Israeli-Turkish relations have dwindled from seemingly warm cooperation to tense tolerance. Following the violent clashes regarding metal detectors at entrance points to the Temple Mount, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan voiced another opinion decidedly antagonistic to Israel—the Jewish state is not respecting the democratic rights of the Muslim world. “It is unacceptable that Israel shut down Haram al-Sharif three days and imposed new restrictions, including metal detectors, on Muslims’ entry to the area,” he said.
How much, however, is due to Turkey’s desire for political prominence in the region, versus a rebirth of traditional anti-Semitism? The ostensible turning point is most often touted to be the May 31, 2010 Israeli storming of the Mavi Marmara. In Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism in Turkey, Efrat Aviv, of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies and Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, has shown that nothing could be further from the truth. There were underlying currents of anti-Semitism long before the Israel Defense Forces strike, often putting the Turkish Jewish community in the quandary of disassociating being a Jew from the least identification with Israel.
Is Erdogan an anti-Semite? Is that the driving force behind his anti-Jewish rhetoric and his anti-Israel policies? Curiously, Aviv divides Erdogan into two phases. One key date is Operation Cast Lead, a year before the Mavi Marmara. Prior to Operation Cast Lead. Erdogan tried to negotiate peace between Israel and Syria. Once conflict began, negotiations were a moot point. Erdogan, based on preconceived perceptions, blamed Israel for the failure. According to one theory, the Mavi Marmara enabled him to air his frustrations in public. Setting aside political conjecture, the Syrian talks are a good indication of Erdogan’s perception in his place in regional (if not world) politics.
Some say that at the beginning of the career of Erdogan, Turkey’s powerful leader of changing titles, he was more politically correct (though always pro-Palestinian) and not hateful. The point can be debated either way—and there are, of course, quotations supporting both points of view. From an ethical point of view, there are utterances of hate which should never cross one’s lips, even though they might be politically expedient.
To what extent are the media influential? The easiest media to track are the traditional press, and there can be no doubt that numerous newspapers have publicized anti-Semitic themes. The Mavi Marmara was only the catalyst to almost “normalize” anti-Semitism. Reprinting government claims that Jews controlled the world (finances, the press, etc.) became a tolerated rerun of classic hatred. Other media simple to track are books. It’s an easy yardstick—there is no shortage of copies of Mein Kampf available in Turkey.
Is it possible to repudiate previously held anti-Semitic views? A prominent example is Fethullah Gulen, now accused of supposedly masterminding the 2016 aborted coup against Erdogan and now in exile in the United States. He is a prime example of a once rabid anti-Semite who has changed his thinking and openly advocates coexistence. One might well say that he offers a ray of hope for the future.
The author has done an excellent job tracing anti-Semitism in Turkey. Let’s be blunt and straightforward: It exists. It exists in the most classic terms, even though some Jews make gigantic efforts to deny it. The ostrich with its legendary head in the sand will not make reality go away, nor is he in a position to change or influence the world around him. The author’s approach is very much a positive first step—read the cards for what they are and recognize reality. Anti-Semitism is alive and thriving in current-day Turkey, from the general population to figures in the higher echelons of government.
Not every Turk is an anti-Semite. Synagogues are being protected. Historic Jewish sites are being restored, such as the synagogue in Edirne. But the atmosphere is problematic. If adults can dodge hatred and hide from danger, one can only ask if this is an atmosphere in which children should be raised. Aviv paints a very descriptive picture. Israeli-Turkish relations have dwindled from seemingly warm cooperation to tense tolerance.
Jay Levinson holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern studies from New York University.