It was a couple of months ago, I took a French couple who bluntly displayed “Islamophobic” behaviors on a Sultanahmet tour. Not knowing I was a Jew, after barely saying “good morning”, they started telling me how the sound of Azan- call to prayer- makes them uncomfortable. They continued expressing their discomfort by giving extreme examples from our country. The woman, as if to test my nerves, started talking about women’s rights and the fact that people are getting more and more conservative, each day. She said, “Unfortunately, Turkey is no longer a secular country” and ostensibly added how this made her sad. Keeping my cool, I first told her that I was Jewish and then added that the sound of call to prayers from different mosques around Sultanahmet give the people living in Istanbul a feeling of peace. I then told her that compared to French Jews, Turkish Jews, especially this year, have not been exposed to any obvious anti-Semitic attack. When I saw that she was listening to me with her face turning red, without giving her a chance to respond, I showed her the dogs and cats wandering around the square and said, “I wish we could see cats like this wandering around the streets of Paris, so maybe we would see less rats at the subways or the pavements.” Despite her husband’s efforts to calm her down, she snapped and said, “The freedom granted to animals here is not granted to journalists and people who express their opinions.” That was the end of our conversation.
Last week, at several conferences, after listening to the authorities saying how bad tourism is, this week I learned that Mr. Nabi Avci, Minister of Culture and Tourism will be participating in the International Tourism Exhibition in Israel (IMTM). This made me remember the conversation I had with the French couple. Even if we drop the prices and increase advertising campaigns, unless we change the current perception, it seems difficult to attract tourists from countries other than Middle East and Arab countries.
Even though, after seven years, a Turkish Minister visiting Israel and opening Turkish Cultural Center in Tel Aviv should give us hope, for the two countries to truly cooperate, a much different approach should be adopted which will make everyone forget expressions such as “Hey, Israel”. To change the Turkish people’s perception of Israel, which has been demonized during the past seven years, we need authentic and genuine slogans to be used by everyone in the tourism industry from hotels to travel agencies.
Now, from this column, I would like call out to all hotel and travel agency owners and executives to share a message on social media that says “Anahnu Ohavim Ethem Havreynu Hayisraelim / We love you our Israeli friends”. Do you think they will support this idea? Would it be bad if Minister Avci could break the routine and add Rawabi region, a modern Palestinian settlement, to his itinerary that already includes Ramallah? As people working in the tourism industry, we should first discuss what can be done to display befitting attitude and best of Turkish hospitality towards potential incoming Israeli tourists and organize trainings to break down the prejudices towards Israeli tourist.
This time, let’s explain the Israeli Miracle to Turkish people to leave the past conflicts and disagreements behind. Let’s discuss how a nation that has turned the desert into a garden of Eden, became a nation that supplies the country’s two thirds of food need with its own resources and became a global industry. Let’s talk about how the people of the two countries that are both stricken with terror could meet on common sentiments and become one heart against terror. Just like Edirne Synagogue, let’s renovate our places of worship that needs renovation and protect the two countries’ common heritage. Let’s explain to Turkish Jews living in Israel that this country expects them at every occasion, just like we urged Turkish people living in Germany to hold their wedding ceremonies here in Turkey. As the heirs to a civilization which has ruled this land for many centuries, let’s give a supporting hand to build a bridge, purged from terror, between the two persecuted nations.