Text size

Journalists are expected to keep a distance from the subjects they cover, but the crisis in relations with Turkey has filled me with sadness and a sense of loss. It pains me to watch the wrathful and hate-filled anti-Israel speeches of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and it pains me to watch Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman respond to Erdogan with his characteristic combination of ignorance and crudeness. We are not a country of liars and murderers, as Erdogan claims, and Turkey is not an Iran that seeks to wipe Israel off the map, as Lieberman believes.

Aside from peace with Jordan, the alliance with Turkey was the most important thing Israel got in return for the peace talks conducted in Madrid and Oslo. The security cooperation with Turkey, the bilateral trade and the tourism went beyond what Israel expected. The relationship flourished not just because of a momentary overlap of interests; Israel and Turkey have a lot in common. Israel's ties with Turkey exist on a more emotion-laden plane than its ties with other countries. We're just too alike.

Israel's first two prime ministers, David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett, spoke Turkish. Ben-Gurion studied law in Istanbul. Sharett served as an officer in the Ottoman army during World War I. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his right-hand man, Ismet Inonu, served as senior commanders on the Palestine front.

The ideological connection is more important than the history trivia, though. Ben-Gurion and Ataturk rebelled against the religious societies in which they were raised and established secular countries with a Western orientation. Ben-Gurion's establishmentarianism was the Israeli version of Turkey's Kemalism, and both had to struggle against the religious and their influence. The shortcomings of democracy in both countries are similar: problematic attitudes toward minorities and excessive military influence, which in Turkey has resulted in military coups.

During the early 1990s, under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin in Israel and Tansu Ciller in Turkey, it seemed that Western secularism was heading for a historic victory in both countries, which appeared to be on the cusp of deservedly capturing a spot among the more developed democracies. Turkey was knocking on the doors of the European Union and Israel was enjoying the fruits of normalization and globalization that resulted from Madrid and Oslo.

At the time, Israel was in the process of absorbing 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, almost all of them entirely secular; they completely changed Israeli society and shifted the country's religious Jews to the sidelines. But the change was short-lived.

Demography had the final say: 45 percent of Jewish first graders today attend religious public schools or ultra-Orthodox schools, an increase of 13 percent in the past decade. Turkey, rejected by the European Union, underwent a similar process of religious revival. A fascinating polarization has developed in both countries: high-tech companies and advanced industry alongside packed synagogues and mosques; lively nightlife and bikinis alongside head coverings and mezuzah-kissing.

In Ankara as in Jerusalem, the governments in power today are trying to dismantle the legacies of Kemal and Ben-Gurion; their ideology is rooted in religion and tradition, even if Erdogan and Benjamin Netanyahu wear suits and ties. Erdogan's party is trying to weaken the army and the judicial system, both pillars of Kemalism. In Israel the process looks a little different: The army has more and more high-ranking religious officers, and the government is ignoring Supreme Court decisions.

Since Erdogan is striving for pan-Islamism and Netanyahu is trying to hold off the rest of the world while nurturing a Jewish Israeliness that hates minorities and foreigners, the clash was inevitable. The flotilla crisis exposed the prejudices and stereotypes that had been kept hidden during the years of friendship: anti-Semitic stereotypes in Turkey, and Israeli disdain for Muslims and their culture. We forgot that the much-maligned Erdogan was perfectly capable of working with Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, and showed restraint when Turkish sovereignty was violated during the bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor.

But we cannot lay the blame solely at the feet of the Israeli and Turkish leaders and ruling parties. We, the secular, Western-oriented Israelis, have not really tried to move closer to our Turkish counterparts. Their country was and remains an exotic place for a vacation, business and air-force training - but nothing more.

We're always interested in what's happening in New York, London and Paris, and we've ignored Ankara and Istanbul. We have not built a network of interpersonal relationships that could survive political upheaval, nor have we nurtured mutual curiosity. That is sad, now more than ever.