I TRIED to resist the temptation to tell the same classical Jewish joke a second time, but circumstances delivered a plausible excuse.
Almost every Jew knows the sentence “Kill a Turk and rest.” The whole story goes like this:
In Czarist Russia, a Jewish boy is called up for the war against the Turks.
His tearful mother takes leave of him at the railway station and implores him: “Don’t overexert yourself! Kill a Turk and rest. Kill another Turk and rest again…”
“But mother!” the boy interrupts her. “What if the Turk kills me?”
“Kills you?!” the mother exclaims in sheer disbelief, “But why? What have you done to him?”
Jewish jokes reflect Jewish reality. So this joke became true this week.
UNFORTUNATELY THE joke is on us. It happened like this:
Turkish television aired a rather primitive series, in which Mossad operatives kidnap Turkish children and hide them in the Israeli embassy. Valiant Turkish agents free the children and kill the evil ambassador.
One can ignore such an obnoxious story altogether or protest mildly. But our illustrious Foreign Minister thought that this was the right occasion to demonstrate to all and sundry that we are no longer abject ghetto Jews who take everything lying down, but proud, upright Jews of a new breed.
So the Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, summoned the Turkish ambassador to the Foreign Office in Jerusalem for a carefully staged exhibition of national pride.
When the ambassador arrived, he was surprised to see the place crawling with TV crews and journalists. He was left waiting for a considerable time and then shown into a room where three solemn officials, including Ayalon, were perched on high chairs. He was seated on a low sofa without arms, and had no choice but sit in a reclining position.
Not satisfied with this, Ayalon expressly requested the media people (in Hebrew) to pay attention to the difference in height between the chairs and the sofa, to the absence of the Turkish flag on the table, as well as to the fact that the Israelis did not smile and did not shake hands.
Perhaps Ayalon drew his inspiration from a memorable scene in Charlie Chaplin’s movie The Great Dictator, in which Hitler and Mussolini sit on barber’s chairs, each of them jacking his chair up so as to tower above the other, until both chairs topple over.
Ayalon then delivered (again in Hebrew) a sharp rebuke – all Israeli media used this word rather than the diplomatic term “protest”.
Well satisfied with his work, Ayalon saw to it that it got maximum exposure in the media, especially on television.
The Turkish reaction was, of course, violent. Turks are more sensitive about their national dignity then most (witness their reactions to allegations about the Armenian massacre almost a hundred years ago), so they were foreseeably upset.
Ayalon got, of course, the unreserved backing of his minister, mentor and party boss, Avigdor Lieberman, who was full of praise.
A few weeks before, Lieberman had assembled all the Israeli ambassadors from around the world, some 150 of them, for a pep talk. He rebuked them for not properly defending the honor of Israel and announced a radical new policy: from now on, the main duty of an Israeli ambassador is to stand up for the dignity of his country, attack anyone who criticizes Israel and leave no insult unanswered, be it big or small. This should take precedence over all other diplomatic duties.
No one in the audience, which was mainly composed of long-standing career diplomats, dared to get up and point out that there may be more important Israeli interests, such as good relations with foreign governments, military and intelligence ties and economic matters. Except for one ambassador – who smiled and was soundly rebuked – nobody demurred.
In less that a year in office, Lieberman has already broken a lot of diplomatic china. He has insulted several friendly governments. In one noteworthy case, he publicly rebuked the Norwegians for celebrating the anniversary of their national writer, Knut Hamsun, who had sympathized with the Nazis. In another case, he attacked the Swedish government for not protesting publicly against an article by a minor scribbler in a Swedish newspaper, in which he made the ridiculous accusation that Israeli soldiers kill Palestinians in order to sell their organs for transplants. Lieberman’s exaggerated reaction turned this into world news.
His tendency to insult foreign governments – a rather original trait for a foreign minister – may have been exacerbated by the refusal of many of his foreign colleagues to meet with him, considering him a racist or an outright fascist – as, indeed, do most Israelis.
When Netanyahu set up his government and appointed Lieberman as his foreign minister, the news was at first met with incredulity. A more absurd appointment could hardly be imagined. But Netanyahu needed him, and could offer him neither the Treasury, which he wanted to lead himself by proxy, nor the defense ministry, which is the private domain of Ehud Barak. The foreign ministry, which few people in Israel take seriously, was the only viable alternative.
Therefore, Netanyahu could not criticize these two Neanderthals, Lieberman and Ayalon, and their antics. But Barak was hopping mad.
As it so happens, Barak is due to visit Turkey tomorrow. The relations between the Israeli and the Turkish defense establishments are as close as can be. Not only is there a certain ideological affinity between the two army commands – both consider themselves as the guardians of national values and look down with contempt on the politicians – but the generals of the two countries are real buddies. Also, the Israeli defense industry depends very much on Turkish orders, about a billion dollars annually.
Lately, some dispute has arisen about drones supplied by Israel, and relations have deteriorated. Barak’s visit is therefore considered very important. Some Israeli commentators believe that the whole Ayalon affair was a not so subtle ploy by Lieberman to sabotage his cabinet rival.
Be that as is may, the whole Israeli establishment realized that Ayalon’s stupid charade has done great damage. He was obliged to retract, and did so in a graceless, half-hearted manner, without first finding out whether this would satisfy the Turks. It did not – and the Turks, becoming more and more furious, demanded a clear and abject apology. This demand was presented as an ultimatum – until midnight on Wednesday, or else. Else meant the recall of the ambassador and the downgrading of relations.
Netanyahu caved in. Ayalon apologized again, this time unequivocally, and the Turks graciously accepted. Barak will be going to Turkey.
Behind this childish episode lurks the more serious problem of Turkish-Israeli relations.
The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reminded Israel this week that Turkey has always welcomed Jews. He was alluding to an historic chapter that is never quite acknowledged here: When Catholic Spain expelled hundreds of thousands of Jews in 1492 (some speak of as many as 800,000), the vast majority of them settled in the Ottoman Empire, from Marrakesh to Sarajevo. While Jews in Christian Europe were tortured by the Spanish inquisition and suffered untold persecutions, expulsions and pogroms, culminating in the Holocaust, they flourished for centuries under the benevolent rule of the Muslim Ottomans.
These historic memories were, alas, erased during the short period of Zionist relations with the Turkish administration in Palestine in the early 20th century. Every Israeli child learns about the lovely Sarah Aharonson, a member of a pro-British spy ring in World War I, who committed suicide after being tortured by the Terrible Turks.
Cordial relations were resumed only when masses of Israeli tourists started to arrive at Turkish resorts and were surprised by the warmth of their reception. The tourists love it.
SO WHAT is happening now? Turks, like all Muslims, were upset by last year’s Gaza War and the horrifying pictures they saw on TV. Erdogan, echoing these sentiments as a good politician would, attacked the Israeli policy on several occasions, cancelled joint army maneuvers and once left a public debate with President Shimon Peres in a huff.
After being shown the cold shoulder by the European Union, Turkey has turned towards its Arab neighbors and Iran, seeking to act as a mediator between East and West. It also began to mediate between Israel and Syria, until it realized that the Israeli government had no desire at all to make peace, which would compel it to dismantle settlements and return territory.
The relationship between Turkey and Israel will probably return to normal, if not to its former degree of warmth. Turkey needs the help of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. (Ayalon himself has in the past been sent there to help repel efforts to recognize the Armenian genocide). Israel needs Turkey as an ally and arms buyer.
So what about the joke? Well, it serves as a reminder that provoking the Turks is not necessarily a good idea.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom.