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Turkey's Charm Offensive

Ariel Ben Solomon

Turkey’s new ambassador to Israel warms up diplomatic relations

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

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WARMING UP “Today we continue to enjoy living with our Jewish citizens who are part of our society,” declared Turkish ambassador to Israel Kemal Okem, reflecting the government’s renewed efforts at warmer diplomatic relations (Photos: Peleg Levy)

T urkey’s new ambassador to Israel, Dr. Kemal Okem, turned on the charm last week in his first public comments since taking up his post in December after years of sour relations.

He said that Jews who made aliyah from Turkey acted as a bridge between the two countries. Perhaps more controversially, he also insisted that Jews did not make aliyah because they were fleeing anti-Semitism, but because of their attraction for Israel. Asked how relations are developing between Turkey and Israel, Okem told Mishpacha, “It is good.”

The Turkish ambassador spoke at a conference at Bar-Ilan University titled, “Turkish Jewry: Aliyah, Society, and Culture,” organized by the Dahan Center, a research center that studies the Sephardic Jewish experience. The crowd, which included Turkish olim, welcomed Okem warmly and many among the few hundred guests approached him to chat after the conference ended. Okem spoke in an empathetic way that was surprising considering the fiery anti-Israel rhetoric of Islamist Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 2011 after Israeli Navy Seals boarded the Mavi Marmara — a Gaza “aid” ship whose passengers included armed protestors — and killed nine Turkish citizens. Ties were restored in December.

In his address, Okem recalled that Turkey accepted Jews fleeing the 1492 Spanish Inquisition and cited research demonstrating an earlier Jewish presence in Turkey. He also mentioned that Ashkenazi Jewry fled to his country, escaping European pogroms.

“Today we continue to enjoy living with our Jewish citizens who are part of our society,” Okem said. And in return, he said “Israelis enjoy the Boureka culture brought by Turkish Jews.”

In truth, there have been just as many downs as ups in the relationship between the Jews and the Turkish government, says Dr. Shimon Ohayon, chairman of the Dahan Center, who noted that at the end of the 19th century, some 300,000 Jews lived in Turkey and played a major role in the country’s economy and trade. “Unfortunately, we have seen in recent years that political events do not pass over the Jewish community, which has become more vulnerable,” Ohayon said. “But the government is careful to adequately protect the Jewish community.”

David Elad, who recently returned from shlichut for the Jewish Agency in Turkey, said aliyah from Turkey is taking place without much publicity. Citing statistics, Elad said that there has been a 280% increase in Turkish aliyah from 2014 until the end of 2016, a period of increasing domestic instability and terror attacks.

The assimilation rate is around 50% in Turkey, Elad said, and both parents in Jewish families tend to work full-time and have an average of two children. However, senior citizens in Turkey are in crisis, Elad said. Elderly Jews in Izmir and Istanbul, for instance, rent apartments funded by meager pensions and charity from the local Jewish communities.

Perhaps that’s why around 5,000 Turkish Jews — about a third of the total Turkish Jewish community that have roots in Spain and Portugal — have requested passports from those countries under new laws that grant citizenship to those who can prove their ancestry.

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