Nothing to Envy in Turkey

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Here is a question I want you to be asking yourselves over the weekend: Are you jealous of Turkey? (Please answer only if you are Jewish.)

Myself, I have to admit to being extremely impressed during my visits to Turkey over the last few years – of the country's extraordinary economic growth, the transportation infrastructure which has improved greatly, the architecture, and of course the great food. But I can't say I have ever actually felt envy. Quite the opposite.

Even at its best, it is hard to avoid an uneasy feeling of menace that pervades Turkish society, of uncompromising officialdom, police and soldiers on the brink of a violent outburst, and civilians who can never quite shake the fear that the facade of Turkish democracy is actually a thin veneer that can give away to repression at any moment.

All this was abundantly clear in recent weeks as the government ruthlessly suppressed the protests in Istanbul and other cities, and reminded me why I have always been glad to have a foreign passport in my pocket while touring Turkey, no matter how good a time I was having. I certainly wouldn't like to be a member of the Kurdish, Alevi or Armenian minorities there, no matter how booming the Turkish economy is right now.

But I feel the need to clarify this issue right now because according to Besir Atalay, Turkey's deputy prime minister, Jews are jealous of Turkey's economic development. In a speech he made on Tuesday, Atalay said "There are some circles that are jealous of Turkey's growth. They are all uniting, on one side the Jewish Disaspora. You saw the foreign media's attitude during the Gezi Park incidents; they bought it."

Naturally there was an outcry, and Atalay's office issued a clarification or denial saying that "In his speech [Atalay] never intended, uttered or indicated anything to offend Jewish citizens of Turkey or Jewish communities around the world." But there is a video of his speech, and there doesn't really seem to be any way that he can spin it otherwise.

Where to start? There is no question that Atalay's speech was anti-Semitic; you don't have to be a paid-up member of the Anti-Defamation League who sees anti-Semitism everywhere to believe that. But should Jews be overly concerned by what Atalay said and the impact it may have?

I still believe that anti-Semitism, certainly in the Western world, is a spent force in the 21st century. It exists, and in isolated, individual cases Jews and Jewish property are attacked by anti-Semites, but these are still fringe elements. Anti-Semitism is a shameful thing in polite society; the fact that Atalay immediately tried to deny having made that statement is proof enough. The Turkish Jewish community was of course right to condemn his words, but I doubt that the 23,000 Jews of Turkey, who are respected and protected members of their society, will suffer unduly because of an unguarded racist remark by a politician, no matter how senior. They were right to object to his words because they cause them harm not as Jews, but as Turkish citizens.

Until Mr. Atalay came along, the Turkish government had accused other elements of fomenting unrest in the country. His boss, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has blamed "the interest rate lobby," foreign media and the Assad government for the wave of protests against his autocratic style of governing that swept the country last month. It was just a matter of time before someone from his inner circle added the Jews to this list. In a different century, such a remark would often have been enough to launch a wave of pogroms, but there is no fear of that happening today. As President Shimon Peres often says, "Anti-Semitism is no longer a problem for the Jews; it is the problem of the goyim."

More than anything else, this pathetic attempt to scapegoat "the Jewish Diaspora" for Turkey's internal problems is yet another indication of how screwed up the Turkish democracy is and how far its current leadership is from getting a handle on the problems. Yet another reason not to be envious of Turkey, no matter how well its economy is doing.

Anti-Semitism and other forms of racism may threaten minority groups to some degree, but they are a bigger threat to the countries in which they appear – they are a symptom of something going very wrong in society. And we have very little advice to offer Turkey while it's dealing with its own problems, since Jews and Israelis are not lacking themselves in racism right now. There is, though, a Turkish connection here.

The Ottoman Empire ruled the land of Israel for exactly four centuries until 1917, but aside from a few buildings, including the walls of Jerusalem, left remarkably little lasting heritage. One institution though that has somehow survived is that of the Sephardi chief rabbi, the Rishon Letzion, who was the official leader of the Jewish community in Palestine as far as the Turkish rulers were concerned. (They didn't recognize the Ashkenazis or any secular leadership. The position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi was created by the British Mandate in 1921.)

How ironic that 96 years after the Turks were chased out of Palestine by the soldiers of General Edmund Allenby, two of the most racist rabbis in Israel are the leading contenders for this Turkish job.

There isn't enough space in this column to detail all the utterances and rabbinical "rulings" of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu and Rabbi Avraham Yosef, both candidates from large political parties who are against Arabs and other non-Jews, against secular Jews, women, judges, homosexuals and basically everyone who is different from them. Their racism is so severe that even the limp-wristed Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is threatening to hold a hearing before they can be considered candidates. But whether or not either of them actually becomes the chief rabbi of Israel, they are already long-serving chief rabbis of cities, their salary paid from the public purse.

As long as these two men, and many more like them, hold official and respected government positions in Israel and are regarded by others as potential spiritual leaders of the Jewish people, there is little we can complain about when it comes to Turkish politicians. The offices of the chief rabbis (both of them) are superfluous and wasteful, but as long as they continue to be official state offices, as long as the chief rabbis are recognized as religious authorities by Jewish communities around the world, their association with the most despicable racists is a shame to every Israeli and every Jew.  

In this Monday, Oct. 1, 2012 photo, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, and his deputies Bulent Arinc, right, and Besir Atalay seen at Turkey's parliament in Ankara, Turkey. Credit: AP

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