A Lesson for Israel From Turkey's Still-boiling Melting Pot

The bitter controversy over the need for the Turkish government to apologize for a massacre of citizens 76 years ago offers Israel a cautionary tale.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his daughter Sabiha, November 17, 1937.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his daughter Sabiha, November 17, 1937.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A tragic and bitter, two-part controversy refuses to disappear from the annals of Turkish history. It’s not related to the massacre of the Armenians in 1915, but rather to another massacre – committed by the Turkish army about 23 years later, in the city of Dersim in the eastern part of the country. It occurred during the period when Turkey was already an independent republic with its first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, at its helm.

One aspect of the controversy relates to the number of victims of the outrageous assault. In the 76 years since, the estimates of those killed have ranged from 7,500 or 10,000 to between 50,000 and 80,000.

The second aspect of the controversy relates to the issue of an apology to the remaining residents of the area – an issue which provoked a major furor last week, when the deputy chairman of the veteran Republican People’s Party, Sezgin Tanrikulu, announced that he was “apologizing 1,000 times to everyone who was killed, everyone who was exiled and everyone who suffered from these massacres.”

The Republican People’s Party is today the largest opposition group in the Turkish parliament, but in 1937-38, during the massacre and under Ataturk's regime, it was the sole political party in operation.

As a result, for decades, the controversy revolved around whether only the Republican party needed to apologize or whether the entire Turkish government needed to do so, inasmuch as the policy that led to the massacre in question reflected that of the regime, which had laid the ideological foundations that led to the civilian uprising that was so violently quashed.

Residents of Dersim, 1938.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The story began to unfold in 1934, when Turkey legislated a “resettlement” law designed to “dilute” ethnic groups such as the Kurds and Alawites in the greater population. The law also provided for the change of the name of the city of Dersim to a Turkish one, Tunceli, its name to this day. The ethnic groups living in the city and its surroundings, speakers of the Kurmaji and Zaza dialects of Kurdish, protested to the authorities over the law. The protest became violent. In response, the army dispatched tens of the thousands of soldiers who destroyed thousands of homes, and apprehended and hanged the rebellion’s leaders, including tribal chief Seyyid Riza.

The military exiled thousands to other parts of the country and killed thousands of others, some of in aerial bombing operations. A participant in one bombing raid was Turkey’s first female fighter pilot, Sabiha Gökçen, President Ataturk’s adopted daughter. It infuriates residents of the city that one of Istanbul’s airports was named after her.

Erdogan: 'I apologize'

The resettlement law – which was designed to "create a country speaking with one language, thinking in the same way and sharing the same sentiment,” according to Sükrü Kaya, the interior minister at the time – applied to three regions. One was an area where “the population of Turkish culture needs to be increased.” A second included districts where the existing population was to assimilate its culture into the greater Turkish culture. The third category involved regions in which the population was to be evacuated for military or economic reasons, or due to dangers posed to public health; no resettlement would be allowed there.

The law gave the interior minister authority to transfer any citizens who did not have proper familiarity with Turkish culture and move them to what was called Area 2, where they would be forcibly assimilated.

It appears that the Turkish resettlement law could serve as an inspiration to other governments that “suffer” from the presence of national minority – speakers of other languages who don’t want to assimilate into the dominant national culture.

Thus, the old-time residents of Dersim and their descendants have waited for decades for an official apology from the government. It finally came in November 2011, but what an apology it was! The prime minister at the time, who is now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared: “If there needs to be an apology from the state, and if there is an opportunity to do so, I can apologize and I apologize.”

He then quickly directed a sharp dig at his political rival, Kemal Klçdaroglu, then as now the head of the Republican People’s Party: “Is it I who needs to apologize or you? If there’s someone who needs to apologize in the name of the Republican People’s Party, it’s you, since you yourself are from Dersim. You’ve said that you are proud to be from Dersim. If so, maintain your honor.”

Klçdaroglu’s retort: “I congratulate the prime minister for laying dynamite under the foundations of our national unity He has managed to sow animosity among the people.”

In any event, an official apology had not been forthcoming from the Republican party until last week – but the matter is still not fading away. Colleagues of Tanrikulu in the Republican leadership attacked him over the initiative, which they claimed would stain the party's reputation and of course also hinder its ability to compete against the ruling Justice and Development Party.

“[Tanrikulu] doesn’t have that right and he is not in a position to offer such an apology,” said one parliament member who compared the “Dersim rebels” in 1937 to the contemporary Kurdistan Worker’s Party, the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization.

“The entity that needs to apologize to the residents of Dersim is not the Republican party," said Engin Altay, deputy head of the party faction in parliament. “The one that brought about those difficult events was the state.”

In actuality, the Turkish government or the party that was in power at the time of the massacre essentially wanted to meld all of its citizens into a single all-encompassing, cultural allegiance. As Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Israel’s Yisrael Beiteinu party would say, without loyalty, there is no citizenship.

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