During the last two weeks anti-Semitism in Turkey has surged. Many of its citizens blur their criticism of the Israeli attack on Gaza with outright condemnation of Jews. Even if this trend is not unique to Turkey, the level of hate speech directed at Jews has hit dangerous levels, leaving many to even question the future of the 17,000-strong local Jewish community. In fact, open threats have been made against Turkey’s Jews in some of the pro-government media, which leads to only one conclusion: The Turkish government itself is largely responsible for this bleak situation.
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For over a decade, I have lived on-and-off in Turkey, watching Turkish society diversify along with the new freedoms it enjoyed during the first years of Erdogan’s tenure.
However, over the years, peoples’ comments and the Islamist press reminded me of the latent anti-Semitism there, though rightly brushed off as being largely marginal. However, even on the worst days, such as Israel’s raid on the Turkish-backed Gaza Flotilla, or during the Second Lebanon War, never did anti-Semitism erupt to such extremes as we have seen this week, one that was characterized by widespread praise for Hitler in the press and social media.
Despite this, for many Turkish and non-Turkish Jews, life continues at a near-normal pitch, since the prejudices that have been unleashed are not generally visible in the streets or communities they live or stay in.
This public display of anti-Semitism just did not suddenly reveal itself this week, Rather, it can be traced back to last year’s Gezi protest. The mass civil-society protest was brutally silenced by the Turkish government, but not before “international Jewry” was ‘identified’ as one of its main culprits by Prime Minister Erdogan, who claimed it was the work of the “interest-rate lobby,” a term regularly attributed to Jewish financiers and media moguls. According to the Turkish Prime Minister, the lobby aimed at hitting the Turkish economy and trying to bring down his government. While he was careful never to use the term ‘Jew’, it would not take long for one of his ministers to slip and actually pronounced that, indeed, international Jewry was one of the groups behind the Gezi protests.
Sure enough, not even a month had passed before Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi was ousted in a coup d’etat, a major blow to Erdogan, who saw himself as a type of mentor for the Muslim Brotherhood leader. On social media, as the massacres in Egypt were taking place, I was astonished to see the number of tweets in Turkish attributing the overthrow of Morsi as a Jewish conspiracy; in fact, some even claimed that the people shooting the protesters were not even Muslims, but really Jews.
It took no time at all for Erdogan to come out and accuse Israel as masterminding the coup; the problem was however he was blaming a French Jewish intellectual, Bernard-Henri Lévy, who merely participated in a 2011 conference on the Arab Spring alongside then-Knesset Member Tzipi Livni. Even if this was a strangely concocted story, Erdogan seemingly believed it, along with many of his followers.
The turning point in the story of Turkish anti-Semitism was last December’s corruption scandal, which targeted high-government members and was perceived by Erdogan as an attempted judicial coup masterminded by his once staunch ally, the religious leader Fethullah Gulen, self-exiled to the United States, who has a substantial following in Turkey and other parts of the world.
While most of Erdogan’s focus was purging thousands of police and judicial officials believed to be have ties with the Gulen movement, or what Erdogan coined the “parallel state,” it took no time at all for the PM and his supporters to remember that Gulen had been critical of the Turkish government’s role in the Gaza Flotilla – thus, of course, he too must have been under the wing of Israel.
Throughout all of this, Erdogan has had to work to retain a wide front of support, incorporating and rewarding numerous groups, including the once-marginal anti-Semitic newspapers, which are now much closer to the ruling circles of power. All of these changes also led to a transformation in Turkey’s political culture, which has become extremely polarized. Over the last year, Erdogan has regularly lashed out against his opponents in crude and offensive language.
There is no doubt that through these polarizing politics he has been able to consolidate his already strong conservative base – but at the cost of alienating many other sectors of Turkish society.
