Historical Events

Cultural and historical context between the Jews and the Turks

The Jews and the Turks have been maintaining strong cultural and historical ties spanning at least for two millennia. During the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire extended its territory eastwards and reached the lands of Judea and Samaria. The Jews who lived in these lands (including the city of Jerusalem) fled to Spain where they established small Jewish communities. For many years, the Spanish Jews lived happily and did not experience any major difficulties about their unique religion and culture (Leyla, 2005). All this time, Spain was ruled by Muslim rulers who crossed from North Africa to establish religious colonies in Europe. Towards the end of the 13th century AD, the Muslims were driven out of Spain by Christians who established Spain as their new religious center. The new rulers decreed that all people convert to Christianity, a rule that drove the Muslims back to North Africa (Leyla, 2005).     

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Spanish Jews faced strong pressure to convert to Christianity. Those who did not convert were expelled to other countries. The rulers of the Ottoman Empire issued a decree welcoming the Jews who were fleeing the forceful conversion in Spain (Amikam, 1998). The Ottoman Empire had encouraged the policy of religious tolerance because its territory extended over vast areas and cut across diverse religions. Thus, a significant number of the Jews fleeing Spain settled in Turkey, largely on the European side of the vast empire. These Jews came to be known as the Sephardic Jews (Ottoman Jews) and are credited with fostering the first ever cultural relations between the Jewish community and Muslim Turks. 

In the subsequent centuries, successive Ottoman rulers, as well as the modern day Republic of Turkey, offered a haven to persecuted Jews especially those who lived European countries. The Jews arriving from Spain brought with them new systems of communication such as the printing press which had just been invented. During World War II, the Jews living in Turkey were the only ones who were not persecuted because of the strong support they enjoyed from the Turks. When the state of Israel was established in 1948, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize it (Melanie, n.d). Overall, the history of Jewish-Turkish interactions is rich with cultural influences on both sides.

Crisis Years in Turkish-Israel Relations between 2008 and 2016

Although Turks and Jews have deep historical and cultural ties, the relations between them sank to the lowest levels between the years 2008-2016 (Nasi, 2017). Strained relations between the two countries began to emerge when in 2008 Turkey condemned Israel’s invasion of Gaza (TRT World, 2016). The Israel army had waged a major offensive against Gaza ostensibly to stem out Hamas terrorists. In the ensuing conflicts, hundreds of Gaza residents were killed and thousands more injured. Also, Palestinian civilian infrastructure and property worth billions of dollars were damaged. Worse, the Israel government blocked Gaza, meaning that no humanitarian aid could enter the Palestinian territory. During the 2009 World Economic Forum conference in Switzerland, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan Reccep criticized the Israel offense in Gaza. The criticism heightened tensions between the two countries.

The bad relations between the two countries took a notch higher after Israel attacked a Gaza-bound Turkish flotilla in 2010. The flotilla was from Turkey and was carrying humanitarian aid (food and medical supplies) (Nasi, 2017). In the unfortunate incident, nine Turkish citizens aboard the convoy were killed. The attack took place in international waters which exacerbated widespread international criticism against Israel (Adnan, 2016). The government of Turkey described the invasion of the flotilla as an act of terrorism. Immediately, the Turkish Ambassador to Israel was recalled. The government of Israel refused to express regrets over the incident causing relations between the two countries to become more constrained. Neighboring countries sided with Turkey and condemned Israel for attacking a civilian vessel. In more profound ways, the flotilla incident led to further isolation of Israel in the region.

The strained relations between the two countries continued into late 2011 when Turkey suspended military and security engagements with Israel. Turkey also downgraded its diplomatic relationships with Israel. This was after the United Nations released a condemning report against Israel regarding the attack on the Turkish ships (AFP, 2015). Turkey demanded not only an apology but also compensation from Israel and an assurance that such incidents would not be allowed to recur. Despite the deteriorating political relations, the two countries maintained strong business ties. The need to maintain business ties perhaps compelled Israel to reconsider its diplomatic relations with Turkey and other neighboring countries (Nasi, 2017).     

