Erdogan’s rhetoric risks fuelling anti-Semitism in Turkey

Prime minister says Israel’s actions have surpassed ‘even Hitler’s’

Turkey’s prime minister and presidential candidate Tayyip Erdogan poses with representatives of nomadic Turkish groups in Ankara. Some observershave accused him of engaging in anti-Jewish rhetoric in the run-up to Sunday’s presidential election. Photograph: Reuters

Turkey’s prime minister and presidential candidate Tayyip Erdogan poses with representatives of nomadic Turkish groups in Ankara. Some observershave accused him of engaging in anti-Jewish rhetoric in the run-up to Sunday’s presidential election. Photograph: Reuters

 

A walk through Istanbul’s touristy Galata neighbourhood reveals churches, mosques and no fewer than three synagogues.

Under the shadow of the Galata Tower, tiny surveillance cameras sit perched above the Neve Shalom synagogue’s heavy, metal doors on which the Star of David is inscribed. A sheer concrete wall, conspicuous because of the absence of any windows or glass, occupies the floors above the entrance.

Unlike the nearby churches and mosques, there is little life outside the building. Visitors are required to fill out application forms and provide passport details at least four days in advance of entering Istanbul’s synagogues.

But history has shown there’s good reason for caution.

In November 2003, as Jewish families celebrated a bar mitzvah, 22 people were killed and more than 300 were injured when two truck bombs exploded outside this and another synagogue five kilometres to the north.

In 1986, two men armed with machine guns and grenades killed 22 worshippers at the Neve Shalom synagogue.

Today, with Turkey’s most powerful politician, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, calling on the country’s Jewish citizens to denounce Israel’s war on Gaza, some among the 17,000- strong community feel unfairly caught between Israel’s actions in Gaza and Turkish politicians’ attempts to win votes ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

In remarks viewed as populist politicking ahead of the election, Erdogan, the leading candidate, has said Israel’s actions in Gaza surpassed “even Hitler’s”, setting off howls of criticism from world leaders and Jewish groups. His comments, said US Congress members, “do nothing to end the violence, but rather could serve to instigate further hatred”.

Speaking to Turkish newspaper Sabah, Erdogan, who is widely expected to triumph in the election and maintain his hold over Turkish politics, turned to Turkey’s Jews, saying: “They should adopt a firm stance and release a statement against the Israeli government.” He added the government was responsible for their security. Separately, the head of a €50-million Turkish humanitarian organisation recently threatened “the end” for the country’s Jewish population.

The prime minister’s campaign-trail comments are thought to have been deployed to appeal to Turks’ Muslim roots and to cash in on the raging current of anger in Turkey over Israel’s offensive in Gaza. In step with this, Erdogan was filmed wearing a Palestinian kuffiyeh scarf at a recent televised party meeting.

But observers fear Erdogan’s comments could unlock latent right-wing passions, with his extreme rhetoric echoing in the world of Turkey’s Twittersphere and in pro-government media outlets, where outright anti-Semitism has flourished in recent days and weeks.

“Not only do Turkey’s Jews have a connection to Israel, they have family there,” analyst Louis Fishman told The Irish Times. “They’re being put in a position where they’re being forced to condemn their families.”

Against this backdrop, violent protests outside the Israeli consulate in Istanbul forced the evacuation of Israel’s diplomatic staff from Ankara and Istanbul. “Die murderer Jew” was one of several threats graffitied on an Israeli consulate wall in Istanbul at the height of the protests last month.

The Turkish-Jewish weekly newspaper Salom, which has published photos of the attacks on Gaza on its front pages and accused Israel of using disproportionate force there, has been subjected to attacks on Twitter that evoke the horrors of the second World War.

As Armenians, Greeks and other minorities in Turkey have suffered over the course of Turkey’s modern history, so too have the country’s Jews. In the 1950s and 1960s, Jews and others were subjected to mob attacks and “wealth” taxes which resulted in thousands leaving for Israel.

Writing in Salom, editor Ivo Molinas conveyed the thoughts of the Turkish Jewish Community, an organisation supporting Jewish community services in Turkey, saying it “would like to remind [people] that they are equal Turkish citizens and that the [Gaza] tragedy should not be used as material for hate and anti-Semitism”.

Nor can Turkey’s Jews call on much support in Turkish political circles. In addition to the ruling AK Party’s rhetoric, the far-right National Movement Party (MHP) is linked to a prominent neo-fascist organisation and has also derided Israel’s war on Gaza. In March, the MHP saw its share of the national vote stand at 16 per cent in local elections, making it Turkey’s third-largest party.

Inevitably, the anti-Semitic frenzy has impacted on individuals. An online campaign launched two weeks ago to boycott Israeli products saw the work of prominent Turkish Jewish writer Mario Levi singled out.

“The targeting of his novels by a segment of those protesting the Israeli government is a disgusting example of racism and ignorance, an embarrassing source of shame,” a statement by the writers’ organisation Pen Turkey said. “We strongly condemn this fascist, inhumane act.” Levi took to Twitter to lament the campaign against him and to congratulate Turkey’s Muslims on the end of Ramadan.

Erdogan is set to return the 2004 “Profile of Courage” award granted to him by the Jewish-American Anti-Defamation League in part for his government’s protection of Turkish Jews. The organisation demanded last month that he return the award because he had become the world’s “most virulent anti-Israeli leader”, and a spokesman for Erdogan said he would be glad to do so.

Yet the prime minister remains the key to unleashing or putting to bed the current of anti-Jewish feeling in Turkey, says analyst Fishman. “If Erdogan stopped the rhetoric, the comments we’re seeing online would end in five minutes,” he said. “The fact, though, is that he is not trying to stop.”

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