When I got on the plane last night, the flight attendant greeted me in Turkish. It had been a week since I’d heard anyone speak Turkish. The moment she said hello to me, I had a warm feeling. It wasn’t just the familiar sound of Turkish; it was her sweetness, which is so typical of Turkey. They’d given me a center row seat; I’d asked for a window seat. I asked if she could help, and she said yes, of course, she’d make sure I was happy. It was the way she said it–she was so typically Turkish in her obvious desire to make sure a guest was happy.
When the plane landed, I felt, “Oh, good, I’m home.” Everyone knows that feeling.
I’m an American citizen, not a Turkish citizen. I’m certainly not an Israeli citizen. I don’t speak a word of Hebrew. My Turkish is primitive at best, and like everyone in Turkey, I’m frustrated constantly by the country even as I adore it. I’ve been an expatriate for so long that I don’t feel completely at home anywhere anymore. But I’ve been living here for a long time, and now my internal homing beacon points, generally, toward Istanbul.
It’s unbearable to me that the formerly close relationship between Turkey and Israel has been injured so deeply. It makes no sense strategically, for Turkey or for Israel. And it makes no sense culturally. These countries have far more in common than they realize. They are both new nation-states–remember, the Turkish Republic is almost as young as the state of Israel, both products of the upheavals of the first half of the 20th century, and both deeply insecure on the world stage because of it. They are both multi-ethnic democracies. One has a Muslim minority; the other a Jewish minority; both are remarkably tolerant in a region not known for tolerance; both are secular states; both face similar security concerns in a dangerous region. Both are struggling to figure out how to reconcile the concept of a secularism with the piety of its citizens; both are countries with young, vibrant, populations. Both countries have universal conscription, and not one mother in either country is happy to pack her son off to the army. I’m not pointing this out because I’m corny and sentimental: It’s just a fact.
The Turks you’ve seen in the videos howling about their longing to be martyrs for the jihad? They are not the majority, you’ve just got to trust me. It’s a country of some 70 million people; any country this big will have its nuts. These nuts have a terrific media strategy, so they end up looking like the real face of Turkey. They’re not. Ordinary Turks don’t have a media strategy. They have jobs–oftentimes hard, demanding jobs–and families.
I might add that both countries desperately need a mute button. On the plane last night I was going nuts: All I wanted was a bit of quiet after a long week, and the guys in the aisle behind me just wouldn’t shut up. It doesn’t matter whether they were Turkish or Israeli, when it comes to making noise, they’re interchangeable. They could have said everything they needed to say quietly, without disturbing everyone around them, but that concept just doesn’t compute–not in Turkey, not in Israel. The cultural similarities between Israelis and Turks vastly exceed the dissimilarities, in so many ways.
I heard not one word of malevolence toward Turkey in Israel–just deep sadness and bewilderment. Many people I spoke to fondly remembered vacations in Istanbul and Antalya.
I did hear something that makes me insane with frustration: A sentiment to the effect of, “What’s the point of trying to explain our point of view to the Turkish people? They hate us now.”
They don’t. That’s an understandable siege mentality talking, but it’s not reality. There are certainly some people in Turkey who hate Israel. There is a much larger number of people who don’t know much about Israel and don’t think much about Israel, but who would be well-disposed to the country if they knew more about it.
This relationship just has to be repaired. If there’s anything I can do to help, I’ll try. Turks, if you have questions about Israel, ask me. Israelis, if you’ve got questions about Turkey, ask me. It doesn’t have to be this way; it’s a pointless tragedy that it is, and it breaks my heart.
You’ll never manage to convince me that this is the way it must be. I know far too much about Turkey and about Israel to believe it.