Under duress from the United States, Israel was pressed to apologize formally to Turkey. The apology happened in 2013 when the prime minister of Israel telephoned his Turkish counterpart to apologize over the 2010 ship raid (Nasi, 2017). The telephone apology was followed a few days later by a formal statement from the government of Israel expressing unreserved apology (Oren, 2016). Israel also offered $20,000 as compensation for the attack and pledged to ease the longstanding blockade on Gaza. The Turkish government accepted the apology but remained skeptical of Israel actions in Gaza and other Palestinian territories. In mid-2015, top diplomats from the two countries held a series of meetings to deliberate on ways of normalizing relations. A key outcome of these deliberations was the resumption of diplomatic ties. Moreover, Israel accepted to allow Turkey to access Gaza through Israeli ports. Essentially, relations have normalized as can be evidenced by the fact that in July 2016, Israel allowed Turkey to ship 10,000 tons of relief aid to Gaza.   

Israel and Turkey 

Although political means played a key role in restoring relations between Israel and Turkey during the crisis years, cultural and musical diplomacy played an equally important role. As a matter of fact, several event-concerts and cultural movements were held between 2008 and 2015. At the height of the battered diplomatic relations, musicians from both countries took the initiative to bridge the political differences (Tokyay, 2012). Although music does not have the ability to bridge feuding parties at government-to-government levels, it stimulates high levels of people-to-people contact which help in creating mutual understanding between cultures. It is for this reason that musicians from both countries have crossed the Mediterranean numerous times to be the ambassadors of good neighborhood and cultural tolerance.

There are numerous examples which show that the two countries have used music to bolster cultural tolerance and understanding. For example, Yinon Muallem, an Israeli music composer and percussionist has performed in Turkey with leading Turkish musicians such as Tekfen Philharmonic, Sirin Pancaroglu, and Omer Faruk Tekbilek. Muallen is not only a Turkey-based Israeli musician but is also the cultural attaché of Israel in Turkey. In his capacity as a cultural attaché, Muallen is a high-ranking diplomat whose primary responsibility is to promote the culture of his country in the Muslim-majority country. Muallen works closely with other cultural ambassadors such as writers and artists to promote the image of their country. The numerous performances that Muallen performed across Turkish cities helped soften people’s stance towards Israel considering that the two countries were going through a period of heightened tension. 

Muallen is not the only high-ranking Israel musician to have taken the voluntary initiative to promote mutual understanding between Israel and Turkey through music. Israel’s leading metal band, Orphaned Land, has been staging concerts and performances in the Muslim country since 2001. During the crisis years, the band did not hesitate to show support for the speedy resumption of diplomatic ties between the two countries. For instance, the band made a much-hyped visit to Turkey in February 2012. The performance attracted tens of thousands of Turkish fans. The Jewish music band is so popular in Turkey that in 2010 it won a prestigious peace prize from the Istanbul Commerce University (Tokyay, 2012). The award was in recognition of Orphaned Land’s contribution to the strengthening of cultural relationships between Muslims and Jews. Many of the Orphaned Land’s songs are based on verses from Jewish liturgy, the Holy Quran, and other religious texts. In an attempt to boost cultural ties between Israel and Turkey, the Orphaned Land collaborated with leading Turkish rock musicians such as Erkin Koray. Such collaborations are symbolic of close friendships between the peoples of the two countries.  

During the crisis period, tens of high-ranking Turkish musicians performed in Israel. For example, Cem Mansur, a world-famous Turkish musician conducted three concerts in the Israeli city of Haifa in 2012. The concerts were attended by thousands of Israel citizens and proved that music can unite people, even during periods of adversity (Hugi, 2013). One notable thing about Mansur’s style of music is that it is founded on the philosophy of promoting mutual understanding and religious tolerance in the world. This philosophy is reflected in the messages of his songs. It was for this reason that the musician was able to attract thousands of Israel fans despite the damaged relationship between his country and Israel.  

Another major incident of cultural diplomacy between Israel and Turkey happened in 2011 when Itamar Erez (an Israel guitarist) made a concert tour of Turkey. During these concerts, Erez performed alongside renowned Turkish musicians such as Omer Faruk Tekbilek. He not only attracted a large number of local fans but also used the opportunity to dispel fears of further escalation in the relationships between his country and Turkey (Hugi, 2013). His songs communicated messages of brotherhood, tolerance, and reconciliation. In essence, Erez acted as a cultural diplomat and a positive force for reconciliation at a time when both countries were desperate of renewing ties for the sake of their people. Yasmin Levy, an Israel music composer, and singer who has always performed in Istanbul follows in the footsteps of many musicians who have taken it upon themselves to use cultural exchanges to bridge any diplomatic gaps between the two countries.

