Youth perspectives on Turkey-Israel

Youth perspectives on Turkey-Israel

Relations between Turkey and Israel are often presented as a security-driven, unwanted alliance stemming from the scarcity of alternatives and as a forced relationship imposed upon a society represented as deeply hostile toward Israel. 

Our report, “Pathways to a Common Future: Youth Perspectives on Turkey-Israel” published by the Ankara Policy Center with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, challenges the pre-judgement of an inborn hostility of Turkish society toward Israel. Recognizing the need to pinpoint the problems that lie at the heart of Turkish-Israeli relations, this report offers a diagnosis for the issues between the two countries and provides an overview of how these issues are perceived by younger generations in Turkey.

The findings of this study are limited to survey participants who are 25- to 30-year-old young adults with either a conservative background – politicized and not politicized – or affiliated with secular political parties, and more specifically, far-left movements. These findings can help to integrate fresh data and insights in debates on Turkish-Israeli relations and will highlight the need to reconsider patterns inherited from the early 1990s that are no longer adequate to understand Turkish society. 

A more balanced and healthy interpretation of Israel is gaining traction among Turkish youth. The respondents have limited knowledge of Israel aside from the Palestinian conflict and the holy city of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, all respondents acknowledge the state of Israel as a reality. Its legitimacy is not questioned. Hence, Israel’s status as a Middle Eastern neighbor is also well-established among the respondents. In comparison to the 1990s, the image of Israel as a gateway to the Western world is not relevant anymore. Israel is overwhelmingly perceived as a major trade and business partner. Most importantly, there is no mention of Israel as a security-oriented prospect. This is all the more interesting in the context of the re-securitization of the political agenda where the threat of terrorism is widespread. None of the respondents mention the security-oriented cooperation between Israel and the Turkish armed forces in the late 1990s that strengthened during the Feb. 28 post-modern coup that led to the eviction of the Islamist party in charge of Turkey at the time. 

In foreign policy, a clear preference is given to rational policies and Realpolitik considerations over emotional reactions. Most of the respondents think that Israel as the most powerful country in the Middle East should matter for Turkey. Israel is foremost discerned as an economic power. The development of relations between Turkey and Israel is also considered within both groups as potentially beneficial to minorities in Israel and Turkey.

Palestine is considered a key factor in Turkey-Israel relations. The significance of Palestine derives from its perceived connection to Islam and hinges on the notion of justice. Nevertheless, most respondents believe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians should not be a pre-condition in developing cultural and economic ties with Israel. Furthermore, building good relations with Israel is considered a prerequisite to efficiently supporting Palestinians. 

There is a sense of proximity with Israelis and Jews which stems from a shared geography and experience of living together. Culture and religion are factors of proximity as well as the importance of conservatism within both societies. The Jewish identity is foremost perceived as a religious identity. Almost all respondents overwhelmingly acknowledge the situation of Turkish Jews as difficult. Respondents argue that the treatment of Turkish Jews is interdependent of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. 

The findings of the report indicate that there is notable interest in Israel and the Jewish identity among Turkish youth. The respondents overwhelmingly acknowledge that they don’t have enough information on Israel and Judaism. This interest, if actualized, can certainly open up new channels of communication and understanding. However, lingering curiosity about Israel and Judaism coupled with the fear-mongering rhetoric and religious education can also feed stereotypes and prejudices. Trade relations and improving economic ties can certainly foster better bilateral relations but it doesn’t necessarily yield positive societal dynamics. Cultural initiatives that support mutual communication and dialogue should also compliment business development. 

There is a growing awareness of Holocaust-related events. Turkey has been contributing to the activities of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) since 2008. State participation in these commemoration events have not gone unnoticed. Furthermore, these events have contributed to shaping the perceptions around Turkish-Jewish and Turkish-Israeli relations. Hate speech and anti-Semitic discourse that still exists on social media outlets as well recent initiatives taken by the Turkish government such as criminalizing hate speech indicate a positive direction in dealing with issues of intolerance and rather embraces a more diverse background. 

Burcu Gültekin Punsmann, PhD, is a senior researcher at the Ankara Policy Center. Senem Çevik, PhD, is a lecturer at the University of California Irvine.