preservation. The community generally eschew collective political engagement and, in sharp contrast to the country’s Kurdish and Armenian minority groups, avoid mounting any challenges to the Turkish state. “All we ask for is equal treatment and living well,” said one of my interviewees. Though they are generally secular and liberal, intermarriage is considered out of bounds — even marrying an Ashkenazi Jew is suspect. Like other Sephardic communities throughout time, Turkish Jews have survived and prospered by relying on a simple formula of cultural assimilation and ethno-religious exclusivity.

The factor that most complicates Jewish life in Turkey (at least judging from my interviews) is Zionism. By now, most of the Jews who planned to emigrate to Israel have done so, either for ideological or economic reasons. Turkish Jews may privately support Israel, but unlike Jews in the United States, they make absolutely no show of it. However, both of my interview subjects told me that Israel’s behavior has impacted their lives in an entirely negative fashion.

Turkish Jews experienced unprecedented levels of anxiety during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008 and ’09 and after Israel’s killing of 9 passengers on the Mavi Marmara in 2010. After the Mavi Marmara incident, the Turkish Chief Rabbi issued a statement mildly condemning the Israeli raid. My interviewees told me that despite Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s declaration that “looking upon hatred at the Jews is…unacceptable,” (which they considered helpful) extremists scapegoated local Jews. Though the reactionary mood has dissipated, the trauma of shrinking from public view for several days was an experience my interviewees have not forgotten.

Neither of my interview subjects objected to my opinion that Zionism imperils Jews around the world, and especially outside the West. Indeed, their testimonies were proof of the crisis Israel has created in Jewish diaspora life. At the same time they displayed a complete lack of interest in engaging with the situation, either by examining the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, understanding the occupation, or developing a clear position on the issue. While Israel’s actions — and the reactionary tendencies of radical elements inside Turkey — undermine their sense of security, the Jewish state remains a distant abstraction that has only the most fleeting connection to their identity. And the Palestinians do not even merit a second thought.

My interview subjects both insisted I conceal their identities out of fear of upsetting their employers. Both are women in their late 20′s who studied at Western universities and speak nearly fluent English. Like many Turkish Jews, they are upper middle class, however, I can hardly present them as representatives of the entire community. On the other hand, neither of them knew one another, but they expressed a remarkably similar outlook. My friend Duygu, who arranged the interviews, occasionally chimed in. Here is the first in the two part series, an interview with “E,” a public relations consultant living in Istanbul:

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Amb. Michael Oren dishes out anti-flotilla “marching orders” in Jewish Federations call

Amb. Michael Oren dished out the flotilla talking points in a private call organized by the Jewish Federation's multi-million dollar "Israel Action Network"

Amb. Michael Oren dished out the flotilla talking points in a private call organized by the Jewish Federation's multi-million dollar "Israel Action Network"

On June 22, the Jewish Federations of America’s new, multi-million dollar “Israel Action Network” hosted a conference call with Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. The call was an urgent response to the flotilla preparing to cruise towards Gaza in order to challenge Israel’s maritime blockade of the destitute coastal strip. David Sherman, the vice chair of the Federations’ board of trustees, introduced the new initiative and Oren’s involvement in it as a key to combating Israel’s “delegitimization.”

Throughout the call, Oren seemed more concerned about the Arab Spring, Israel’s relations with Turkey, and the Palestinian unity arrangement than the upcoming flotilla. He opened his remarks by launching into a fast paced survey of the myriad regional threats Israel supposedly faced, then explained how the state would tamp down on each one:

Egypt – Oren was convinced that the only parties that are poised to win upcoming elections are “well funded, well led extremist movements.” Presumably he meant the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Egyptian army’s stance reassured Israel. “The army has been telling us that they have every intention of maintaining Camp David and that there will be no substantive change in Egypt’s foreign policy,” Oren said. Israel’s biggest concern at the present moment was attacks on gas pipelines in the Sinai Desert, which Oren claimed were being carried out by Bedouins to extort protection money. He said that Israel’s gas supply was only at 2/3 capacity, forcing it to import environmentally hazardous coal.

Syria — Oren expressed frustration with rumors that Israel was urging a “go slow” approach to the Syrian revolt against the Assad regime. He referred indirectly to an article by Jerusalem Post military correspondent Yaakov Katz (he did not cite Katz by name, but was clearly pointing in his direction) claiming Israel’s military and political establishment would quietly support Assad because he was “the devil we know.” Complaining about Assad’s recent failures to keep the Israeli occupied Golan frontier quiet (Oren misleadingly described it as “Israel’s border”), Oren claimed that “no one in Israel will shed a tear” if Assad is gone.

