Experts say ‘Jewish’ diplomacy was key in Turkey-Israel rapprochement

Tensions between Israel and Turkey have a bitter effect on the Turkish Jewish community.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog shake hands during a joint news conference in Ankara, Turkey March 9, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog shake hands during a joint news conference in Ankara, Turkey March 9, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)

Despite the recent terror scare last month, Jewish life in Istanbul has continued as usual. 

While Israeli tourists who, according to Israel’s security services, were primary targets for Iranian terrorists rushed back home, 15,000 Turkish Jews went on with their lives, waiting for the threat to go away. After weeks of close cooperation between security services on both sides, Israel eased its elevated travel warning to Istanbul, and now-Prime Minister Yair Lapid, last month while serving as foreign minister made his first journey to Turkey

The winds of normalization were again blowing between Ankara and Jerusalem, and the members of the Jewish community in Turkey felt relieved, as tensions diffused.

As a matter of fact, this time around the Jews in Turkey were not merely bystanders: some of them were deeply involved in the reconciliation process that has been going on for more than a year. 

According to Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, an expert on Turkey and Turkish history at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, although “Jewish diplomacy” was not the only factor in the current rapprochement, it played quite a significant role along the way. 

 TOURISTS, SOME from Israel, enjoy at a resort in Antalya, in southern Turkey, last week. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90) TOURISTS, SOME from Israel, enjoy at a resort in Antalya, in southern Turkey, last week. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

“When (there is) sharp criticism against Israel, it also affects the Jewish community. It means more security around synagogues and Jewish schools, more tension everywhere..now there is some feeling of a honeymoon and of relief.”

Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak

“For better or worse, there is a positive bias in Turkey regarding Jerusalem as a bridge to Washington. Turkey is interested in improving its relations with the US in order to ease the sanctions and get the green light from Congress for approval of F-16 sales, since they feel that Greece is getting an upper hand in military superiority in the region. Since the war in Ukraine was launched, Turkey also realized the importance of being a member of NATO. So, today Erdogan is working hard on mending ties with Israel, and with the US. The Turkish Jews also assisted in bringing closer Turkey and US Jewry,” Cohen Yanarocak told The Media Line.

By the end of December 2021, a group of Turkish rabbis as well as members of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States was welcomed by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erodgan in his presidential palace in Ankara. He told the group that “the ties with Israel are vital for regional stability.”

Multicultural practices

Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, Turkey’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi and chair of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States, told The Media Line that the idea of this meeting was actually hatched during an iftar meal that he shared with Turkish Ambassador to the US Hasan Murat Mercan in April 2021.

“Having a Kosher #iftar with HE Ambassador @HMuratMercan at the official residence of @TurkishEmbassy during the month of #Ramadan is indeed an example of brotherhood that stems from thousands of years of coexistence of Jews and Muslims in Turkey. Thank you for your hospitality,” Chitrik tweeted that day.

He says that during the meeting with Erdogan nine months later he felt that there was a striking difference between the public image of the Turkish president and the real person he met in Ankara. Later the rabbi would publish a blog post on the Times of Israel website titled “Personal relationships are the future of Jewish-Muslim coexistence.”

Underlining the importance of the Abraham Accords signed in Washington by Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in September 2020, Chitrik also argues that the process of reconciliation between Jews and the Islamic world “should not be tied to changing political climates or diplomatic breakthroughs,” and should emphasize the importance of personal relations.

During the two years that have passed since the signing of the Abraham Accords, Jewish life has flourished in the UAE and Bahrain. Kosher restaurants opened their doors in those countries to Jews who poured in from across the globe, while Jewish weddings and bar mitzvas were celebrated as well. All these welcome and exciting developments were widely covered in the Israeli press, while Jewish life in Turkey continued, far away from media attention. 

Recent rocky relations

Relations between Israel and Turkey reached another negative climax during the war in Gaza in May 2021, when Erdogan compared Israel’s actions in Gaza to “genocide” and “Hitler’s barbarism.”

“It is not always easy,” admits Chitrik, but adds that throughout his now 20-year rule “Erdogan was the best president for the Jews.”

During the last few years, five new synagogues were erected in Turkey, one in the town of Edirne, which once had a flourishing Jewish community and now has none. Prior to World War II, the Jewish population of Turkey was 150,000. Today there are 15,000 Jews left in the county.

According to Cohen Yanarocak, tensions between Israel and Turkey certainly make life bitter for the Jewish community in Turkey. 

“When (there is) sharp criticism against Israel, it also affects the Jewish community. It means more security around synagogues and Jewish schools, more tension everywhere. Some people leave, many have foreign passports since as Sephardim they are entitled to a Spanish or a Portuguese passport, their children go to study abroad. Now there is some feeling of a honeymoon and of relief,” he concludes.

“It is always better for the Jews in Turkey when relations with Israel are good. At the same time, the Jews here do not always wish to be a part of Israeli politics. They live, work and serve in the army here. Just as US Jews are patriots of the US, the Turkish Jews are patriots of Turkey,” Chitrik said.