It is worth mentioning that the heightened tensions between Israel and Turkey between 2008 and 2016 not only affected relationships between the two countries but also enlivened the decades-old hatred of regional countries against Israel. In any event, the Turkish-Israel tensions were exacerbated by Israel’s invasion of Gaza, an Arab territory. As such, regional Arab and Muslim countries joined hands in condemning Israel. For this reason, Israel focused not only on normalizing ties with Turkey but also the other neighboring countries. During the 2011 Jerusalem International Oud Festival, Israel allowed musicians from several Arab countries to attend the festivals and perform. The festival was a great opportunity for the Jewish to reaffirm their strong cultural ties with Arabs notwithstanding the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. 

Notable Turkish musicians who performed during the Jerusalem Festival included Sabahat Akkiraz, who stood out not only because of her stellar performance but because she was a sitting member of parliament in Turkey (Ziffer, 2012). Akkiraz is the top most ranking official from Turkey’s parliament to have performed in an international cultural event. As such, her appearance in the Jerusalem festival was an indication that Turkey was on a path of reconciliation with Israel. Another Turkish musician who performed during the event was Aynur Dogan. She sang in Kurdish and all her songs focused on the renewal of ties between regional countries. 

In 2014, Israeli film director Roy Sher with the Turkish singer Mehtap Demir, Greek singer Martha and Israeli oud player Tomer Katz made important concerts in the Israeli cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The concerts were attended by thousands of Turkish and Israeli nationals, and served as a platform for showcasing the strong cultural ties between the two countries. The performers also made a documentary about Ottoman-jewish singer Roza Eskenazi (Barton, 2014).  In 2014, Turkish band, Harel Shachal, performed in Jaffa, Israel. The performance consisted of ancient Ottoman music and attracted a huge audience comprising of both Israel and Turkish nationals (Fiske, 2014). The performance was an opportunity to showcase and foster strong cultural ties between the two countries. In the same year, a musical conference was held in the Israeli city of Jerusalem. Dubbed the “Mediterranean Musical Dialogue”, the conference brought together musicians and other stakeholders from the Mediterranean region to focus on ways of fostering strong diplomatic ties using music (Bilitzky, 2011). A similar conference was held in the Turkish city of Mersin (Belen Alonso Management, n.d).       

In March 2016, two cultural events were held simultaneously in Tel Aviv and Istanbul. Dubbed the Sound Ports Festival, the purpose of these events was to create cultural bridges between the two largest capitals of the Middle East. Istanbul and Tel Aviv have influenced each other both economically and culturally for a very long time (Tzvi, 2012). The 2016 events were an opportunity for the citizens of the two countries to blend and explore each other’s culture not only regarding music but also cuisines, record fairs, lectures, and exhibitions. Going forward, the Sound Ports Festival promises to be an annual event whose primary focus is on bringing the people of the two countries together. Inevitably, the event will go a long way in using culture to harmonize diplomatic and political relations between the two countries.    

The various music events helped the citizens of Israel and Turkey to develop new thinking and to appreciate cultural differences based on knowledge of each other. In the history of the two countries, no major events have been able to unite people from the two countries for the purpose of promoting diplomatic ties through music (Tzvi, 2012). In this regard, the numerous performances were an effective tool for enabling the people to forget the common challenges facing their countries. One thing that keeps music and culture an even better tool for diplomacy is that they are directed at the masses and not the government. This way, mutual friendship is created between the masses even if their countries are in a state of adversity.     

Indeed, many Israeli musicians have worked with their counterparts even from countries that maintain nil diplomatic relations with Israel. These countries include Iran and Syria, an indication that cultural ties transcend greater boundaries than political ties. Whenever musicians from foreign countries perform in Israel, they do not feel any alienation (Ziffer, 2012). This is a clear indication that in as much as Israel may harbor political differences with other countries, it is not in her interest to promote hatred between her people and those of other countries. By allowing unrestrained cultural exchanges through music, Israel’s actions are an affirmation that it values the culture as an important vessel of international peace and understanding.