The history of Jews in Anatolia and the former territories of the Ottoman Empire extends back thousands of years. But the defining moment in the relations between Turks and Jews came in 1492, when Sultan Bayezid II welcomed the Jewish people to Ottoman lands, following their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula. This momentous decision and the exodus that ensued, made İstanbul a center of Jewish life in Europe. It also cemented the role of Jewish people in the Empire, and the tradition of co-habitation of different Ottoman millets, namely of Muslims, Jews and Christians. However, this was not the first, nor the last time that the Turkish people extended a helping hand to Jews, persecuted for their identity.
During his attendance at a special service in the historic Neve Shalom Synagogue in İstanbul on 10 March, President Isaac Herzog of Israel was presented with a gift from the Turkish Jewish Community.
That gift was a replica of a royal decree (ferman) from Sultan Abdülaziz – one of the rulers of the Ottoman Empire – addressed to kazasker, the judicial authority of that time. The order aimed to provide protection for Jews in the Empire against the re-surfaced allegations of blood libel, a centuries old anti-Semitic canard. In the face of increased violence targeted at Jews in the mid-1800s, the Sultan acted to provide legal protection to prevent false incriminations or judgements against Jews.
As President Herzog recalled while sharing his family’s history in that special service in İstanbul, Türkiye again became a safe harbor for those who fled from the crimes of Nazis in Europe during the Second World War.
Prominent members of the world Jewry, as well as Turkish diplomats living or serving across the conflict lines in Europe, helped hundreds of Jewish families to flee the crimes of Nazis, often issuing Turkish passports to hide their identities. For their humanitarian work, the Turkish diplomats were honored by several international organizations—including the United Nations. The Turkish Jews requested that Yad Vashem in Jerusalem recognize certain Turkish diplomats who saved Jews during the Second World War as “Righteous Gentiles”. In fact, a plaque in their honor was unveiled by Yad Vashem on May 13, 1996, in Har HaZikaron, Jerusalem.
Moreover, during the Second World War, Türkiye served as a corridor of safe passage for many Jews fleeing Nazi Europe. Türkiye’s location assured that Jews would seek to use it as an escape route to Palestine, especially after the Turkish Government permitted various rescue committees to operate from İstanbul and maintained its neutrality in the early periods of the war. Also, the Turkish government’s welcoming of the Jewish refugee academics in 1933-1939 from Nazi Germany and employing them in institutions of higher education saved the lives of Jewish intellectuals while contributing to Turkish society and scientific advancement.
Today, Türkiye’s Jewish citizens continue to enrich and contribute to the Turkish Republic, as it approaches its centenary. Throughout our history, Türkiye has never been, nor would it ever be a source of expulsion of Jews from their homes. In no period of Turkish history, there existed a so-called “Jewish question”. Neither antisemitism, nor bigotry of any kind against Jews have ever found roots in Anatolia.
Remembering this history is necessary to better understand the significance and the symbolism of the first Presidential visit between Türkiye and Israel in 14 years. President Herzog brought a visible message of peace and partnership from the moment his plane, marked with these very words, landed in the Turkish capital Ankara on 9 March. President Herzog and his delegation received a warm welcome by President Erdoğan, similar to the reception late Haim Herzog received when he visited Türkiye 30 years ago, to mark the 500th anniversary of the exodus from the Iberian Peninsula to the Ottoman Empire.
Both Presidents defined the visit as a new milestone in the relationship between the two states. The relationship witnessed periods of highs and lows since Türkiye’s recognition of Israel in 1949. Presidents Erdoğan and Herzog struck a strong and optimistic chord on improving the bilateral and good neighborly relations. They spoke of their shared goal to revive political dialogue, foster regional cooperation, and adopt a resolute stance against all forms of hate.
The Turkish and Israeli peoples should support their presidents to realize this vision and to seize the opportunity to constructively transform Turkish-Israeli relations, based on mutual trust and interdependence. Here is why this is needed:
There is no room for complacency for both countries when it comes to:
- managing regional dynamics that contain, inter alia, (a)symmetrical security threats and challenges,
- the need to further secure and diversify energy supply routes,
- promoting inter-cultural synergy as a bulwark against Islamophobia and Antisemitism and all sorts of hate crimes.
Turkish-Israeli interaction offers more than a conventional regional partnership in the face of malign actors and trends. Conventional partnerships are for a particular issue, be it against a threat or for an objective. Conventional partnerships have expiration dates. Türkiye and Israel, on the other hand, share a common neighborhood, heritage, and not least, a common future.
Dealing with malign actors and their activities throughout our region is a particular area for enhanced coordination. Turkish-Israeli partnership would be effective to further curb destabilizing moves in broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Transparent Turkish-Israeli engagement on regional affairs would lead by example in terms of prioritizing dialogue and diplomacy. In addition, we should not lose sight over the potential gains a structured Turkish-Israeli partnership would bring about to the regions beyond MENA, such as the Caucasus, Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
A more robust regional security cooperation between the two, with a specific focus on fighting terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, will also have an added value to both countries’ national security.
Great power competition is becoming the dominant trend in today’s world. This competition, which runs the risk of confrontation, writes off the so-called value of proxy-led spheres of influence. Inter-regional and intra-regional alliances are becoming all the more relevant as great powers have begun to rely on capable, willing and reliable state partners. Regional actors being able to cooperate with each other against this backdrop will have the upper hand for two reasons: for better positioning their individual security as well as aligning their interests to protect themselves from the pitfalls of confrontation.
There is thus an untapped potential for Türkiye and Israel to explore venues of cooperation and joint lines of effort to strengthen Trans-Atlantic interests. The era of great power competition requires inter-state alliances and partnerships to be cherished and nurtured. That is why revived cooperation between Türkiye and Israel should also be encouraged by the United States. This, with the participation of other regional partners, may pioneer shaping a new international system in the years ahead.
Over the past decades, we have witnessed on multiple occasions that no state is in a position to handle contemporary challenges on its own, regardless of the capabilities and means it possesses. Resumed Turkish-Israeli rapprochement will certainly be a game-changer that will also shape the developments in the Middle East resulting from the great power competition.
Recent and ongoing conflicts have demonstrated yet another vulnerability in our region’s lack of diversified energy supply routes. It is high time to abandon unrealistic plans on extracting regional energy deposits and start looking at genuine models for cooperation of sharing and transporting the region’s resources. Turkish-Israeli reconciliation will undoubtedly provide fresh impetus to the exploration, production, transportation and marketing of hydrocarbons, in particular natural gas.
It is natural to expect that Türkiye and Israel will not see eye to eye on every issue after just one high-level visit. Some remaining divergences, including on the issue of Palestine and the future of Palestinians, will not disappear overnight. But Turkish and Israeli geostrategic interests dictate a close and multi-layered partnership. Türkiye and Israel should be able to build on their commonalities and foster a sustainable dialogue, while setting aside their diverging opinions.
As Dag Hammarskjöld, second Secretary-General of the UN once said, “we are not permitted to choose the frame of our destiny. But what we put into it is ours.”
Dr. Hasan Murat Mercan is the Ambassador of Türkiye to the United States.
* Recently, the Turkish government has adopted the spelling of Turkey as Türkiye in all English-language publications. This has been used in this essay.