Israel and Turkey: How Changing Demographics Are Affecting International Relations in the Middle East

Years ago, when I was earning my master’s degree at the London School of Economics, I had a memorable conversation with a classmate of mine from Istanbul named Deniz. Over a couple beers at the Three Tuns, Deniz explained Turkey’s two most pressing problems—the rise of political Islam and the Kurdish separatist movement—and he tied both to one primary factor: demographics. (The Three Tuns is one of the few bars in the world where young men talk equally about normal bar topics, such as sports and the attractive young female at the next table, and topics as arcane as Turkish demographics.)

“When Atatürk founded Turkey, there was no Kurdish problem,” Deniz explained, “because there were practically no Kurds. But because the Kurds have had larger families for decades, they’ve become a larger percentage of the population. The next thing you know, they’re wanting independence and we have a problem. Ocalan, the leader of the PKK (Kurdish separatist group), is said to have suggested that every Kurd must either grab his gun every morning…or grab his wife every night.”

The rise of political Islam follows a similar storyline. Turkey is constitutionally secular. In fact, the separation of church (or mosque) and state in Turkey is in some ways significantly stricter than in the United States or in virtually any European country but France. (Atatürk used secular France as a model when he founded the Turkish Republic).

Turkey has become distinctly more Islamic in recent years, and this is largely a demographic phenomenon. Naturally, some formerly secular Turks have decided to grow out their beards and observe Ramadan. But much of the shift has been due to the simple fact that devoutly Islamic Turkish women have more babies and at younger ages than their secular sisters.

I recollected this conversation years later after reading Tobias Buck’s May 22, 2010 article in the Financial Times: “Secular Israel senses threat in rise of the ultra-orthodox.”

Ultra-orthodox Jews are easy to spot in a crowd. They wear wide-brimmed black hats, full beards, and distinctive side locks of hair that nearly stretch to their chins. To the casual gentile observer, they look a lot like the Amish or Mennonites. And they are becoming an increasingly large and restive percentage of the Israeli population.

Like the Amish in Pennsylvania, the ultra-orthodox are in the State of Israel but not of it.

As Buck describes the situation, “The ultra-orthodox have always had a troubled relationship with Israel. A minority reject the secular Jewish state as a religious abomination and refuse to vote or pay taxes…. Mostly, however, the two sides [secular/moderately religious and ultra-orthodox] have kept to an intricate set of live-and-let-live agreements. Crucially, the ultra-orthodox have their own stream of schools, and those in a yeshiva, of Jewish seminary, are exempt from military service.

“But that deal is starting to unravel because of the sharp increase in the ultra-orthodox population. Once a tiny minority, the community now accounts for at least 8 per cent of the Israeli adult population. It is forecast to double every 16 years.”

This is becoming an economic problem for Israel. Two thirds of ultra-orthodox men do not work, and for good reason. They learn no marketable skills in their religious schools. The only thing they are qualified to do is sit in a synagogue and read. So, ultra-orthodox families are becoming larger and larger burden to Israel’s welfare state.

By now, you might be legitimately wondering why any of this matters. I assure you that it does.

Turkey and Israel have had one of the strongest alliances in the greater Middle East for over two decades. The made sense for a number of reasons: Turkey and Israel were both secular, Western-oriented countries with world-class armies and dynamic economies. And perhaps more critically, both have a deeply-rooted fear and dislike of their Arab and Persian neighbors. (As another old LSE classmate, a Turkish Cypriot from Nicosia, explained it, “We Turks have never forgiven the Arabs for siding with the British in World War I. It’s their fault that we lost the Ottoman Empire.”)

In the days when nationality trumped religion, the Turkish-Israeli alliance was natural. But with religion increasingly filling the identity void once filled by the state, many Turks are starting to question why they are allied with Jews against their fellow Muslims.  The recent incident in which Israeli soldiers clashed with a group of Turkish pro-Palestinian activists at sea vividly illustrates how badly relations have deteriorated.  In protest over the clash, in which at least nine activists were killed, Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan labeled Israel’s actions “inhuman state terror” against unarmed civilians while Israel defended the actions as being in legitimate self defense against armed agents provocateurs who were anything but innocent.  I suspect that once investigations are done, the Israeli explanation will prove to be closer to the truth (Israel has already released footage of its soldiers being severely beaten by the pro-Palestinian mob), but in the end it doesn’t matter.  The damage to the relationship between the two countries is done.

Of course, any war of words in the Middle East has to be viewed in a broader context. Some of Erdogan’s rhetoric is no doubt aimed at pleasing the core of his electoral support, Turkey’s devout Muslims. Some is likely aimed at buying other friends in the region.  But no small part of Erdogan’s motivation is his desire to assert a Turkish foreign policy in his own image.  By bashing Israel, Erdogan is asserting his independence both from Turkey’s traditional Western allies and from its own recent past.

Turkish-American relations in the wake of the Iraq War are at the lowest point since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and Turkish-European relations are likewise rather strained by the EU’s stonewalling of Turkey’s negotiations for membership in the bloc. It could be that the recent Turkish antagonism towards Israel is more of a blowback against the West in general than an attack on Israel in particular. But from the Israeli perspective it is disturbing nonetheless.

For Israel, losing Turkey as an ally would be a major strategic setback. It would leave Israel increasingly dependent on the United States and Europe for diplomatic, financial, and military support, and Europe has proven over the years to be an unreliable ally when allies are actually needed.

That leaves the United States. While both the Republicans and the Democrats are currently staunch supporters of Israel, the country is still taking an enormous risk by depending so heavily on one foreign ally. It reduces Israel to the status of a client state and reduces its room to maneuver. Should there come a time when the strategic goals of the United States and Israel diverge, Israel could find itself isolated. Given the country’s precarious existence in a hostile neighborhood, this could literally mean the difference between life and death.

All of this is speculation, of course. Demographics, however, are cold, hard facts. And the facts show that the Middle East is changing. The decline of the Lebanese Christians over the past three decades was one of the first major shifts (see “Changing Global Demographics: Christians and Muslims in the Mideast” ). Today, we see Turkey and Israel becoming distinctly more Muslim and more Jewish, respectively. This subtle shift away from their secular identities will make it increasingly harder for these two nations to cooperate in the future.

This is not to say that I am necessarily bearish on the economic prospects for either country. In fact, I’m actually quite bullish. Both have world-class companies and increasingly open and competitive economies, and I see both prospering in the years ahead. I’ve even recommended Turkish stocks in the recent past.

The changing demographic picture does, however, add an interesting wrinkle. And understanding this wrinkle will go a long way to helping understand the mystery and intrigue of Middle Eastern international relations.

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