Tensions between erstwhile allies Israel and Turkey have made a ripple in the small community of Turkish foreign workers in the Tel Aviv area, but don’t threaten the comfortable life Turkish expats have made in the city, if a visit with Turkish migrant workers in south Tel Aviv Wednesday was any indication.
At the small Turkish social club/café on Rehov Rosh Pina, near the old central bus station, a group of about a dozen Turkish men were killing time Wednesday afternoon in an atmosphere similar to the streets of the Turkish republic. Beneath Turkish flags and giant posters of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, the expats played gin rummy and sipped glass after tulip-shaped glass of strong tea. Through a haze of cigarette smoke and over the din of Turkish satellite TV, they talked freely about their take on the Gaza flotilla affair and on being a Turk in Israel during the collapse of the two nations’ once-superb relationship.
“For me, really, it doesn’t matter. We’re just little people; these decisions are made by politicians high up who only care about their jobs,” said Savash, who has lived in Israel for 10 years and speaks almost flawless Hebrew. “If we believed that this was not a good time for us to be in Israel, we’d run back to Turkey, but we’re fine here. There’s no reason to leave.”
Savash, who, like virtually all of the several thousand Turkish migrant workers in Israel, works in construction, said such “political issues” often seemed to affect him in his line of work.
“I have worked with Palestinians, people from Gaza, a lot, but whenever something happens with Israel, they [Israel] close the door to them and they can’t work, so who is this helping?” he asked.
According to Kav La’Oved, the migrant workers hot line, the Turkish migrant community in Israel numbers only 3,000-4,000, with virtually all of them living in the Tel Aviv area. They started arriving over the past 15 years to work in construction, some staying after their visas expired.
As the card-playing continued on Wednesday, a middle-aged Israeli man, Avi, walked in and was greeted warmly before sitting down for some tea.
“I come here a lot; it’s always very friendly here,” he said.
Perhaps to illustrate his point, Avi felt free to speak in well above a whisper about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anti-Israeli stance, referring to him as “the father of Hamas.”
The proprietor of the club, Dudu, was less apprehensive than others about wading into politics with an Israeli reporter, saying that “what Israel is doing is only helping the Muslim world. It’s all bad for Israel.”
Dudu, who is married to an Israeli woman and has lived in Israel for 18 years, spoke warmly of his appreciation of Israel, but added that it would be a lie to act as though nothing had changed.
“It’s all changed. I used to think that Israel and Turkey were the best of friends, but Israel goes and turns up its nose at Turkey, acts as though Turkey doesn’t matter at all,” he said. “But I’ll tell you something, Erdogan, he’s no frier [sucker].”
At that moment, a Palestinian vendor walked in, hawking plastic children’s toys. Dudu responded, “No, we have no money. Anyway, we’re being sent back to Turkey to prepare to fight the Jews,” at which the room erupted in laughter.
Turning to the sole Jew in the room (Avi had already left), Dudu added, “I’m joking, of course. Turkey doesn’t want a war with Israel. Turkey wants a war of words, of diplomacy, that’s all it is. It’s politics, Erdogan knows this. If it weren’t for Israel doing stupid things, he probably wouldn’t be able to stay in power.”
Dudu said that in the current climate, Turkish satellite TV was obsessed with Israel. Savash and the rest of the room’s occupants agreed.
“It’s all Israel, all the time; they have nothing else to talk about. Even before the attack on the ship, it was Israel 24 hours a day,” Savash said, as the flat-screen TV showed footage of the Monday-morning Gaza flotilla raid in which at least four Turkish citizens were killed.
At the mention of Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s public upbraiding of the Turkish ambassador to Israel a few months ago, patrons shook their heads as Savash said, “All of Turkey saw this, everyone talked about it. Diplomacy in Israel doesn’t seem to speak very clearly or very well at all.”
Both men were highly critical of Israel’s use of deadly force on the Gaza flotilla, in spite of video footage showing the activists beating IDF soldiers with iron poles, chairs and everything else they had at hand.
“Somebody breaks into your house with a gun; you won’t attack him with whatever you have? Of course you would,” Savash said; the rest of the table nodded.
“There were a lot of things the Israelis could have done differently,” he added.
The men refused to acknowledge Turkey’s often lax rules of engagement when dealing with Kurdish rebels, with Dudu saying, “I served in the Turkish commandos against Kurdish terrorists in the East [of Turkey]. If someone wasn’t armed, you couldn’t shoot them. If you did, it had to be only below the waist; above the waist, and you could go to jail for years. You should use guns when you’re fighting in Gaza, but not against people on a boat who aren’t armed.”
When the subject of the Armenian genocide came up, excuses were not made, but there was a dismissal of collective guilt.
“What happened with the Armenians was three generations ago. Our generation has nothing to do with this,” Dudu said.
Both Savash and Dudu brushed off suggestions that this was not a safe time for Israelis to visit Turkey. An Israeli tourist boycott would not harm Turkey, they said, cracking jokes on Israeli tourists’ habit of stealing towels from Turkish hotels: “We have people coming from all over the world; an Israeli boycott wouldn’t hurt us. Also, we’d keep more of our towels.”
Joking aside, Dudu described an often complicated relationship with
Israel in the 18 years he’s lived here, the last eight of which he has
been married to an Israeli woman.
“To tell you the truth, we fight about Israel’s politics a lot.
Verbally, not with hands, but it has caused problems and tension in our
marriage, a lot of tension,” Dudu said. He added that his relationship
with his Israeli in-laws was nonexistent.
Like Savash, Dudu agreed that the problems between Israel and Turkey
were not on the personal level, and that Turks and Israelis got along
“I’ve never had any personal problems or altercations with Jews in
Israel. With Arabs, yes, but not with Jews,” he said. “The problem is
politics – the problem is the fanatics on both sides.”