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As Coronavirus Cases Spike in Turkey, So Does anti-Semitism

Erdogan is cracking down on ‘provocative’ and ‘unfounded’ social media posts on the coronavirus. Will he halt pro-government channels spreading conspiracy theories blaming the outbreak on the Jews?

Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman
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A worker wearing protective clothing disinfects historical Fatih Mosque, in Istanbul, Saturday, March 14, 2020, as a precaution against the coronavirus
Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman

Last week, Turkey joined the long list of countries registering citizens affected with COVID-19, with the current total of infections standing at 47. But there are widespread fears that the "silent" infection rate is far more widespread.

The novel coronavirus reached Turkey rather late; even early last week, there were still jokes circulating on Twitter about its tardiness reaching the country, despite massive breakouts in neighboring Iran, Iraq, and Greece and the regular exchange of visitors coming and going from Europe to Istanbul. 

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Many comically speculated that this was due to the Turkish habit of greeting visitors with a dash of kolonya – a scented alcohol-based liquid that its fans say works like hand sanitizer. Others commented on how many Turkish people are borderline germaphobes, and keep their homes immaculately clean; I can bear witness that some Turkish families wash their curtains at least once a month, and even iron their underwear.

And Turkey ranks right at the top of the table of European states for washing hands after using the bathroom, reaching an impressive 94 percent of the population (by comparison, Italy scored an appallingly low 57 percent).

However, as news of the virus reaching its borders spread, the jokes on Twitter lost their appeal. In no time at all, the humor was replaced with hate. Conspiracy theories began to spread like wildfire, even quicker than the virus itself. And, not surprisingly, topping the list, were those who masterminded this worldwide pandemic: The Jews.

The language could have been taken straight out of that infamous but endlessly influential Czarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Jews are behind the global catastrophe, spreading sickness in an attempt to take over the worldwhile, as a bonus, profiteering from others’ suffering through their control of major pharmaceutical companies. 

Certainly, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories positing Jews’ plans for global dominance are not unique to Turkey, nor even are the claims that Jews or "Zionists" are behind the novel coronavirus: it’s a global phenomenon

Blaming Jews for COVID-19 feeds into a plethora of long-standing anti-Semitic calumnies, not just the Protocols-type: it’s a variation on the blood libel, and a continuation of the many centuries, starting with the Black Death in Europe, when Jews were scapegoated as responsible for the pandemic, leading to the massacres of Jewish communities all over Europe.

However, unfortunately, in Turkey, these conspiracy theories win airtime and media coverage, and they reach large parts of the Turkish population.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling AK Party during a meeting at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, March 11, 2020

For example, on ATV, a pro-government television channel, an "expert" declared that "Whoever spread the virus, will find the cure. Israel already made a statement that they found a vaccine." The anchorman followed up: "They found the vaccination…whoever is the source [of the vaccine], they and their accomplices spread the virus, you say, right?" The "expert" confirms: "Absolutely! Israel has already said that in a matter of time, they will make the vaccination available commercially."

One Islamist internet site shared the thoughts of Fatih Erbakan, the leader of the newly established Yeniden Refah Partisi, a party continuing in the footsteps of the once influential Refah (Islamic Welfare) Party. That party was led by Fatih Erbakan’s father, Necmettin, an important Turkish politician and consistent propagandist for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories

According to Fatih Erbakan, "While there is no hard proof, Zionism could very well behind the coronavirus." After I noted his comment, numerous Erbakan followers tweeted to me that this was not anti-Semitic but just "anti-Zionist."

As a debate intensified on my Twitter feed debating how representative the two outlets above were, a video emerged on social media of a conversation that took place on a minibus between passengers and the driver. Their conversation serves as an example of how deeply embedded anti-Semitism is within some sectors of Turkish society, and how quickly the rumors of a Jewish conspiracy are taking hold. 

