A Turkish-American Jew in Palestine: Just like Home

*Source: All photos authors own ©

*Source: All photos authors own ©

“Hey! Answer me when I am talking to you!”

I paused the music on my phone and looked up. The bus had stopped, and there were two Israeli soldiers standing in the front of the bus. Both were looking at me and my brother expectantly.

Puzzled, I stared back at them. I also noticed the elderly Palestinian woman in the seat in front of me was also staring at me. She could tell I didn’t understand what was going on:

“Why didn’t you get off the bus? All the young people must get off the bus!”

I answered, somewhat startled; “Do we have to get off the bus?”

“Yes you do!”

At this point, after hearing our English, the Israeli soldiers realized that we probably weren’t Palestinian. The female soldier who had been shouting at us in Hebrew for some time asked to see our identification. We showed her our American passports.

“Well, why didn’t you answer when I spoke to you? Answer when I speak to you.” We couldn’t think of a response at the time, but later my brother and I later fantasized about a good comeback “Umm…because we don’t speak Hebrew, obviously.”

After a few tense minutes, the young Palestinian men and women who had exited the bus to go through the checkpoint started to pile back on. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself for having been so rudely treated by Israeli soldiers, but as I saw the resigned faces of the young Palestinians heading back to their seats, seemingly un-phased, I realized many Palestinians have to deal with this kind of thing on an every day basis.

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It was my first time visiting Israel, and as the son of a Jewish-American mother I was expecting the trip to be a re-discovery of my ancient Jewish roots, a chance to tap into my inner-Jew. But I didn’t find that to be exactly the case. In fact, although it all felt oddly familiar, it was so foreign to me at the same time…

The “Welcome home, ancient ancestor!” narrative began to unravel as early as the Tel-Aviv airport. My brother and I got taken out of the passport-control line and escorted to a small interrogation room. I guess it was somewhat to be expected when you are travelling as two sons of a Turkish father with the name “Mehmet.”

“Where’s your mother, why didn’t she come?”

“Umm, she’s still back in Antalya, Turkey working on her Ph.D.”

“Yeah, uhuh. Sure. A likely story” they seemingly thought. But they let us pass eventually because we did have American passports after all.

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One of the most striking aspects of everyday life in Israel was the general sense of segregation. Even within the relatively small area of the Old City in Jerusalem, you can sense a dramatic change in atmosphere going from one ethnic quarter to another, only a few streets apart.

Passing through the various gates of the Old City often felt like you were in fact passing through a space-warp portal; you’d finish your expensive cup of coffee at a chic and trendy coffee shop in the Jewish quarter surrounded by sidecurls, cosmopolitans and Kipah’d heads, stumble through the maze of the Old City and through the Damascus gate, and suddenly find yourself in the heart of the Arab world with mostly covered women and the sound of grainy Arabesque music blasting from the cheap stereo of a Falafel stand.

My father is Christian, so he wanted to see all of the religious sites like the Church of the Nativity, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Zacchaeus Tree; most of which happen to be located in the Occupied West Bank. Passing through the bizarre portal of the Damascus Gate was a daily and bewildering experience for us, since most of the buses heading into Palestinian territory left from the bus terminal just outside the Damascus gate.

We soon learned that, in the context of such strict systematic segregation, even our independent travel in the West Bank could be regarded as a suspicious activity. Our Palestinian taxi driver in Jericho named Muhammed warned us not to mention that we had visited the West Bank during our exit out of Israel: “It’s unnecessary, it will only delay you because they will be suspicious.”

Other incidents reinforced this prevailing sense that being among Palestinians or even sympathizing with their plight was suspicious, threatening. During one of our wandering afternoons in the Arab quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, my brother and I stepped into a T-shirt shop to pick up some souvenirs before heading back to Turkey. We struck up a conversation with the Palestinian store owner, who was thrilled, as usual, to hear that we were half Turkish; “Oh! Turqiya! We love Turqiya!”

The shop featured an odd assortment of Pro-Palestinian and Pro-Zionist designs, Including an “I love the IDF” shirt. I pointed out a “Free Gaza, Free Palestine” shirt to my brother, and the store owner, noticing, responded;

“Actually those are the shirts I really want to sell. If it was up to me I would not sell these other ones. But if I only sold pro-Palestinian shirts, the Israeli police would not allow it, and shut me down.”

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Oddly enough, it was the Jewishness of Israel that ended up feeling most foreign to me. Growing up in what might be called a Messianic-Jewish-Evangelical home in a predominantly Muslim country, I had never attended Hebrew school, so I was mesmerized by the beautiful and often stern language, but simultaneously felt disconnected and inadequate in my Jewishness.

I was also not used to seeing so many Jews in one place. In most of my previous contexts, Jews were always a minority group, in both America and most definitely in Turkey. It seemed strange and unnatural to me to see so many proud, bold, public displays of Jewishness at every corner. My initial and perhaps unconscious response was “Jesus, tone it down a bit…”

In fact what was most familiar, what felt most like home to me, was the militant nationalism of Israeli Zionism. Actually, I had grown up in a very similar cultural context in my hometown of Ankara, Turkey, and my time in Israel triggered some unexpected memories from my childhood.

