In Trouble, Turkey’s Leader Blames Israel—Raising Tension for His Country’s Jews
Many blame Recep Tayyip Erdogan for rising anti-Semitism, but the legacy of his conspiracy-mongering may outlast his rule
One recent sunny Shabbat morning just after services, the congregation of one of Istanbul’s synagogues, in the city’s Galata district, sat down at long tables for breakfast. Plates laden with cheese, boiled eggs, and savory Turkish pastries called poğaça were passed around to the hungry members, whose numbers totaled about 38, most of them men. Carafes full of strong tea offered warmth in the drafty room, but some who were feeling festive drained a bottle of raki, an aniseed liquor with an alcohol content slightly higher than most whiskeys.
The conversation, between the tea drinkers and raki drinkers alike, quickly turned to politics. A few days earlier, high-ranking businessmen with ties to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP—including the sons of a few of Erdogan’s Cabinet ministers—had been arrested on charges of corruption, a scandal that has prompted protests and calls for Erdogan’s resignation. Erdogan responded by blaming “international groups”—by implication, Israel—for conspiring to unravel the Turkish state from within.
Erdogan has long been aggressively critical of Israel, and his rhetoric includes some show-stoppers. In 2009, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he told Israel’s president Shimon Peres, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill”—and then walked off the stage. The 2010 Israeli commando raid on the Mavi Marmara “Gaza flotilla” ship, in which nine activists were killed, further fractured the relationship; only last year, and only under the personal ministrations of President Barack Obama, did the conversation become something close to constructive. When protests against Erdogan’s government spread from Istanbul’s Gezi Park throughout Turkey in the summer of 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay blamed the “Jewish diaspora,” members of which were “jealous of Turkey’s growth,” although he quickly retracted the statements.
The breakfasters at the synagogue were transfixed, and exasperated. A man sitting to my left rolled his eyes. “We have a problem,” he told me, “called Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” Certainly Erdogan’s repeated decision to scapegoat Israel and the idea of Jewish power—whether out of genuine conviction or simple political expediency—increases the pressure on individual Jews by erasing the line between the personal and the political. For at least the past decade, the narrative around Turkey’s Jewish population has been that they are leaving, often because of political or social alienation owing to Erdogan’s rhetoric against Israel. It’s become a familiar headline which, for the congregants wiping poğaça crumbs from their laps and plotting their ferry rides home, seems like a less-than-subtle push out the door.
Of course, not all of Turkey’s Jews plan on leaving, and many emigrate for reasons having nothing to do with politics or religion. But those who stay see ties between a rise in casual anti-Semitism and Erdogan’s habit of conspiracy-mongering, and they worry that the longer Erdogan remains in power, the more deeply ingrained and reflexive the impulse among Turks to blame Jews for the country’s problems will become—even after Erdogan leaves the stage. “I’ve heard things like when someone owes a Jewish person money,” one young Jewish woman told me, “they give them half and say, ‘Yeah, I donated the rest to Gaza.’”
The total population of Jews living in Turkey today is reported anywhere from 17,400 to 22,000—a steep drop from the hundreds of thousands who lived in the region under the Ottoman Empire, which included Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain. (The Jewish Museum in Istanbul devotes much of its exhibition space to the celebration of this period of tolerance.) The vast majority of those who remain live in Istanbul. Izmir, a coastal city to the south, is home to a couple thousand, and in Antakya, a city on the border with Syria, the number of Jewish families is barely in the double digits.
When the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, a campaign to carve a national Turkish identity from the remains of the vast Ottoman Empire clashed with the existence of minorities. Compared to Armenians and Greeks—who were intensely persecuted, pushed from the country, and killed—the emigration of the Jewish population was more gradual. “In the Turkish Republic they were a ‘good minority,’” the young woman told me. But pogroms whose primary targets were the Greeks and Armenians had an impact on the Jewish population as well, and a “wealth tax” in 1942—ostensibly to fill war coffers but seen by critics as an attempt to reclaim economic power from minorities—resulted in the emigration of thousands of Jews to Palestine. After Israel was established, nearly half of Turkey’s remaining Jews left.
“The best way for a Jew today in Turkey is to keep quiet and silent and a bit invisible,” Ishak Alaton, an octogenarian businessman, told me when we met in his spacious office overlooking the Bosporus bridge. Alaton is charismatic and outspoken—a man set free by success to do as he pleases. “I have passed age 80, and my friends tell me that after 80 they don’t put you in jail,” he told me, both joking and not.
Alaton is close to Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic scholar living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania who has a deep and far-reaching influence in Turkey. Gülen and Erdogan were once allies, working together to challenge state secularism and the Turkish army, but as their influence increased they grew apart. The corruption scandal is widely seen as the eruption of this mostly behind-the-scenes conflict.
Gülen has himself been called anti-Semitic, but Alaton was quick to come to his friend’s defense. “Gülen is not anti-Semitic,” he told me. “He’s accused of being anti-Semitic because of a few sentences he uttered 30 years ago.” Now, Alaton insisted, he sees no trace of bias in his friend. “He started knowing the Jews,” Alaton went on, “and he came to the conclusion that these are not bad people.”
The day before we met, Alaton delivered the opening speech at a conference on Jews in Turkey at Kadir Has University in which he criticized the current government led by Benjamin Netanyahu for its treatment of the Palestinians and stressed that the citizens of Turkey and Israel would be fine partners, much better than their leaders. He was annoyed at some of the coverage from the conservative Turkish press, which was negative. “They just want to be nasty,” he said. “There is a latent anti-Semitism.” But he was happy about the conference itself, which was the first of its kind. He saw it as a chance to set the record straight about Jews in Turkey and reclaim the narrative from the state.
Alaton was adamant that the only reason there is anti-Semitism in Turkey is lack of information. Before the AKP came to power in 2002, Alaton told me, a survey was taken of Turkish society, in which 76 percent of those asked whether they would like to have a Jewish neighbor answered “no,” but 85 percent admitted to never having had a close relationship with a Jew. Alaton, who cited the statistics from memory, concluded, “Without knowing a Jew you are prone to say, no I don’t want a Jewish neighbor.”
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