Traveling While Jewish Brings Its Own Baggage These Days – Kveller
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Traveling While Jewish Brings Its Own Baggage These Days

Friends and family questioned our vacation plans to Turkey, and their reactions made me uneasy.

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When I told my family and friends that my wife and I were taking one of our sons to Malta and Istanbul for his high school spring break this year, the response I got was not altogether positive.

“Turkey isn’t my favorite country right now,” my oldest friend from Hebrew school told me.

“I wouldn’t be comfortable being visibly Jewish in Istanbul at the moment,” one of my brothers said.

I don’t live under a rock: I know that Turkey’s Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a staunch supporter of Hamas and a strident critic of Israel. I also know that people across the Islamic world have been protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza since the Israel-Hamas war began and that antisemitism is surging globally. 

So I understood their unease. I’ve been uneasy myself lately: When my other son told me that the police had been called in to break up a pro-Palestinian protest on his college campus, the first question I asked him was, “Do you feel safe?”

Yet their reaction also made me uneasy, albeit for very different reasons. 

Traveling to other parts of the world and meeting people from different cultures has been one of the defining pleasures of my existence, and barring immediate threats to life and limb, I am loath to accept limitations on it. (I’m not about to take a pleasure trip to eastern Ukraine, for instance — or Gaza, for that matter.) 

I also have an aversion to “us versus them” thinking and to the idea that being Jewish means that I have to automatically assume a defensive crouch in response to a presumably hostile world. Sure, Erdogan is a populist autocrat who is playing to his Islamist base. But why assume that his fellow Turks — especially those who reside in Istanbul, one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the face of the earth — are all rabid antisemites? 

Nonetheless, I did find myself second-guessing our decision. 

As best we can, my wife and I have tried to teach our kids tolerance and open-mindedness. Try not to generalize about large groups of people, we’ve told them; don’t judge others by how they look or where they’re from. 

Tolerance and faith in humanity aside, however, was this maybe not the best time to visit a predominantly Muslim nation whose leader has called Israel a terrorist state?

I’m not sure what my brother meant by being visibly Jewish — we don’t dress like Hasidim — but it’s true that we don’t hide our Jewishness either. My son’s spring break coincided with Passover, and I didn’t want to feel as if I had to lower my voice while talking about the holiday in public, or even while telling my son about the history of Istanbul’s Jews as we wandered about the city.

After all, we had decided to take him to Istanbul because we ourselves had fallen in love with the city on our first, child-free visit 15 years ago: We had been enthralled by its history, enraptured by its food and charmed by its inhabitants, who were invariably warm and welcoming. We wanted to meet more of them, ideally while eating more of their delicious food. But what if that friendly vibe had indeed turned hostile? What if, as Jews, we really did need to keep our heads down and play it safe?

I needn’t have worried. We didn’t have to censor ourselves in Istanbul, and we never felt uncomfortable there — not even when pro-Palestinian protesters began marching up and down the Hippodrome, the old Byzantine chariot-racing arena, not far from where we happened to be catching some shade under a leafy tree. (To be honest, the protest was a lot smaller than the last one we’d witnessed back home in New York City. “It seems sort of lame,” my son said.) Instead, we were met with the same warmth and hospitality that we had previously encountered, with strangers striking up conversations with us in restaurants and cafes over kebabs and baklava. 

Might we have been treated differently had we shown up wearing Jewcy t-shirts and Star of David bling? It’s possible. But I choose to believe otherwise. And I’m glad we didn’t let fear deter us from visiting a place we really wanted to visit, and from meeting people we really wanted to meet. That’s a box I’d rather not put myself in — and one I don’t want to put my kids in, either.

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