It also shows how expressing this kind of bigotry requires an instigator – in this case, the minibus driver, who feeds his views to others – the passengers – who then adopt his suspicions, fueled by their own latent anti-Semitism. The conversation went as follows:

Driver: This virus is man-made.

Passenger next to him: Of course, it’s man-made.

Driver: Sure, Ebola was also man-made. All of these viruses are, pharmaceutical companies create this.

A passenger: God curse them!

Driver: And who owns most of these pharmaceutical companies?

Passengers: (Silence, no answers given.)

Driver: Jews. 

A passenger shouts: Rich people!

A passenger: God curse them!

Driver: My brother [I am telling you], Jews!

Passenger next to him: They would do anything to ruin Turks!

Passenger: My sister, not only the Turks!

Another passenger: The whole world, they would do anything to bring the whole world to its knees.

Driver: [Well, we all know] Jews are a cursed race!

Of course, this snapshot doesn’t equate to condemning Turkey in general; these kinds of views are certainly not reflective of all Turkish people. While anti-Semitism is often found among pro-Erdogan government factions and religious conservatives, in my almost two decades in Turkey I have met plenty of religious people with a deep, genuine interest in Judaism - and Israel.

Of course, anti-Semitism can also be found among secular folks on the left (as is the case worldwide). With both political communities there is a delicate line crossed at times between supporting Palestinian rights and its deterioration into an anti-Semitic campaign. 

During those 20 years, I personally have rarely encountered anti-Semitism; I’ve always reject the notion that it is "dangerous for Jews" to go to Turkey. Turkey’s anti-Semitism is to a large part extant in the realm of conspiracy theories and political discourse, but it doesn’t necessarily filter down to personal bigotry.

A worker in a protective suit leaves Ortakoy Mosque after disinfecting it against the spread of the coronavirus. Istanbul, Turkey, March 16, 2020

I often speak Hebrew freely there with family and friends; over the years I have seen good times and bad ones. These days, there is also no exceptionalism for Turkey: in many European cities, identified Jews or Israelis are potentially subject to similar hostility. 

And while I cannot speak on behalf of its Jewish community, I have enough Turkish Jewish friends to know  that while anti-Semitism exists, it doesn’t often penetrate their daily lives, not least when the majority live in Istanbul’s more multicultural neighborhoods, which are very open to difference.

It is also not anti-Semitism alone that has pushed so many Turkish Jews to leave: in a multifaceted Jewish community, reasons for emigration play out in many different ways, often mirroring the reasoning of middle-class Muslim counterparts who have left Turkey, not least during the Erdogan era.  

There is no doubt that both heavy-handed government control of the media and the rise of social media has amplified hate in Turkey, whether directed at Jews, Kurds, other non-Muslim communities and the LGBT community. It is simply and plainly much more visible. Calling these hate acts out – demanding, for instance, that the government curbs bigotry emanating from the pro-government press – requires solidarity. 

A worker in protective suit disinfects the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey March 16, 2020

Over the past few years, the Turkish government has center-staged public recognition of the Jewish community and its history, from memorializing the the Holocaust, to restoring synagogues, to ceremonies commemorating the sinking of the Struma, a ship laden with more than 750 Jewish refugees denied shelter by Turkey in World War II.

But if that same government won’t take even basic steps to rid anti-Jewish hostility from media outlets under its control, then all this outreach to the Jewish community seems emptily performative and tactical, a means to gain kudos abroad while whitewashing the hate at home. 

The Turkish government is now detaining people for spreading what it calls "unfounded and provocative" disinformation about the coronavirus. If those detentions are really in good faith, then surely anti-Semitic conspiracy theories should be included – and censured too.

It shouldn’t have needed the coronavirus crisis to demand Ankara really confront anti-Semitism, but as this emergency appears to be escalating a bigoted national search for scapegoats, now it is more necessary than ever. For now,I am not holding my breath. It seems the political benefits of allowing anti-Semitism to run unleashed are greater than those of reining it in. 

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who divides his time between Turkey, the U.S. and Israel, and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Twitter: @Istanbultelaviv

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