When two teams of Turkish sailors arrived in the Haifa seaport on July 22 to compete in the International 420 Class World Championships, their beloved Israeli coach was waiting to greet them.
If it seems odd that such an occurrence happened less than two months after the infamous “Free Gaza Flotilla” incident, that pitted Turkish political activists against Israeli soldiers in the Mediterranean Sea, that’s only because the story of Linur Kliger and her Turkish protégés is not as well-known.
Kliger, 28, grew up in what could be described as Israel’s First Family
of sailing. Her father managed a sailing school in Tel Aviv and her
mother, a windsurfer, instructed sailing coaches.
Her brother Gidi represented Israel in the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics with his sailing partner, Udi Gal.
Linur Kliger won the International 420 Youth World Championship in 1998,
and later earned a spot on Israel’s national team. After failing to
qualify for the Athens Olympics, she coached Israel’s International 470
Class youth team to silver and bronze medals in the European
Championships, and then began coaching Israel’s national women’s
Last year, the chairwoman of the Turkish Sailing Federation asked Kliger
to come four times a year to supervise training for its eight youth
teams. Over the course of those visits, she forged a close relationship
with the young sailors and their Turkish coach – using English, and a
love of sailing, as their common language.
Just one week after the flotilla incident in early June that strained
relations between the two Mediterranean countries, Kliger was scheduled
for the fourth of her visits.
“I was worried, but [the federation chairwoman] said it was not a problem.
She said, ‘If you don’t feel comfortable, you can stay in our house.’ I
think the situation just made the relationship stronger. They made me
feel they respect me even more,” Kliger said.
Nor does it matter that the teens she coaches are mostly Muslims.
Religious and political views get checked at the door when the sailors
show up for practice.
“They are normal kids and they hear things, but they were anxious to
come to Israel for the championships,” Kliger said. “They had been here
in April and I don’t think they thought twice about coming back in
The 10-day championships drew 160 boats and 320 competitors from
countries such as Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Great
Britain, Greece, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, the United
States and the US Virgin Islands, in addition to Israel.
In his welcoming statement to the athletes, Haifa Mayor Yonah Yahav
said, “Haifa is a city whose 270,000 citizens have created a solid
foundation of tolerance and communication; a city that boasts a
tradition of over 100 years of coexistence between members of all
religions and congregations.”
Organizers treated competitors to receptions and Israeli folklore
evenings, free guided tours of Israeli sites, and transportation to and
from the beachfront competition site to hotels, entertainment, and
shopping centers. The city was specially decorated for the event, which
began on a Thursday night instead of the traditional Friday night, in
respect of the Jewish Sabbath.
The members of the two top Turkish teams – four girls and four boys –
who arrived in Haifa for the world championships “get so much love from
the Israelis that they feel comfortable here,” Kliger said.
“The Israeli people have warm hearts; that’s what makes us special.
The kids can see that people here are kind, that they don’t care where they come from or what their religion is.”
The seasoned sailor says she knows many Israelis have changed vacation plans to stay away from Turkey this summer.
“For me, everything is the same. I don’t think these people are our
enemy,” she said. “I have so many friends from sports from so many
countries and if we talk about politics at all, it’s just to laugh about
Kliger, who began sailing at age six, earned her bachelor’s degree in
2008 at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, near her Tel Aviv
home. She is working toward a master’s degree in sports organization and
management at a Swiss university.
In between school and coaching in Israel and Turkey, Kliger is also
involved in an effort to get a new sailing class approved by the Israeli
Olympic Committee: match racing with 6-foot yachts called Elliott
The Israel Yachting Association bought a couple of the boats so that
Kliger and her teammates can begin earning a reputation for the sport,
which is like tennis in that only two teams compete at once.
The matches are held close to shore, which Kliger says is better for spectators and media coverage alike.
Over the next month, she may have to choose which part of her busy
schedule she will have to sacrifice if the match racing team is to be
Olympic-bound. For now, she is content to keep doing her part for
international relations. She was particularly proud when the Turkish
delegation proclaimed at the opening ceremonies of the Youth World
Championship, “Israel, we love you!” to great applause.
“It was nice to hear,” she said.