Turkey’s 15-20,000 Jewish community is on high alert. Just a few months ago Sky News broke a story that Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL, was planning attacks specifically against Turkey’s Jews. Inevitably, security was heightened, schools were closed and community events were postponed. The alert points to the precarious situation of Turkey’s declining Jewish population. It also begs the question of the position of Turkey’s domineering President Recip Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the party which he co-founded, led and still wields incontestable influence.
The position of the Jewish community since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 has been hazardous at best. During the late 1920s and 1930s Jews were victim to the “citizen speak Turkish campaign”,[i] an effort on the part of the authorities to create national linguistic cohesion. Ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, including Jews, were harassed in the streets, at times assaulted, while being told to “speak Turkish” by authorities and fellow citizens alike. The campaign was a contributing factor to the decline of Ladino, the Judaic-Spanish vernacular spoken by Turkish Jews for centuries but now just a handful of people.
During the 1930s Nazi propaganda entered Turkish shores. In Thrace, a region in the European side of Turkey, many Jews faced violent attacks and antisemitic propaganda.[ii] During World War II, Jews along with other non-Muslim minorities were hit with the Capital Gains Tax (Varlik Vergisi). Jews were often forced to pay as much as 10 times the tax rate. Failure to pay meant being sent to a work camp. The policy virtually wiped away the wealth of many Jews, Turkifying (arguably Islamifying) the country’s economy.[iii] Many Jews chose to leave and rebuild their lives in the newly found state of Israel after 1948.
However, the above incidents took place under the People’s Republican Party, the secularists who currently sit in opposition to Erdogan and the AKP. What about incidents during the AKP’s period in office, since 2002 until present?
In 2003, while the AKP was in power, Neve Shalom along with another synagogue (as well as the British Consulate and HSBC) were bombed by a Turkish faction of al-Qaeda. 57 people were killed, hundreds were injured. Neve Shalom was also the site of a 1986 gun attack by the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organisation which slaughtered 22 worshipers.
Erdogan’s personal antagonism towards Israel is well known. He famously walked out on a speech given by Shimon Peres at Davos in 2009, accusing that the then Israeli President “knows well how to kill” while his wife called Peres a “liar.” There was also the ill-fated Mavi Marmara incident when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish Gaza bound vessel, killing nine Turkish citizens. The response was more firebrand rhetoric on the part of Erdogan and the AKP in front of large anti-Israeli gatherings across Turkey’s cities. He mockingly repeated the Jewish commandment “thou shall not kill” to cheering crowds in condemnation of Israel’s actions. Meanwhile, Turkish television, increasingly beholden to the whims of the government, broadcasted the Valley of the Wolves which contained antisemitic motifs while viewers watched the hero’s quest to avenge the Turkish deaths.
Although one may stress the point that antipathy towards Israel is not the same as antisemitism, Erdogan straddles a fine line. Erdogan has openly stated that he does not approve of negative attitudes towards the Jews of Turkey who he considers citizens. However, this would appear in contradiction to his call for Turkey’s Jews to condemn Israel in the wake of the 2014 operations against Hamas. In other words, Erdogan linked Turkey’s Jews with Israel, putting the community on the firing line by a Turkish public who often make no distinction between Israel and Turkey’s Jewish population. Worryingly, in May 2014, Erdogan raised eyebrows after calling a demonstrator, during protests after a mining disaster, a “spawn of Israel”.
In understanding anti-Jewish attitudes among Erdogan and the AKP, its Islamic origins need to be stressed. Many founders of the AKP were from the Welfare Party, which derived from the Milli Gorus (National Outlook) movement which came into the fore during the 1970s. An important aspect of the Milli Gorus is a unique Turkish form of antisemitism that borrows elements of traditional antisemitic conspiracies. It blames the demise of the Islamic caliphate of the Ottoman Empire on the Donmes (followers of the “false” messiah Shabbtai Zvi during the seventeenth century) who they claim established the secular republic of Turkey at the expense of Islam.[iv] Meanwhile, international Zionism continues to exercise shadowy power and manipulate Turkish politics and the monetary system.
The movement saw power when Necmettin Erbakan of the Islamic Welfare Party become Prime Minister in 1996 and lasted until he was ousted in a military intervention. Erbakan reportedly commented that Jews are the cause of all mischief while his party disseminated material claiming all kinds of conspiracies linked to international Zionism.
Erbakan has also been quoted as commenting that the Crusades were organized by Zionists and that the world is created by one center, namely “the racist, imperialist Zionism” and that the US dollar is Zionist money.
Today there are still plenty of examples of such discourse including publishing houses that produced Turkish translations of Mein Kampf and the proven forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion which were best sellers in Turkey from 2005 onwards while the AKP was in its first term as well as other publications alleging Jewish conspiracies.
This is why AKP deputies have fallen into conspiratorial antisemitic gibes. The then Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay, for example, claimed that Jews were behind the Gezi Park Protests of 2013. Erdogan himself said that Jewish capital was behind the New York Times after the prestigious daily criticised his rule. One of Erdogan’s chief advisors was even so brazen as to attack government rivals for “raising soldiers for the Jews”.
Antisemitism has been and continues to be an immense problem in Turkey. Once home to over 100,000 Jews, it has reduced to a mere 15-20,000. And Jews continue to leave. Erdogan and the AKP have done little to reverse this phenomenon. If anything their comments, worldview and rhetoric have helped to fuel it.
[i] See for example, Soner Cagaptay, Islam, Secularism, and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who is a Turk? (London: Routledge, 2006); Aslan, Senem “Citizen, Speak Turkish!”: A Nation in the Making”. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Vol. 3, No. 2, April 2007.
[ii] Hatiice Bayraktar “The anti-Jewish pogrom in Eastern Thrace in 1934: new evidence for the responsibility of the Turkish government, Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 40, No. 2, 2006, pp. 95-111; Corry Guttstadt, Turkey, the Jews and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), chapter 3; Gareth Jenkins, Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 106-7;
[iii] Rifat N. Bali, The “Varlik Vergisi” Affair: A Study on its legacy – Selected Documents (Istanbul: ISIS Press, 2005); Faik Okte, The Tragedy of the Turkish Capital Tax (London: Croom Helm 1987); Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of the Modern Turkey (Various editions).
[iv] For a comprehensive record of such theories see Rifat N. Bali, A Scapegoat for All Seasons: The Donmes or Crypto-Jews of Turkey (Istanbul: ISIS Press, 2008).