For a long time, Turkey and Israel ranked as the democratic and secular figureheads of the Middle East, bastions of strength that had to stick together against the undemocratic tide of the region. This was the case despite the fact that the bilateral relations developed less through democratic forces, than through the military, which in the nineties was built up to counterbalance the muslim-orientated foreign policy of [former prime minister Necmettin] Erbakan (of the pro-islamist welfare party). The military was followed by the economy and the tourism market. These relations, however, were not particularly popular with the majority: rather, it is only recently that public opinion has begun to play a significant role in Turkish politics.
For this reason, some interpret the deteriorating Turkish-Israeli relations as a ‘normalisation’ of Turkish foreign policy. Public opinions are being increasingly considered, and instead of only good relations with Israel, Turkey is looking to establish good relations with all of the states of the Middle East. Through this process old enemies such as Syria and northern Iraq have become allies, and Iran has become a close partner in questions of energy resources. Close relations with Israel are in this respect particularly troubling, as a cooling of Turkish-Israeli relations is in effect a prerequisite for rapprochement with the Arabian states and Iran.
Couple the famous ‘one minute’ request in Davos in January 2009 and this weekend’s incidents, and you can see how relations have reached temporary rock bottom. Turkey can rightly criticise Israel for the killing of nine of its citizens, who wanted to send relief supplies to the Gaza Strip. The tone on the Turkish side is sharp. It was even planned that warships should be dispatched to the coast of Israel. There is growing talk of a price which Israel has to pay. It is ultimately about human lives, human rights, children and innocent civilians.
This is precisely the problem with the Turkish response. If it was really only about human rights, why is the protest against Israel so vehement and martial, when, at the same time, the genocide in Darfur is not just being ignored, but Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir is being absolved of any responsibility, with the contention that muslims could never commit genocide. If it was just about the improvement of children’s living standards, why are hundreds of Kurdish children simultaneously being sentenced in Turkey for showing the symbol of victory or throwing stones at demonstrations (both actions are deemed to signal membership in a terrorist organisation). Whilst most governments demanded an investigation into the election results in Iran in summer 2009, which were obviously falsified, Turkey offered its congratulations on the eve of the election. Turkey equally failed to utter words of warning with regard to the observance of human rights when Iranian protesters were beaten and killed.
The Turkish government is not anti-semitic in its criticisms of Israel! Equally, Israel’s right to exist is never questioned. Amongst the public, however, mobilisation of the masses against Israel’s existence has been successful. BAK (the peace and justice coalition campaign in Turkey) is calling for a demonstration under the slogan ‘Murderer Israel’: such calls would never be made in relation to other states. Naturally, incitements to boycotting have followed: on the first day against Israeli products, and then, on the second day, a long list of firms to be boycotted was circulated on the internet. The Profilo electronic brand conglomerate was a primary target, and jewish-owned Vakko clothing brand was third on the list, both Jewish-owned businesses founded by Turkish citizens. The founder of Profilo, Jak Kamhi, is also founder of the 500 Year Foundation, established in 1992 to commemorate the anniversary of the admission of Spanish Jews in 1492. Furthermore, Kamhi has been awarded the Turkish national order of merit, and was an MP in the Turkish parliament in the nineties. Profilo and Vakko are on the list because the boycotting motto has changed, from Israeli products to ‘products associated with jewish capital’.
Approaching the Turkish past
These outbreaks are possible because Turkey does not have the same historical experiences as most states within the EU. The foundation of the EU was also the result of a 'never again' ideology, that led to the reconciliation of the arch enemies Germany and France, and later the unification of the majority of western Europe, a process which after 1990 extended to eastern Europe. The worst catastrophe of the second world war was the annihilation of the European Jews as a result of nazi policies in Germany. The massive scale of this crime has therefore become not just part of the German conscience, but also that of Europe as a whole.
Drawing lessons from its disastrous participation in the first world war, Turkey assumed a position of neutrality in the second world war. Until 1944, Turkey in fact had a treaty of friendship with Germany, but was spared the turmoil of war and the annihilation of the jews, for the most part. Furthermore, Turkey’s official ideology defines itself as non-racist and non anti-semitic per se, and the process of coming to terms with Turkey’s own darker chapters of history has only begun to take shape in the last six years.
For this reason, a ‘europisation’ of Turkey would have to entail Turkey’s comprehension of this section of European history - the holocaust and the consequences of the second world war – as an aspect of its own history, as well as a more candid approach to its past, including the treatment of minorities. This would lead to the justified and necessary criticism of Israel becoming less tarnished by ugly anti-semitic outbursts, and criticism of human rights violations would not be aimed solely at the ‘jewish state’, but also at arab-muslim neighbours.
The suthor is a political analyst in Istanbul