Often when speaking of other countries; people tend to generalize, and lean into stereotypes or predetermined dispositions. This is especially true when there is lack of cultural exchanges between peoples. The absence of first-hand experiences leaves an information vacuum which is easily filled with disinformation. Further, the information bombardment coming from social media feeds the spread of disinformation.
In a recent panel I attended as a speaker organized by Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, Nexchange, Turkish Political Psychology Association and Turkish-Israeli Civil Society Forum, this issue of not knowing came up. Ambassador Namık Tan made an excellent point by arguing Turks tend to believe they know a country and its people, however in reality they only know of those countries and their peoples. Many Turks know of Israel through media, their stereotypes about Israelis formed through the lens of how it has been demonized by their political leadership. As mentioned by Barçın Yinanç, one of the panelists and a veteran journalist, media plays an important role in shaping discussions on Turkish-Israeli relations. Therefore, journalists need to be more aware of how issues are conveyed. For example, while the Palestinian question receives abundant coverage in Turkish media, Israel’s contributions to the world such as advancements in biotechnology, healthcare, space technology and agriculture are mostly unknown to many. Israel’s society, culture and politics also do not receive enough attention unless it is tied to the Palestinian question. This then shapes the perception of Israel and Israelis within the contours of the Palestinian question and confines the image of Israel to the conflict. The existing vacuum of information regarding other aspects of Israel is in turn filled with misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories. Positive news simply does not exist as much as negative coverage.
When asked in a study conducted by Kadir Has University almost every year since the study was inaugurated Israel ranks as the most unfriendly country to Turkey. Simultaneously, Israel usually follows the United States in the rank of countries which are perceived as a threat to Turkey. Why is it so that a regional neighbor that Turkey shares no borders with is perceived in such negative light? There are three main reasons behind this. Until the recent normalization between the two countries, anti-Israel discourse from high-ranking Turkish politicians dominated the political space.
Such anti-Israel discourse has situated Israel amongst Turkey’s adversaries, creating Israel as a security threat in the Turkish imagination. Therefore, the results of the foreign policy study by Kadir Has University is not surprising. While, anti-Israel sentiments can exist separately of antisemitism, in Turkey as in many other places, it often goes hand in hand. Although, the Turkish official discourse denies the existence of antisemitism in Turkey, previous studies point that Turks are hesitant in engaging with communities from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. A 2009 study indicated that 42% of respondents did not want a Jewish neighbor. The same study when conducted in 2021 showed a slight decrease to 37.1 %. A 2022 study by Bayetav Foundation, discusses how Turks believe the word “Jew” is a pejorative term.
In addition, antisemitic discourse is present in mass media, widely circulated in the public sphere giving way to conspiracy theories. For example, many Turks have heard or even believe the conspiracy theory that Israel has a greater agenda in controlling Southeastern Turkey. Lastly, there is a lack of knowledge and people-to-people exchanges which creates a knowledge gap. Many Turkish citizens rely on second-hand information when it comes to Israel. It is not very easy to break down biases and negative dispositions when there is a shortage of people-to-people exchanges on the ground. The Turkish policy towards Israel created a sense of discouragement for civil society prior to the normalization. Therefore, there were very limited opportunities for Turks to engage with Israelis on a personal basis.
Promise can be seen in initiatives such as the Turkish-Israeli Civil Society Forum (TISCF) by the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung. In partnership with Conntix, TICSF launched the Influencers for Dialogue (IfD) project where a group of Turkish and Israeli youth collaborate to develop social media campaigns. For example, youth designed a number of creative digital campaigns including @tableforunity and @bridgingsongs to promote cultural understanding between Turks and Israelis. The increased use of technology has opened up possibilities of virtual exchanges which would not have been possible before. The ability to communicate, get to know one another or travel to another country virtually are some of the perks of the times we live in. Turkish-Israeli relations can certainly benefit from the use of digital technologies and apply social media to flight disinformation. University partnerships, teaching joint courses, workshops and; training programs could be just the beginning of people to people exchanges facilitated by digital technologies. So when it comes to how much Turks know about Israel the answer is currently not much, but there is much that can take place in the cultural exchange space with the help of digital technologies.