Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, recently traveled to Turkey for meetings with government leaders there. Last week, a new, more moderate military chief of staff took over in Turkey, and all eyes will be focused on Gen. Huseyin Kivrikoglu to see if he will continue to control the influence of Islamic fundamentalism there. On Monday, Turkey’s prime minister, Mesut Yilmaz, will be making his first state visit to Israel.
Jewish Week: I understand this was your fourth visit to Turkey, which has a growing relationship with Israel.Foxman: Turkey is one of the most important and least understood nations when it comes to democracy, U.S. interests and Israeli interests. It is strategically located … and continues to be at the center of the Islamic world, the Arab world, Europe and the West. It had been a bulwark against Communism in the past and it continues to be strategically important regionally and internationally.
Regionally, in terms of Israel and stability in the Middle East, it is important because of its military strength and geographic positioning. The fact that is that it has maintained a relationship with both Israel and the Arab world, and it courageously stood up to pressure and intimidation from the Arab world by saying its friendship with Israel does not necessarily entail enmity to the Arab world. Even when the government was fundamentalist and we heard bad rhetoric [from its leaders], it continued its strong relationship with Israel.
But Turkey is still a Muslim state. How are Jews there treated?
Turkey has a special place in Jewish history because for over 500 years it exhibited a high level of religious tolerance. Since 1492, it permitted Jews to come and flourish and to this day it is a beacon for tolerance in that part of the world.
What about Turkish-American relations?
It continues to be important for the U.S. because of its role regarding Iraq, Iran and Syria. While it maintains relations with Iran, it still is a bulwark of democracy. There is a complicated domestic situation of balancing democracy with issues of radical Islam. Many of the decisions the government is making we find difficult to understand from an American perspective — such as Islam cannot operate as a political party. That to us sounds like a restriction, but they are concerned that they maintain themselves as a secular republic, which they are celebrating 75 years of today.
At the same time, we continue to urge reform in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. The American ambassador and I received assurance from the Turkish prime minister that they were working in that direction. But because it’s a coalition government of several parties, it is not easy to move legislation.
Turkey’s relations with Israel appear to be steadily improving.
At the same time they are conducting joint military maneuvers with Israel and the U.S., they have just increased the number of military attaches in Israel from one to three to strengthen the military relationship. I think they see their relationship with Israel as an important element in their relationship with the U.S., and I think they are right. The Americans are encouraging the relationship with Israel.
There is also a lot of people trade — over 300,000 Israeli tourists go there every year and spend about $400 million. And at the end of ’97, trade with Israel was in favor of Turkey by a ratio of 3-to-2. The volume was $625 million, an increase of 40 percent over ’96 and it is expected to reach $850 million by the end of ’98.
Turkey also is a source of natural resources.There are those who say that the next war in the Middle East will be over water, and Turkey has an overabundance of water. In the future it can serve as a major resource to alleviate the water needs of the region. … I think Turkey needs more understanding in the U.S. and of its historic relationship with the Jewish community.