We were walking along the tram-line in Jerusalem one day during our visit and as I casually surveyed the shop windows, I saw something that caught my eye; it was an IDF soldier’s uniform with a helmet, belt holsters and everything, only shrunken down a few sizes. It was clearly intended for children.

Suddenly I had a flashback. It was an ordinary cold and clear Monday morning in Ankara and I was still not quite awake. My shivering classmates and I stood in single-file, waiting for the ceremony to begin.

A voice blasted over the loudspeakers:

Hazır ol!” (Attention!)

We snapped into formation, our fists clenched at our sides.

“Rahat!” (At ease!”)

I was five years old.

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Militarism and Nationalism have always been influential forces in Turkish society, as my years spent in the Turkish education system will attest. However, I believe today Turkey is experiencing a surge in nationalism because, like Israel, the country is faced with increasing acts of terrorism. The Turkish government has been combating the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in the east since the ceasefire ended this past summer.

Like in Israel, many young Turkish soldiers have been killed in the armed conflict against the PKK, and these losses affect the public deeply, knowing that these “martyrs” could have easily been their own sons serving their mandatory military service.

The Turkish people are sick and tired of waking up to the news of bombing, afterbombing after bombing which have claimed the lives of civilians, bombings which have largely been carried out by Kurdish militant groups with suspected ties to the PKK. Likewise Israelis are fed up with Hamas terrorism and the all too frequent stabbing incidents targeting Israeli soldiers and civilians. Essentially, both societies are faced with a pandemic of fear and anger.

Fuelled by the clouded judgement led by this fear and anger however, both the Israeli and Turkish government’s response to terrorism has been indiscriminate collective punishment of what is considered the monolithic ‘Other’; that is ‘Kurds’ in Turkey and ‘Palestinians’ in Israel.

As I chatted with a Palestinian coffee shop owner in Bethlehem, who attested to having never been outside the Occupied West Bank, I wondered: what’s the difference between this man’s story and the thousands of Kurdish civilians currently trapped in places like Cizre and Sur in Turkey’s east, who have been living under round-the-clock, state imposed curfews for months on end?

I considered the thousands of innocent Palestinian Gazans who lost their homes and their lives under the IDF’s collective punishment campaign “Operation Protective Edge” in the summer of 2014 and wondered; how was that different from the hundreds of Kurdish civilians who also lost their homes and their lives under the Turkish government’s recent anti-terror operations in the east?

I thought about the Palestinian t-shirt shop-owner I met in Jerusalem who was afraid the Israeli police would shut him down if he sold too many pro-Palestinian shirts. He reminded me of the hundreds of academics who faced police investigations, threats, and arrests for signing a declaration that called for peace in Turkey’s east. Both scenarios essentially mistake criticisms of the status quo for terrorism, and restrict the freedom expression in calling for a “Free Palestine,” or for the end of state violence in Turkey’s east as a result of this.

The kind of nationalism dominant in Turkey and Israel is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is built on indiscriminate essentialisms. Nationalism seeks to gather a distinct, unified and secure “us” which is most easily accomplished by identifying a distinct “them.”

As a response to fear and anger though, it usually works on simplistic logic; you are either with us, or you are with them. You are either a Palestinian terrorist, a self-hating Jew, or a respectable Israeli. You are either a “vatan haini” (a traitor to your country), a terrorist sympathizer as scores of journalists and academics have been accused of, or you support the Turkish government and the war in the east. There is no in-between, no room for self-critique in nationalistic societies such as these.

Finally, in its most potent form, nationalism results in the dehumanization of the “other.” This disturbing reality was brought to international attention again this week following the release of a graphic video in which an Israeli soldier shot an unarmed and injured Palestinian man in the head from close range.

The video was released by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, and the activist who filmed the incident has been receiving death threats from right wing Israeli groups. A recent poll revealed that the majority of Israeli citizens defend and support the actions of the Israeli soldier who is now facing manslaughter charges.

Similarly, on October 13, three days after the Ankara bombing which claimed the lives of 97 activists who were protesting state violence in the east, the Turkish and Icelandic national football teams gathered in Konya, Turkey for a friendly match. A minute of silence was organized before the match to pay respects to the victims who had died in the bombing, but Turkish fans cruelly booed and whistled during the minute, clearly indicating their refusal, or perhaps inability, to grieve the loss of innocent Kurdish lives.

The oppression of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli state is a reality that is gaining awareness and receiving criticism from international governments, including Turkey. In fact, the great irony is that Turkey is among the champions of Palestinian human rights, including the 2010 flotilla incident in which a Turkish boat attempted to pass through the Gaza blockade.

The truly depressing reality though, is that the Turkish government and the Turkish public, both strong critics of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians, fail to realize they are themselves guilty of the same crimes committed against the Kurdish community in Turkey. If Turkish society really wants to display a commitment to human rights and protest the collective punishment of Palestinians, we need to start by addressing the injustices of collective punishment on our own soil; otherwise all this Palestinian activism talk simply reveals itself as holier-than-thou hypocrisy.

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