Jerusalem — There was a time, not very long ago, when Israelis had a friend in the Muslim world. As bad as things got with the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Lebanese, Israelis could point to Turkey as a solid bulwark against near total isolation in the Muslim world.
It was a salve to the Israeli psyche.
But in a few short hours in the open waters of the Mediterranean last week, Israel lost its last friend in the Muslim world as the flotilla attack played out. And now Israelis are reeling from the fallout. Turkey is now off limits as a travel destination, rock stars are canceling appearances in Israel and the country appears more isolated than ever.
The Israeli government’s sudden travel advisory instructed citizens who were about to board a plane to “refrain from traveling until the situation becomes clear.” Israelis already in Turkey “should remain in their places of residence, avoid city centers and sites in which demonstrations are being held and monitor developments” in the event that “the situation could worsen,” the advisory urged.
Back in Israel, travel agents fielded phone calls from anxious consumers afraid to travel to the country that, until recently, was Israel’s closest Muslim ally.
Mark Feldman, owner of Jerusalem’s Ziontours travel agency, wasn’t surprised by the mass cancellations.
“We may be a stiff-necked people, but we’re not stupid,” Feldman said. “When the head of a country is attacking Israel and calling it a massacre, Turkey becomes dead for Israelis. Dead. Every single person who had a reservation [via Ziontours], every person making a reservation cancelled.”
The many travelers who had booked trips to Europe, the U.S. or the Far East via Turkish Airlines opted for different routes, Feldman said, adding “it’s not like we haven’t had any bumps in the last year and a half. This time, though, we don’t see things reverting back to normal.”
In a sign that Israelis have become increasingly resigned to world censure, few people were surprised by the explosion of anger throughout the Arab/Muslim world, Europe and beyond. Much of last week Israelis were obsessed with the hourly news and, the day of the raid, nearly continuous coverage.
The nervous energy in the streets was reminiscent of war.
Not since the Israel Defense Forces’ 2008-2009 wintertime incursion into Gaza — which elicited a similar wave of criticism from the world community — have many Israelis felt this vulnerable both from without and within.
Younger Israelis in particular have been shocked by the sudden decision by several foreign performers, most notably Elvis Costello, to cancel their Israeli performances. They are holding their breath to see whether Elton John will do the same.
“I think maybe people who are 10, 20 years younger than me feel it most strongly,” said Allison Kaplan Sommer, a 40-something journalist who often writes about social trends in Israel. “I remember the pre-Oslo days, when if you wanted to see a major concert you had to fly to Europe. I remember how, in the mid-‘90s, we stopped feeling so isolated. McDonald’s and Burger King opened here, and Madonna and Michael Jackson came here to perform.”
Sommer said her 13-year-old son, Eitan, has grown up in a more open, freer Israel, and that the slaps to the face Israelis are now enduring has come as a shock.
“He and his friends feel affected by this. They grew up traveling with their families to Turkey for vacation.”
“Turkey used to be the top [destination] for Israeli tourists,” Eitan told The Jewish Week. “Sometimes it feels like the world is closing us out, as if we Israelis don’t have any rights. Political things happen, but the Israelis are being blamed,” he said, sounding forlorn.
Stuart Schoffman, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, believes the problems Israelis are facing right now are as much internal as external.
“I think there are plenty of Israelis who are torn between two disturbing perceptions,” says Schoffman. “The first is that there are great efforts underway to isolate Israel. The second is the unmistakable sense that this is the worst government we’ve ever had, and that it’s not up to the task and actually exacerbating matters.”
Nahum Barnea, a columnist for Yediot Achronot, wrote this week that “Israel has no leader and no leadership.”
With his usual biting wit, Barnea lambasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for appointing Avigdor Lieberman (who would like to transfer Arab Israelis out of Israel) to head the Foreign Ministry.
“When Lieberman is your display window, don’t be surprised when nobody wishes to enter the store,” Barnea wrote.
Netanyahu, Barnea wrote, “is living in denial. Just like with the tunnel events in his previous term in office, here too he failed to grasp how things may develop. He did not ask himself what will [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan do and how would Turkey respond to an Israeli commando raid on a Turkish ship. He did not ask himself how foreign governments would respond, with dignitaries from their countries being on that ship.”
And “now that the damage is done,” Barnea wrote, Netanyahu is “capitulating” by freeing men he dubbed al-Qaeda agents, who returned to a hero’s welcome. Netanyahu agreed to international involvement in the inquiry into the operation, only to retract it.
Yet even many of Netanyahu’s staunchest critics in recent days are not blinded to the world’s glee over the flotilla incident.
In the essay “It’s Time to Stop Demonizing Israel,” which appeared on the front page of the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy noted the “flood of hypocrisy, bad faith and, ultimately disinformation that seems to have just been waiting for this pretext to flow … every time the Jewish state commits an error.”
He castigated the Turks for refusing even to acknowledge the Armenian genocide and the Swedish writer Henning Mankell for deliberating over whether or not to permit the Hebrew translation of his books.
This, Levy wrote, “all the more reason to resist this hijacking of meaning.”
Yaniv Levy (no relation to Bernard-Henri), a 29-year-old Jerusalemite who just returned from a year of backpacking in Asia, said he didn’t experience any anti-Semitism, “but I was in Asia, where people don’t take much interest in Israel,” he noted.
Levy, who made a point of spending time with local people in the Maldives, a conservative Muslim society where most of the women are veiled, believes it is still safe for Israelis to travel to most locations.
“In most countries, people don’t know much about Israel. Most are very poor and, if they have a TV, watch soap operas. Still, I wouldn’t visit Turkey at the moment.”
Travel agent Mark Feldman thinks that’s wise.
“One of my colleagues recently recalled how we used to have flights to Tehran.”
Unless Israeli-Turkish relations undergo a transformation, “people will find it difficult to believe Israelis ever used to vacation in Turkey,” Feldman said.
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