Pen Ultimate / Semantic Twists of Fate

Reflections on expressions relating to matters Turkish

A propos the Gaza flotilla debacle, I offered a quote last week from Moliere's "Les Fourberies de Scapin" ("Scapin's Deceits" ), in which a character whose son was abducted by sailors declares: "Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galere?" ("What the devil was he doing in that galley ?") This has become a common expression in French for describing a person's unnecessary entanglement in a tough situation. But I forgot to mention that in the original play, the boat in question is Turkish. Furthermore, in the current production at the Jerusalem Khan Theater, actor Yehoyachin Friedlander has been getting an extra laugh in recent days when delivering the original exit line: "Confound the galley! Treacherous dog be a Turk - the devil take him," and applause after his own adjoiner "and the flotilla."

“Scapin’s Deceits.” Friedlander (left) and Vitali Friedland.
Gadi Dagon

This prompts further reflection on expressions about matters Turkish, such as, "to kill a Turk and rest" - an admonition to deal with one thing at a time, to assess a situation and then proceed carefully.

At least twice in recent history this saying (which would no doubt be offensive to the Turks ) was used by Israeli leaders and provoked a diplomatic incident, long before the Turkish ambassador was offered a seat that demeaned his stature last January, and before nine Turks were killed in the navy commando raid on the Mavi Marmara. Prime minister Menachem Begin used the expression in an interview in the Middle East Review in June 1981, following the Israel Air Force raid on the Iraqi reactor in Osirak. President Ezer Weizman, who never grasped the concept of political correctness, used the same words while briefing the press on a presidential flight to Ankara in January 1994, for a meeting with the Turkish president. In both instances there were protests and the Israeli Foreign Ministry had a lot of explaining to do.

The saying in question apparently originated - at least in Hebrew, and probably in Yiddish as well - during either the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 or World War I. These wars were fought in the trenches and battlefields by conscripts who were forced to join up, and these included Jews, on all sides.

The origins of the expression can be found in "The Book of Joke and Wit," a Hebrew anthology by Alter Druyanov, first compiled in 1922 and reissued in 1991 (by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir ). My grandfather was one of the contributors to the original version, but since there are no credits, I don't know which entries came from him.

Anyway, joke No. 2715 is about a Jewish mother who is helping her son pack his knapsack before he leaves to join his Russian army unit, on the way to the Russian-Turkish front. "Take good care of yourself," she tell him. "Don't over-exert yourself. Kill a Turk and rest."

"But, Mother," the son protests. "What if a Turk wants to kill me?"

"You?" exclaims the mother. "But why? What have you done to him?"

There is a deeper message in this story: Those sending soldiers off to the battlefield do not always grasp that those fighting on the other side probably subscribe to a different narrative - in which "we" have indeed done "them" wrong.

The bit about killing a Turk became a common expression in modern-day Hebrew, although it is usually used in a general sense about doing one thing at a time, and does not literally mean killing a citizen of Turkey; the intended victim could have been a Hottentot (no offense intended ). What is sometimes glossed over by many who use the phrase is the fact that the activity referred to is killing - a morally reprehensible act which, in the main, is considered a crime and a sin, as Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan reminded us this week when lashing out at Israel for breaking the Sixth Commandment.

Protests notwithstanding, I believe it is possible to absolve us, the Jews, from feeling guilty about coining the expression or about using it in an everyday context. The truth is that for much of the last millennium, Muslim Turks and the Ottoman Empire were the menace of Western Europe. And the Islamic infidels from the East ruled Jerusalem for 1,300 years. That's what the Crusades were all about.

There is a popular story, unattributed as far as I can gather, that during the first Crusade, which progressed via Constantinople to Jerusalem between 1096 and 1099, one of the battle cries was "If you can't kill a Turk, kill a Jew." (No mention of rest, however. )

In this same vein, when Vienna was under Turkish siege in 1530, Catholic priest and theologian Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, so-called Prince of the Humanists, wrote in his declaration "Consultatio de bello Turcis inferendo" about a possible holy war in the name of Christianity, against the Ottomans. He harshly condemned "the ignorant mob" who think "that anyone has the right to kill a Turk as one would a mad dog for no better reason than that he is a Turk. If this were true, then anyone would be allowed to kill a Jew, too, yet if he dared to do so he would not escape the long arm of the law!" Erasmus also wrote that, "the worst Turk lives in our own minds," in the form of "greed, avarice, lust for power, self-satisfaction, impiousness, a craving for luxury, hedonism, fraudulence, spiteful hatred, envy."

Only after destroying these vices in our own souls with the "sword of the spirit" may we then go to war against the Turks, according to Erasmus. Also, in a commentary on Psalm 28, he wrote about Christians "slaying the Turk within," by which he meant conquering sin, or "Turkishness" as he calls it rather unflatteringly. It bears noting that despite his humanitarianism, Erasmus was not particularly friendly to the Jews or Judaism, although scholars claim he was not an anti-Semite.

Anyway, for a good part of the last millennium, Europeans saw the Turks as barbarians storming the gates of Western civilization. And in a twist of fate and history, Israel, unfortunately, is being perceived by some as the "Turks" of these times. Which is why storming a Turkish ship, killing some Turkish citizens and resting is - to paraphrase a remark criticizing a move undertaken by Napoleon in 1804, attributed usually to his minister of foreign affairs, Talleyrand - "worse than a crime; it's a mistake."

It all adds up: If you succumb to a devilish temptation to board a Turkish ship without a definite and viable plan of action, someone will get killed. And while it may be debatable whether a war crime was actually committed, it was surely a monumental mistake. If we all, Turks included, could only kill "the Turk in our mind," what a rest the world could have then.