Rumours are rife around Turkey’s reported decision to reappoint an ambassador to Tel Aviv after a three-year hiatus and the possibility that Recep Tayyip Erdogan may visit Israel in February, with diplomatic negotiations driven by advocates of an Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. One such proponent is the New York-based Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America, which managed to pull off an unprecedented event with a dinner for Hanukkah in New York on 6 December attended by both the Turkish ambassador to the United States, Hasan Murat Mercan, and his Israeli counterpart Gilad Erdan. They were joined by various figures close to the association, including Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. The Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States (ARIS), quietly financed by the Kazakh oligarch Alexander Machkevich, has also been pushing in favour of the rapprochement.
The Kazakh connection
Machkevich, who also has Israeli nationality, is still entangled in a string of legal battles involving his Kazakh mining conglomerate Eurasian Resources Group but found time to sponsor ARIS. The alliance has several Kazakh members; the vice chairman is Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen, who lives in Almaty. The chairman, Rabbi Menachem Chitrik (known as Mendy), is officially domiciled in Florida where the alliance was founded in October 2020. Chitrik also met with the Turkish ambassador to the US at a dinner in May joined by Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States, Yerzhan Ashikbayev.
An alliance from Kabul to Ankara
Chitrik is the spearhead of ARIS, which, like the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America led by Turkish-born Rabbi Nissim Elnecavé, has been working to improve Israel and Turkey’s frosty bilateral relations that have never really thawed since Israel seized the civilian ship Mavi Marmara in 2010.
In his hometown of Istanbul, Chitrik has been building up a rapport with the local government and law enforcement. The rabbi, an Israeli-American exiled in Turkey since 2003, is a fervent defender of Jewish communities in Islamic countries. He has used this as an opportunity to “maintain favourable relations with parties in conflict”. In October, he liased with both the authorities in Tel Aviv and Ankara to help negotiate the evacuation of Zebulon Simentov – the “last Jew in Afghanistan” – from Kabul to Israel via a stopover in Istanbul.