Iran — Oren claimed Israel possessed intelligence showing that Iran had enriched uranium past the 20 percent level. “The 90 percent dial where they can develop nuclear grade material is a short leap,” he said. He went on: “We are in communication with the Obama administration about another round of sanctions. They are effective; they have taken a major chunk out of Iran’s economy, resulted in high inflation and high unemployment. This is a direct result of sanctions, but they have not had a big impact on nuclear program — we haven’t seen that yet. So in the next round the administration will announce various designations this week that will impair [Iran's] ability to import and export oil; that will hurt transportation and the airlines of Iran. It promises to be quite painful. Throughout, the policy of the State of Israel and America remains that all options are on the table to prevent Iran from developing nukes, the policymakers in Iran believe us when we say that. Look at Gaddafi: he was convinced by a credible military threat from the United States to stop developing nuclear weapons.”

Turkey — Israel’s greatest source of friction with Turkey, according to Oren, was Turkey’s demand that Israel formally apologize for killing several of its citizens on board the Mavi Marmara last year. “We’re trying to find some language to satisfy them that holds up to the unwritten constitution of the democratic state of Israel,” he remarked. He said Netanyahu had congratulated Erdogan for preventing the Mavi Marmara from sailing with the new flotilla. “The Marmara was too large and we couldn’t stop it with technical means,” said Oren, suggesting that the cruise boat’s exclusion from the upcoming fleet to Gaza was a source of great relief to both Israel’s military and diplomatic corps.

The new flotilla — Oren attacked the organizers of the flotilla as “radical anti-Israel organizations…known also for anti-American activities.” He cited statements by the US State Department and UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon criticizing or condemning their actions. Then Oren claimed that the flotilla could simply deliver its aid through a “responsible organization” like UNRWA, or bring their materials through El Arish and allow Israel to offload it. “It’s not a fight between us and the people of Gaza,” Oren claimed. “It’s between us and the group Hamas which is determined to destroy the state of Israel.” (Never mind this Israeli government document). He went on to claim that Israel’s maritime blockade was “in full accord with international law,” though he did not explain how besieging a civilian population that was not actively engaged in a full-scale war against Israel comported with the 4th Geneva Convention or the San Remo Accords.

Next, Oren proudly announced that Israel had tentatively authorized an aid shipment to Gaza containing construction materials for 1200 new buildings and 18 new schools (UNRWA officials were skeptical that the aid would actually arrive as Israel said). The timing of the shipment and Oren’s promotion of it suggested that the flotilla had already made an impact. Would Israeli authorities have authorized the aid in without outside pressure? Whether or not they would have, Israel was seeking to extract as much propaganda value as it could from its agreement.

The Palestinian unilateral declaration of statehood — The ambassador seemed far more troubled about the Palestinian Authority’s plan to introduce a statehood resolution at the United Nations General Assembly in September than about any other issue. Oren suggested that Israel would attempt to force the Palestinians back to the negotiating table in order to keep them away from the UN. In other words, the peace process would be Israel’s tool for blocking Palestine from winning statehood on a unilateral basis. In this effort, Oren described Dennis Ross, the White House special advisor on Middle East affairs, as Israel’s ally.

“We are working closely with the Obama Administration in trying to find a common framework that would enable the European Union to support negotiations in the framework to get them back to negotiations and keep them away from General Assembly,” Oren commented. “Dennis Ross is in Israel today conducting negotiations so we have reasons for some optimism. But we have to prepare for the worst. [With the statehood resolution] we are preparing for various scenarios of unrest in the West Bank, further attempts by the P.A. to use their improved status to delegitimize israel a la Goldstone type initiatives. Netanyahu has been meeting with the Italian government about this, and they are working tirelessly. And he is working closely with the Canadians who are very supportive.”

When Oren finished his remarks, the administrators of the call allowed time for a few questions. One caller asked Oren what Jews in the United States could do about the flotilla. “Stress that there’s no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the border is open for all materials, there is no shortage of food or medicine, and that our maritime blockade is upheld by the United States as completely legal and necessary for Israel’s defense,” Oren said.

Before I could ask a question about the legality of Israel’s siege of Gaza, Martin Raffel, the director of the Israel Action Network, came on the line to conclude the call. “I want to echo [what Oren said],” Raffel remarked. “Our role is not to be passive observers. We have to shake the public discourse so we’re sending message points and program guidance to everyone involved. And we hope you have some marching orders for when you go back to your communities.”