Naval Warfare, Riot Cops, and a Tiny Protest: A Day in the Life of a Jew in Turkey

On Monday, I saw ISRAEL on a television screen at my hostel in Istanbul. The hostel clerk turned up the volume and watched intently. I went to online to learn that Israeli commandos had killed some activists from a Turkish NGO who were trying to run Israel's blockade on Gaza. My first thought was: where can I find some action?

The clerk told me that the protest on TV was at the Israeli consulate and gave me directions for how to get there on the metro. I shared the subway with several young Turks, mostly Tesbih-twirling men and covered women, waving Palestinian flags, donning keffiyehs and green Hezbollah headscarves and chanting something about Palestine. I am no philistine, but I did not wish to engage them in intellectual banter on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, I wondered where people get all those flags. Do they have them lying around the house? Is there a central depository where someone gives them out?

When I got off the metro and asked a bagel-(type of pastry called a simit) vendor where the Israeli consulate was. Everyone I asked seemed to know the location of the Israeli consulate. I wondered if I, a former Israel campus activist, even knew where the consulate is in New York? (no). Must be a popular protest spot.

The consulate was in a giant glass skyscraper, with no distinguishing marks. The protest foundered when I was there, with fewer than 50 people milling about in front of 10 satellite trucks. There must have been some other, bigger protest somewhere else. In the Taksim Square subway station, I considered following some rowdy young Turks to see where they were going, but made the split second decision to go to the consulate instead. Perhaps I regretted that decision.

The police outnumbered the protesters by at least five to one. It was not the seething mass I'd seen on TV, nor was it the anarchic group that someone told me had broken an Israeli diplomat's windows. I enjoyed looking at the police preparations, however, including six school buses full of sweaty officers armed with automatic weapons, German Shepherds, barricades, water hose trucks, and riot gear clad officers. The overkill police presence protecting the Israeli consulate is a testament to Turkey's civil democracy, where after the worst international incident in recent memory, the forces of law and order spent tremendous time and money protecting a country with whom they were angry.

A pointy-bearded Imam gave an impassioned sermon to a group of about 10 listeners, who came and went. A woman grilled kefte and sold sandwiches to the police and protesters alike. A man tried to start a chant, but nobody followed. All in all it was a disorganized, anticlimactic, peaceful event. I took some pictures and went on my way, although I joked to myself that I should ask someone directions to the Jewish counter-protest.

The concerned phone call from my parents came the next day, where I was advised to keep a low profile as a Jew in Turkey. After a brief political discussion with my father, where I pointed out that Israel was more concerned with winning a shooting war than a public relations battle, I said I'll be careful. Today an ice cream vendor asked me where I was from, and I told him America. He asked about my family and I told him we are Jewish. He said, "But you hate Israel, yes?"

"No. It's a tough time right now," I replied as I thanked him for the ice cream and walked away. It is hard for a proud Jew to bite his tongue, but like Turkey, I knew that long term stability and friendship must prevail over a moment of hot-blooded dissent.