Yehud, Israel — Passions were flaring at the local Turkish Heritage Center. At a hastily organized meeting, participants — old and new Turkish immigrants to Israel and their descendents — debated in Hebrew and Turkish what, if anything, they could do to improve Israel’s plummeting image in Turkey.
Some at the meeting said they gave interviews to the Turkish media and used social networks like Facebook to defend Israel. But many spoke of a deep sense of helplessness; no matter what Israel did or how its actions were explained, they said, public opinion in Turkey was turning increasingly and perhaps irreparably against Israel.
It had been five days since Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists and injured scores more on a flotilla carrying humanitarian cargo to Gaza. Seven Israeli soldiers were also injured during the clash that broke out when the commandos sprang a surprise 4 a.m. attack on the Mavi Marmara in international waters as it and the other flotilla boats sought to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
Eyal Peretz, chairman of Arkadas, a group representing Israelis of Turkish descent, said that he could understand some of the outrage in Turkey.
“Just imagine nine Israelis or Americans were killed in a raid by the Turkish army,” he said. “I’m not sure we or the Americans would react much differently.”
He added, however, that Israel was forced into a corner by Turkey’s endorsement of the flotilla, which, he said, was bent on creating a provocation. Israel maintains that it must maintain the blockade to stop Hamas, the Palestinian movement that governs Gaza, from bringing in rockets and other weapons to fire against Israel. Critics note that Israel also keeps out many foods, medicines, building materials and commercial goods, contributing to widespread poverty and hardship in Gaza.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t depend on us, and that’s what so sad about this story,” Peretz said. “It depends on one guy, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, who likes to throw tantrums.”
Others at the gathering said that for decades Israel’s northern neighbor has been slowly sliding away from Europe toward its Islamic neighbors.
Izel Namar, 36, said he left Turkey, the country of his birth, because he “didn’t see a future” for his daughter there.
Similar conversations have been taking place in recent days all over the country among Israelis who feel betrayed by what they see as Turkey’s realignment with Palestinians after decades as Israel’s ally. But perhaps nowhere does this sentiment run deeper than in Yehud, a town of 26,000 in central Israel that is the unofficial capital of the country’s Turkish community.
In 1948 thousands of Turkish Jews, mostly from the Aegean city of Izmir, settled here, together with immigrants from Poland and Yemen, on the remains of a Palestinian village whose inhabitants fled or were expelled during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
Peretz, who was born in Yehud to parents from Izmir, remembers what it was like growing up in an Israeli town with a distinctly Turkish flavor.
“Back then, Yehud was Turkey,” he recalled. “I remember hearing the sound of Turkish, and more commonly Ladino (the Spanish-based language of Turkey’s Jews), on the street all the time.”
In 2003 Peretz and a number of other activists founded Arkadas to represent the Turkish Jewish community in Israel, support its culture and strengthen ties between Israeli and Turkish people.
“At the moment we have about 4,200 members,” Peretz said while giving a tour of the organization’s headquarters at the Turkish Heritage Center. The center houses the organization’s offices, a small museum, a library and classrooms where Turkish language is taught. In the backyard stands a monument to Mustafa Kamal, known as Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
The Turkish community’s influence in Yehud can be seen elsewhere around town. In the old city center, where the dilapidated mosque of the earlier Palestinian village still stands, a handful of restaurants serves borek, doner kebab and other traditional Turkish foods.
Pinchas Moshe, a Yehud resident of Turkish descent, owns a small store selling sweet and savory pastries, plus a Turkish yogurt drink called Ayran. The store’s outdoor sign displays the Turkish star and crescent. Inside, a huge Israeli flag drapes the wall.
“I’ve definitely seen a drop in sales since relations between Israel and Turkey worsened,” Moshe said. “People aren’t going to stop eating borek, but they may eat a bit less of it.”
Mehmet Kizilday, a store employee hailing from a small Turkish village near Anakara, spoke about the pain of watching Israel and Turkey feud.
“It makes my heart ache,” said Kizilday. “It’s like seeing two brothers fight.” Kizilday isn’t Jewish but has made Israel his home for the past 20 years.
“I feel just as close to Israel as I do to Turkey,” he said in Hebrew. “They are both important to me.”
At the Turkish Heritage Center, the debate raged. Peretz touched a nerve when he said that Turkish Jews in Turkey were reluctant to speak up for Israel in the domestic media for fear of their safety.
“Why do I get the feeling that the Jewish community in Turkey is living in a concrete bunker and only comes up for air once in a while?” he asked.
David Lavi, an Istanbul native who made aliyah with his family 15 years ago, said Peretz didn’t understand the danger of identifying with Israel in what he described as an increasingly Islamic society. Peretz, he pointed out, has never lived in Turkey.
“I received threats in the mail, my car was keyed and swastikas were scrawled on the community’s buildings” Lavi said, recalling his time there. In Israel, during the 2006 Lebanon war, he said, “A rocket fell right outside my house in Karmiel, but I still feel much safer here. In Turkey, I was living in exile.”
From outside the community, Tel Aviv University’s Alon Liel, Israel’s preeminent academic expert on Turkey and a former envoy to that country, took a more nuanced view.
“The Jewish community in Turkey is part of the educated class allied with the secular political parties against Erdogan and his camp, even though many of its members are religious,” Liel explained. “However, there are many in the Jewish community who know Erdogan personally and have good relations with him back from when he was the mayor of Istanbul.
“Turkey’s Jews have always said that the door to his office has been open to them,” Liel said. “But, certainly, they’ve disagreed with him on Israel, and in the current hostile environment being Jewish in Turkey isn’t easy.”
The meeting at the cultural center ended on a somber note. Many of the participants predicted an exodus of Turkey’s Jews to Israel because of growing hostility in their country.
Can Turhan, a native of Istanbul who has been in Israel 13 years, disagreed. One of the few meeting participants to speak optimistically about the future of Jews in Turkey and Israeli-Turkish ties, he said, “Maybe a few Jews will decide to come here, but most will stay. The government can’t turn Turkey into an Islamic society. There are too many people who are against it.
“Things will improve,” Turhan said. “The Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent ruled over half the world but even his power eventually faded. With Erdogan, too, it will be the same.”
Contact Gil Shefler at firstname.lastname@example.org