Israel and Turkey flags.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
ISTANBUL – This country is nothing like I ever imagined it would be.
When I first received an invitation to join moderate Muslims for Ramadan Iftar dinners in Turkey, I did not consider it to be a viable option. After all, isn’t Turkey a fundamentalist Islamic country? Isn’t it unsafe for an Israeli and/or a Jew to be in a country filled with burka-clad women and men in Islamic garb? But I agreed to participate only when promised armed guards, and an armored car for transportation And I was stunned by what I saw.
Istanbul and Ankara look no different than any major American city. Shopping malls. Sky scrapers. Stadiums and arenas.
Yes, I saw a large number of mosques, but the overwhelming majority of people dress in modern, nonreligious clothing.
The Muslim garb I did see was generally women in modern dress, with head coverings.
Actually, most of the modern-looking citizens who walk the streets are traditional.
I was stunned to see secular-looking men and women excuse themselves from meetings for a few moments because it was time for prayer. I was also surprised to learn that 60 percent of the population was fasting during Ramadan. But I saw a perfect example of the balance between religion and modernity: after they broke their fast on Tuesday night, the citizens gathered to watch Turkey’s must-win Euro match against the Czech Republic.
I also saw a large number of universities throughout Istanbul. When I asked about this phenomenon, the answer was made clear: the average age in Turkey is 28, the young people seeking opportunities and a bright future via higher education.
The many skyscrapers I saw are filled with people working – unemployment here is at a relatively low 7 percent. In the crowded shopping malls, people are spending their money in a strong economy.
The modernity and progressiveness which I witnessed was verified in a political ideology which I repeatedly heard: “We are not against Israel or against the Jews. In fact, we really want normal, open, friendly relations with Israel. We do have sympathy for the Palestinians though, and hope their situation can improve.”
This was the constant refrain, especially from the political leaders with close ties to Turkish President Recep Erdogan.
They explained that Israelis have completely misread their president and his feelings toward Israel, and that many of the issues between the two countries are more an issue of temperament than of ideology.
Some moderate Muslim leaders told me outright that Islamic teachings state that Israel belongs to the Jews, and that for the ultimate redemption to take place, there must be positive relations between the Islamic world and the Jews, who must gather in Israel.
Turkish scholars explained to me that well-informed Turks take great pride in the Ottoman Empire having welcomed Jews after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and they speak quite openly about the remarkable contributions which the Jewish immigrants made to the empire. This has led to the leadership of the relatively new Turkish Republic maintaining positive relations with the Turkish Jewish population.
Huge numbers of Turkish citizens have visited Israel, and those whom I met drew a comparison between Israel and Turkey: “Most of your country are modern people but also believing people,” one told me.
“They don’t look very religious but they keep many traditions – just like here in Turkey. Your country is filled with synagogues everywhere, with mosques and churches here and there. Ours is filled with mosques, with synagogues and churches here and there.”
Those who were more familiar with Israel’s internal politics were quick to compare the political questions and challenges which the two countries share regarding religion and state.
Some of the moderate political leaders whom I met drew a parallel between how Israel has absorbed Jewish refugees over the last seven decades, and how Turkish leaders are trying to learn from that to enable them to continue successfully absorbing a few million Muslim refugees.
And then the line I liked the best: “You have lots of traffic jams. We have lots of traffic jams.”
Israel and Turkey are two countries undergoing tons of construction and development, with relatively strong economies and busy workforces. Israel and Turkey are two countries with a religious identity, but don’t want to be identified as religious countries. Israel and Turkey are two moderate, democratic countries in a region filled with religious extremism and fanaticism.
The Turkish people want normal relations with Israel, and Israelis should want this as well. Once official diplomatic channels are reopened, we can begin a political process they must include Israel providing more accurate information to an information- seeking Turkish public about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But even more importantly this can pave the way for a process of healing between our two faiths – moderate Jews to moderate Muslims.
From everything I have heard, seen and experienced in Turkey this week, it is clear that the renewal of normal, diplomatic, and friendly relations between the governments of Turkey and Israel can and should serve as an opening for peace and harmony between the people of Turkey and the people of Israel.The author served in the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party. He is currently the director of the Department of Zionist Operations for the World Zionist Organization. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the WZO.