It would be erroneous to think that ‘world Jewry’ was the only target of his attacks. During the Gezi campaigns, protesters were falsely accused of attacking a religious woman and desecrating a mosque, allegations that despite being disproven were reproduced in all the major pro-government papers and repeated numerous times by Erdogan. Following the break with the Gulen movement, Erdogan’s language hit new levels when he declared a witch hunt against them, stating that “in order to sterilize this dirty water that contaminated the milk, we will either boil or vaporize it.”
When a group representing Alevis, Turkey’s largest religious minority, voiced opposition to Erdogan, he offensively questioned their religious beliefs as Muslims. Erdogan then caused anger among Turkey’s very small Shiite community when he explained that the Gulenists were even worse than Shiites in sedition and malice. In fact, in a similar way, MP Zafer Caglayan, in reference to the Gulen movement, said that he would have understood their (treacherous) actions had they been Jews, Zoroastrians, or Atheists; this lead to a harsh state of condemnation by Turkey’s Chief Rabbinate.
If things were not polarized enough, Turkey for the first time will go to the polls in August to vote in a president, with Erdogan as one of the main candidates, providing fertile ground for this latest wave of anti-Semitism. However, it seems that rather dictating a moderating path, Erdogan took the cues of radical voices, leading to him making even harsher statements than in the past. Further, we must remember that anti-Semitism and praise for Hitler - and protests against Israel – have provided a sense of unity and joint purpose among some divided parts of Turkish society.
During the last two weeks, Turkish Jews have been subjected to the ugliest of campaigns, with blatant threats lodged against the community, and even against foreign Jewish tourists. One author demanded that the Jews publicly condemn Israel, or else they could be subjected to pogroms such as that faced by Turkey’s Greek community in 1955. In the same newspaper, Yeni Akit, there was a cross-word-type game with Hitler’s portrait adorning the central panel with the slogan: “We are longing for you.” Many Turks reacted with shock, but this was by no means an isolated incident. One pro-government news source tweeted the dangerously inciteful words of IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, Bulent Yildirim, who declared: “If the Turkish Jewish community does not put an end to Israel’s actions, very bad things will happen.” He explained in a succeeding tweet that it was getting hard to constrain ‘our youth’, in effect suggesting that violence against Turkish Jews was imminent.
If such statements by the pro-government press were not enough, a ruling party AKP MP, Samil Tayyar, tweeted a message to Jews: Let your race be finished off, and may Hitler never be too far away. Further, Erdogan loyalist and mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek, came out in support of singer Yildiz Tilbe who praised Hitler on Twitter.
It was following these expressions of hate towards Jews that Erdogan, in an election campaign speech, positioned Israeli barbarism as even worse than Hitler’s, a claim would clearly cause grave offense to any Jew regardless of their affiliation with Israel. He followed this up by hedging his position, stating: “I don't approve of any (bad) attitude towards our Jewish citizens in Turkey, despite all this. Why? They are the citizens of this country.” These words, at least nominally upholding the right to safety of the Jewish citizens of Turkey, seem far too little and also too late. He has still made no public condemnation of his own party members’ praise of Hitler and their anti-Semitic statements, nor has he condemned the threats made against members of the Turkey’s Jewish community in the pro-government press.
On the bright side of this darkening picture, if social media in Turkey has provided a breeding-ground for anti-Semitic statements, it also has brought to light the condemnation of anti-Semitism by numerous Turkish columnists and appalled individuals, with voices even emerging in the more moderate pro-government press. However, it seems safe to say that in the wake of the current atmosphere of blatant anti-Semitism, more Jewish families will be convinced that the time has come to leave, a decision already made by many of the Jewish members over the last decade. If they stay, they are choosing to survive within their own psychological and physical bubble, or to carry on by ignoring the fact that many of their compatriots see them as the enemy.
Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York and writes on Turkish, and Israeli/Palestinian affairs. His upcoming book is on Ottoman Palestine. He has lived most of his life between the U.S., Israel, and Turkey. Follow him on Twitter: @IstanbulTelaviv He blogs at: http://louisfishman.blogspot.com