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In Erdogan’s Post-Coup Turkey, Anti-Semitism is on the Rise

Shamefully, the Turkish president has made Turkey less of a refuge for Jews than it once was

Sophia Pandya
October 19, 2017
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a meeting of provincial chairmen of his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) in Ankara on October 13, 2017.ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a meeting of provincial chairmen of his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) in Ankara on October 13, 2017.ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

On a visit to Turkey in 2011, I visited the Belek “Garden of Tolerance,” where a diminutive mosque, church, and synagogue are housed close together in an emerald-green park, apparently a testament of Turkey’s acceptance of other faiths. Members of the Sufi Gülen movement had brought me there to highlight their own dedication to broad-mindedness, humanitarianism, and the well-being of other faith-based communities. It was a sweltering, humid day, and the AC had only been turned on in the mosque. Nevertheless, as an American Muslim I was impressed by the symbolism of inclusivity, too rare in many Muslim countries today, and in our increasingly polarized and intolerant world in general. At that moment, I felt immensely proud both of the idealistic Turkish Muslims who envisioned and built it, and of the complex faith of Islam, which inspired that beacon of verdant life and hope. The garden is a fertile manifestation of a strong commitment to interfaith dialogue, in which I profoundly share. This value motivated my own participation in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative in Jerusalem in 2015 and 2016, where I heard from a wide range of Jewish voices on their connections to Israel and diverse experiences of Judaism. A year ago, my half-Palestinian daughter married the grandson of an Auschwitz survivor, and my own beautiful first granddaughter, like the garden, also reflects the celebration of difference. At the garden’s inauguration ceremony in 2004, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promised that he would “remove any remaining obstacles to religious freedom in Turkey,” and stated that Turkey would be “the guarantor of peace and brotherhood in its region.”

Unfortunately, that was a blatant lie.

According to the recently published US State Department’s Turkey 2016 International Religious Freedom Report, Turkey, along with China and Saudi Arabia, represses its religious minorities. Since the July 15, 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, the Turkish-Jewish community has been grappling with an uptick in anti-Semitic acts. This reflects populist (now-president) Erdoğan’s power-hungry pivot towards fascism and nativism, which involves unifying Turks through identifying scapegoats (Jews, Kurds, Alevis, and the Gülen Movement) to blame for the country’s problems. While he immediately blamed the Sufi-inspired Gülen Movement for the plot, social media users and journalists also pointed at other religious minorities, including the Ecumenical Patriarch, and, unsurprisingly, the Jews. In fact, the tension has caused many Jews to leave Turkey for Israel or elsewhere, or at least to apply for foreign passports in case a quick departure becomes necessary.

This is tragic, given the long and stable presence of Jews in the Anatolian region, which served as a haven for small confessional groups such as the Jews, who were granted refuge there by Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II during the 1492 Spanish Inquisition. During the Ottoman period, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Bosnians and other minority communities, lived under Ottoman rule as part of the millet system, in which non-Muslim minority groups had separate legal courts and thus were able to govern themselves. During WWII, Turkey served as a safe transit and refuge for Jews fleeing the Holocaust, saving lives. Given that the global Jewish population is estimated (as of 2016) at around 14 and a half million, it is significant that approximately 18,500 Jews still reside in Turkey today, especially since Turkey is a Muslim majority country. Most live in Istanbul, and are Sephardic Jews, whose Ladino-speaking ancestors were allowed refuge during the Spanish expulsion, although a few are Ashkenazi.

Yet anthropologist Marcy Brink-Danan refers to the prevailing myth—that Jews have always lived free of discrimination in the Anatolian region—as the “tolerance trope.” During the Ottoman period Jews were respected, along with Christians, as “people of the book,” or ehl ul kitab in Turkish. However, this did not grant them equality to the Muslim majority, but rather religious accommodation, as “different yet protected” people. While the treatment of non-Muslim citizens was better than that of minorities elsewhere, it was not equitable. While Muslim men received the title of “Sir” or “Pasha,” (efendi or paşa), non-Muslim men were referred to simply by their trade. In 1942, Jews and other non-Muslims in Turkey were forced to pay a “wealth tax,” which functioned to financially weaken and thus marginalize them.

Despite celebrating (in 1992) 500 years of refuge in Turkey from the Spanish Inquisition, the Jewish community has continually faced degrees of discrimination in Turkey, also due largely to the legacy of ethnocentric and nationalistic Kemalist policies. The Republic of Turkey (established in 1923) was constructed on ideas of ethnic Turkish superiority. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the nation’s founder, used social engineering strategies towards unifying the state, which emphasized its homogeneity and “pure” Turkishness. This included the systematic violation of minority rights, expulsions, population exchanges, and the suppression of language, minority religions, and non-Turkish ethnic identities. In 1930, Atatürk’s Justice Minister Mahmut Esat Bozkurt (1882-1943), stated, “Those who are not of pure Turkish stock can have only one right in this country, the right to be servants or slaves.”

