Turkey, Israel & Jews

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk





 The following is an excerpt from The Restoration of Israel: Christian Zionism in Religion, Literature, and Politics (2006)


Turkey and Israel

An example of a positive attitude on the part of a Muslim government concerning the restoration of Israel is the policy of the Republic of Turkey with respect to the Jewish state. The Republic of Turkey is a democratic secular state and a member of NATO as well as the United Nations. It was established in 1923. The Turkish Republic is a residue of the Ottoman Empire, which came to an end with the First World War. Of its 69 million people, 98% are Muslims.

Nevertheless Turkey recognized Israel on the 28th of March 1949 and immediately established diplomatic relations with it. At that time the Soviet Union demanded the cessation by the Turks of two eastern provinces, Kars and Ardhan, to the Soviet Union. In view of this threat, Turkey sought closer relations with the United States, which gradually supplied Turkey with military and economic assistance under the 1947 Truman doctrine. The Turkish government also concluded that its safety and national interests were best insured by allying themselves with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

At that time, Turkey sought to join the soon-to-be established Baghdad pact with the other Muslim countries in the Middle East. The purpose of that pact was to oppose the Soviet Union. However, the Egyptian government in 1954 expelled the Turkish ambassador and denounced Turkish foreign policy as anti-Arab because of Turkey's relationship to Israel.

In order to counteract Arab criticism, Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel in 1956, although friendly relations remained by simply labeling the diplomat representing Turkey in Israel a charge d’affairs.

Another reason for Turkey’s relationship with Israel was the support which the Arab states gave the Greeks in their dispute with Turkey over Cyprus. Evidently the Arab states almost always voted at the United Nations general assembly in favor of the Greek Cypriots’ demands and against their Moslem brethren. This went so far that the Arabs, i.e. Egypt, Iraq and Syria, supported the United Nations resolution affirming the sovereignty of Greek dominated Cyprus and the illegality of Turkish intervention.

During and after the 1967 "Six-Day War", which the surrounding Arab states had initiated against Israel, the Arabs, having been defeated, claimed that Israel was the aggressor. The entire Muslim world took that position except Turkey despite the fact that Turkey participated in demanding that Israel return to the pre-war 1967 lines of demarcation. Subsequently, the Turkish foreign minister took part in the Rabat Conference of Islamic states but refused to sign the final communiqué because of its extremism concerning Israel.

Needing oil, the Turkish government acceded to a number of Arab demands concerning Israel until the end of the 1980’s. Then, the Turkish policy towards the Arabs changed. One reason for this change was the Arab support of the Greek position concerning Cyprus. The second reason was the Arab support for Bulgaria in its dispute with Turkey concerning Bulgaria’s mistreatment of its Turkish minority.

In addition to these disputes, Turkey became embroiled with both Syria and Iraq concerning water rights involving the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which originate in Turkey.

Furthermore, Iraq refused, at the San Reno conference, a protocol which permitted Turkey to pursue Kurdish adults into northern Iraq. In addition to all that, in 1991, Turkey supported the invasion of Iraq by the United States and went so far as to send Turkish troops into Iraq as part of a UN coalition.

Turkey therefore gradually allied itself with Israel, not only because relations with Syria and Iraq had deteriorated over the water issue but also because Turkish trade was 80% with the industrialized Western countries, so that Turkey could ignore Arab threats and anger over Turkey’s rapprochement with Israel. That being the case, Turkey signed a tourism cooperation agreement with Israel in June of 1992 with the result that an average of three hundred thousand Israelis visit Turkey every year. Thereafter, in 1994, Turkey also agreed to a “strategic relationship” with Israel to fight terrorism.

Turkey also agreed to supply Israel with 400 million cubic meters of water annually from the Manavgat river and followed this with four agreements signed by the president of Turkey, Suleyman Demirel, during his visit to Israel in March of 1996. These agreements dealt with economic cooperation, free trade, promotion of bilateral investments and prevention of double taxation.

Then, on February 23, 1996, Turkey and Israel signed a military training agreement. This agreement provided for joint training of the two countries’ air forces. It gave the Israeli air force access to Turkish airspace, reciprocal naval visits and the training of military personnel in each other's military academies.

A $632 million agreement upgrading Turkey's 54 US manufactured F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft by Israel was concluded in August of 1996. That same agreement provided that Turkey buy a number of air to surface missiles produced by Israel and that Israel also upgrade five fighter jets belonging to Turkey. Israel also sold Turkey Israeli early warning Phalcon aircraft and modernized Turkish 300 US-made M-16 tanks. These agreements led to joint naval exercises between Turkey, Israel and the United States off the coast of Israel. These exercises were held in 1999 and again in 2001 and continued into 2005.

The Jewish Minority in Turkey

When the Turkish government signed the peace treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the newly founded republic recognized Jews, Greeks and Armenians as minorities entitled to special rights. These rights include freedom of living, religious freedom, and the right of migration as well as legal and political equality with the majority. In addition Jews and other minorities were given the right to use their mother tongue (Ladino) in court as well the right to open their own schools and hold religious ceremonies.

In 1928 the Turkish parliament passed a Law on Secularism which goes far beyond the American conception of the separation of church and state. As a result, the full equality of all its citizens regardless of differences of religion, ethnicity, gender or class was firmly established within the Constitution. In the 1940s, the rights of Jews and other minorities were expanded even more. Nevertheless nearly half the Jewish population of Turkey migrated to Israel upon its foundation in 1948.

This migration was fueled in the main by a rise in hostility against Jews and the so-called “alien elements within the nation”. This attitude was promoted by the Democratic Party, which had legitimized Islam in opposition to the tradition of secularization and the total separation of religion from the state. In 1980, however, the military intervened in politics in Turkey and in 1982 replaced the old constitution with the new one. Accordingly, Christians and Jews were exempt from lessons on Islam in school and freed from any obligation to participate in classes on religion or ethics.

In 1984 and again in 2003 synagogues were bombed in Istanbul. In 1984 the bombing of the Neva Shalom Synagogue, which left a death toll of 23, was blamed on “foreign elements”, meaning a Palestinian Arab.

In 2003 two synagogues were bombed in Istanbul, killing 24 and injuring more than 300 people. These bombings were also blamed on Arabs and some local collaborators. Evidently suicide bombers inspired by Osama bin Laden were responsible for these terrorist killings. According to police reports, the majority of those who died were Muslims. Consequently, the Jewish community experienced even more solidarity with the Muslim majority than ever before.

The attitude of Turkey towards Israel and its Jewish minority clearly demonstrates that secularization and the separation of church and state is the best guarantee of Jewish and other minority survival in Muslim lands. 

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Restoration of Israel (2006).

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