How Turkey and Israel Treat Minorities
JNS.org – When the Israeli military aircraft hit sites on April 16 linked to the Gaza Strip’s terrorist Hamas government, including an armaments production facility and a smuggling tunnel, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quick to attribute the incident to “Israel’s hatred of Islam.” He said:
“This is, of course, a very clear indication of Israel’s attitude towards Muslims, unfortunately. We know of Israel’s hatred of Islam. But unfortunately, they do not give up on these habits. The Israeli administration does not give up on such behaviors. In the face of [Israel’s] hatred of religion and its hostility to Islam, we want all of humanity to monitor Israel’s hostility to Islam more closely and evaluate [this hostility] accordingly. As long as Israel maintains this attitude, it is not possible for our bilateral relations to reach the desired level.”
Erdoğan’s false accusations against Israel will likely increase Jew-hatred and Israel-hatred within Turkey. Israel’s policies concerning Muslims, however, do not demonstrate hatred or hostility towards the community. There is no institutional segregation between Jews and Muslim Arabs in Israel.
Besides Muslim Arabs, Israel also has other minorities such as the Druze, Christians and Circassians.
One major difference between the Israeli and Turkish governments concerns the rights they recognize for religious minorities employed by the government. In Israel, Arabs have held various government posts. There is no legal obstacle, not even in the military or police, which minorities in Israel must face to work in public institutions. For instance, George Kara, a Christian who is now a justice on the Supreme Court, was previously a district court judge and was the judge who sentenced former Israeli President Moshe Katsav to prison in 2011.
In Israel, one can find the Druze serving as major generals. Hossein Fares is one example; he was the first Druze head of the Israel border police from 2004 to 2007. Moreover, Majalli Wahabi, a member of the Israeli parliament, briefly assumed the position of president due to President Katsav’s leave of absence and Acting President Dalia Itzik’s trip abroad in February 2007, making him the first non-Jew to act as Israel’s head of state.
There are also plenty of Muslim police and military officers in Israel. Jamal Hakroosh, the first Muslim major-general in the Israeli National Police, represented the Israeli Public Security Ministry and the police at the United Nations in Geneva in 2019. He also delivered a speech at the World Conference against Discrimination and Racism in Durban, South Africa.
The Civil Servants Law of 1926 in Turkey, however, made it virtually impossible for Christians and Jews to work as civil servants at state institutions. Consequently, thousands of non-Muslims lost their jobs. The law required that civil servants had to be “Turkish,” which demonstrated that the government saw its non-Muslim citizens as “non-Turkish.” The condition of being “Turkish” was changed to “Turkish citizen” in 1965, but the 1926 law has continued unchanged. As human-rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz notes, “Not even one single non-Muslim army officer, policeman or judge exists in Turkey. Non-Muslims are absent not only from the security and judiciary establishment but from the public sector altogether.”
The differences between the linguistic rights that minorities enjoy in each country are also massive. Arabic, like Hebrew, was an official language in Israel until 2018, when the Israeli parliament decided to grant it a “special status.” At the time of Israel’s founding, only one Arab high school was operating in the country. Today, there are hundreds. Most Arab children attend them. Turkey, however, does not even officially recognize the Kurdish and Assyrian languages of its citizens.
And its treatment of its ethnic and religious minorities has been anything but democratic or equal. The indigenous non-Muslims in Turkey are on the verge of extinction as a result of 1913-23 Christian genocide, forced deportations, pogroms, as well as other crimes and discrimination throughout the past decades.
The population of the Armenian community in Turkey was only about 40,000 in 2019. “More than half of them are old, and most of the rest are going abroad gradually,” noted Murad Mıhçı, an Armenian activist in Istanbul. Today, around 10,000 Jews and equally few Assyrians remain in Turkey, whose total population is more than 80 million. According to a 2005 news report, the Greek population was only 1,244 in Istanbul, the ancient city of Byzantium or Constantinople, which was established and ruled by Greeks for centuries.
Today, only around 0.1 percent of Turkey’s population is made up of Christians or Jews. Yet this dying minority is still exposed to pressures and rights abuses. The Assyrian language, for instance, is still not officially recognized by Turkey. The Assyrian community is still struggling to open its first primary school in Istanbul, with no support from the government.
Neither does the Kurdish community have the right to be educated in their own language. The first private Kurdish-language primary school, which was inaugurated in 2014, for instance, was closed down by the ministry of national education in 2016.
The Turkish government has never accepted the right to self-rule of any indigenous non-Turkish community in Asia Minor. This includes those such as Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks, although the presence of these communities in Asia Minor predates the 11th-century Turkic invasion by millennia. Turkey also refuses to resolve the Kurdish issue through democratic means and instead violently silences, arrests and even kills its own Kurdish citizens that request equal rights.
Israel, however, has already accepted offers for Palestinian-Arab statehood—not just once, but on six separate occasions. The most recent was the “Peace to Prosperity” plan outlined by former President Donald Trump’s administration.
David Brog, executive director of the Maccabee Task Force, explains that the other two-state solutions that were rejected by the Palestinian-Arab leadership were the 1936 Peel Commission’s offer, the 1947 UN General Assembly offer, the 1967 Israeli offer following the Six-Day War, the 2000 Israeli offer at Camp David to Yasser Arafat and the 2008 Israeli offer to Mahmoud Abbas.
Moreover, Israel made normalization deals with four Muslim nations in 2020: The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. These deals are further proof that Israel is not “hostile to Islam,” contrary to what Erdoğan says.
The actual hostility in the region is from antisemites and extremist Muslims who see the existence of a Jewish state and Jerusalem as its capital as an “occupation.” For instance, in response to former Trump’s Mideast plan, Erdoğan said: “Leaving Jerusalem entirely into Israel’s bloody clutches will be the greatest evil that has been done to all humankind.”
The media in Turkey also largely follows Erdoğan’s example. During the five days after the US embassy in Israel was moved to Jerusalem on May 14, 2018, “almost 60 percent of articles [in the Turkish media] containing hate speech targeted Jews.” This information was reported by the Hrant Dink Foundation.
If there will ever be peace in the Middle East, it will be when the Palestinian-Arab leadership, as well as other Islamists such as Erdoğan’s government, are convinced that both Jews and Arabs have a right to statehood in the Middle East. Today, there are 22 Arab countries, including the Palestinian territories that are members of the Arab League. But there is only one Jewish state with its capital, Jerusalem, which for three millennia has been the center of the Jewish faith.
Denying ancient Jewish ties to Israel and its Jewish holy sites will never contribute to a peaceful resolution of the issue. It will only lead to further conflicts and tension in the region.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. She is currently a research student at the MA Woodman-Scheller Israel Studies International Program of the Ben-Gurion University in Israel.