Indeed, even today many Jewish institutions in Istanbul are unmarked and protected by barbed wire and armed guards. When Turkish Jews wear or display Judaica they often do so privately, i.e., wearing a Star of David inside clothing, or hanging mezuzot inside their homes. Their indigenousness and loyalty to Turkey are challenged, and they are increasingly vulnerable to anti-Semitic attacks. For example, in 1986, twenty-two Jews were killed by Palestinians at Neve Shalom (ironically, this translates from Hebrew to “oasis of peace”), the largest synagogue in Istanbul. Subsequent attacks on synagogues include the 1992 Quincentennial anniversary attack, carried out by Hezbollah, which again took place at Neve Shalom (but with no casualties). In 2003, two car bombs exploded, one outside of Neve Shalom while approximately 400 people were inside, and the other at the back of Beit Israel Synagogue, while filled with 300 people. The blasts killed at least 20, and injured around 300 others. As recent as April of 2013, Turkish police foiled plots by al-Qaeda to bomb a synagogue in Istanbul’s Balat district. According to a 2014 poll carried out by the Anti-Defamation League, as much as seventy percent of Turkish citizens hold anti-Semitic attitudes towards Jews.

After July 15, the source of new anti-Semitic attacks does not emanate externally (i.e. Hezbollah) but from ordinary Turks, many of whom, newly emboldened to transcend “holding an attitude,” have loudly engaged in fomenting a toxic and dangerous environment for ethnic and religious minorities. The Turkey 2016 International Religious Freedom Report cites numerous instances of anti-Semitic discourse, including threats of violence, in social media and even in government-friendly media. The Neve Shalom Synagogue was again attacked by ultranationalists on July 22, 2017. Ironically, when Erdoğan attributed the putsch attempt to Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen Movement he inspired, this only made things worse for Jews. Some anti- Gülen forces have labelled the Muslim cleric a “crypto-Jew,” whose mother is a Jew (she is not). In December, 2016, a columnist from the government-backed Sabah, a prominent newspaper, wrote that Gülen “quickly smells of money and power. Because he is a Jew.” According to former parliamentarian Aykan Erdimir, the situation for religious minorities has “gone from bad to worse within the last year. Turkey’s government-controlled media systematically demonize minorities, presenting them as fifth columns.” The fear is prevalent and palpable.

For a few years, it appeared as though Erdoğan might actually be a force for liberal change in Turkey. He spoke of democracy and Turkey’s bid for inclusion into the European Union. In 2013, he announced several reforms: allowing a greater number of Kurds to serve on Parliament, Kurdish language instruction at private schools, and rescinding the headscarf ban. In 2014 he tried to reassure his Jewish population of their security, stating “Jews in Turkey are our citizens;” in 2016 he said they were “safe and secure.” This all rings hollow given that in 2014 he screamed “spawn of Israel,” to insult protesters of his handling of the Soma mine blast. In 2015 a two hour documentary, The Mastermind, inspired by one of Erdoğan’s speeches, was broadcast on a pro-government propaganda channel, in which Jews (collectively deemed “the Mastermind”) were blamed for all of Turkey’s problems. Several pivotal events witnessed his increasing authoritarianism and intolerance of any perceived as opposition—his brutal reaction to the 2013 Gezi Park protests and fury at the exposure of his alleged involvement with the Iran-gold-Halbank corruption scandal, his 2016 statement that he would “stamp out” the Kurdish conflict, and now his purge of thousands in the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt. It is increasingly clear that Erdoğan has now ceased any pretence of caring about individual human rights in Turkey, much less about its ethnic and religious minorities. In fact, he has cast the latter as the “dangerous others” which threaten Turkey’s security.

My own sensitivity to anti-Semitism, as a Muslim, deepened with my involvement in interfaith activities, my journey in Jerusalem with Shalom Harman’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, and by living in Trump’s America, where anti-Semitic (and Islamophobic) neo-Nazis feel newly free to publicly shout “Jews will not replace us.” It also grew with the joyful birth of my exquisite granddaughter, whose great-grandmother is still alive and remembers that only five of her thirty-five relatives survived the Holocaust. I share in the anger of Jews and other religious minorities at Erdoğan’s broken promise to them. His brutal post-coup purge has led to almost 125,000 people detained, and almost 60,000 arrested (as of August 17, 2017). Allowing himself free rein against those he considers enemies, the Turkish president has now indefinitely suspended the European Convention of Human Rights. Erdoğan’s fearmongering and use of scapegoating tactics to increase his own power have strengthened anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, making Turkey less of a refuge for Jews than it once was. Shame on him.

Sophia Pandya is a professor at California State University at Long Beach, in the Department of Religious Studies. Winner of the 2016 Advancement of Women Award at CSULB from the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, she received her BA from UC Berkeley in Near Eastern Studies/Arabic, and her MA and PhD from UC Santa Barbara in Religious Studies. A Fulbright Scholar, she specializes in women and Islam, and more broadly in contemporary movements within Islam, and has written several books and articles on those topics.