Israel and Turkey seem caught together in a society of mutual shame. They have related on friendly terms for decades, under the influence of Kemalism. For Turks who value their Ottoman heritage, Turkey’s lost control of Palestine and Jerusalem to the British in the early 20th century still brings pangs of discontent. Not only was the Ottoman Empire the peak of Turkish power in the last half millennium, it was also the protector of the three holiest sites of Islam. But the modern secular republic of Turkey has accepted Israel’s statehood and legitimacy.
During Israel’s recent offensive into Gaza to dislodge Hamas rocket positions, the Turkish government and people hotly criticized Israel. Various organizations in Turkey, including the Red Crescent, responded by holding large rallies and covering cities and villages alike with banners declaring solidarity with the Palestinians and requesting donations for humanitarian aid. The national Ministry of Education solicited aid contributions in the public and private education sectors. Turkish television ran non-stop coverage of Israeli bombings across Gaza, so anyone anywhere could observe the repeated scenes of smoke rising into the air followed by close-ups of injured civilians. Few battles in history have received such intense scrutiny in a non-combatant country.
After the Gaza offensive ended, the leaders from Israel and Turkey found themselves face to face at the Davos conference in Switzerland. In front of other world leaders and observers, Israeli president Shimon Peres presented the rationale for the offensive. In response, using some choice and provocative words, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, took the opportunity to denounce Israel’s Gaza offensive. Raising his voice, Erdogan said Israel should be banned from the UN and that actions like the Gaza offensive would eventually lead to its own destruction.
In later remarks, Erdogan said he was speaking only about the Gaza offensive and that he rejected anti-Semitism. Once back in Turkey, Erdogan was hailed as a hero for daring to speak his mind on a sensitive international issue. Israeli diplomats have tried to downplay the remarks and any effect it might have on Israeli-Turkish relationships. The two countries have had relatively close economic and military ties that mark Turkey’s special position in the world as a sort of moderate Muslim bridge between the East and the West. But the Davos incident underscores the difficulty that the two countries have begun to experience during Erdogan’s Islamic-leaning AK party government over the last eight years.
Matters worsened again this week when Israeli Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi Israeli remarked in speech that Turkey should “look in the mirror” before criticizing Israel for it’s recent excursion into Gaza to reduce the threat of Hamas, referring to Turkey’s on-going problems with certain minorities and Cyprus. Turkish media immediately replied by calling Mizrahi’s comments hideous.
The Western observer might find it difficult to fully comprehend this back and forth pattern of mutual shaming. Obviously there are political and economic factors, and both sides have some legitimate claims to the moral high ground in a complex situation. But there is also the deeply embedded value system of honor and shame. Both sides have publicly brought dishonor upon the other, which in turn puts the burden upon all the diplomats to try to restore and protect their own country’s honor and the honor of the other. For example, last fall Turkey made an agreement with Israel to act as a mediator in a renewed peace process between Syria and Israel. Just when it was supposed to sit down at the peace table, Israel invaded Gaza, destroying any hope Turkey had of becoming a regional power broker. In other words, it shamed Turkey, particularly Erdogan and his AK party. In the first days of the Gaza bombing, Israel sent a message to Erdogan in an effort to preserve good ties with Turkey saying, “We don’t intend to shame Premier Erdogan or the Turkish government. We just want to protect our citizens.” At Davos, Erdogan continued the shame game by telling the Davos audience, “shame on you for applauding the President’s speech.”
As an historical note to bring light onto this subject, consider the treatment of prisoners in the Abu Garib prison in Iraq. Abusing prisoners would be wrong in any situation, but in an honor and shame society, it became an act shaming all people collectively. The millions of Muslims cheering the journalist who tossed his shoes at former President Bush still remember the deep sense of shame that Abu Garib brought upon their community. The shoes tossed at Bush weren’t just convenient projectiles, they were unique symbols chosen to bring a deep expression of shame upon Bush and Americans, although the message was probably lost on the intended audience.
The shades of honor and shame operating in the current situation can be seen in the way that each side continues to release mixed messages. Each side tries to get as close to the edge as possible where it can preserve or restore its own honor and let the other side keep enough honor so the relationship isn’t completely broken. So Erdogan in his Davos comments didn’t actually speak directly to Peres, he aimed his remarks at the moderator then afterwards said he wasn’t criticizing the Jewish people. Israeli diplomats must now try to figure out how to preserve their own and Turkish honor after Mizrahi comments.
Ron Coody is a Ph.D. candidate in Intercultural Studies at Concordia Seminary. From 1993-1998, he lived and worked in Kazakstan doing environmental work. Since 2002, Mr. Coody and his family have resided in Istanbul, Turkey.
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