In his State of the Union address this past January, President Obama acknowledged a rise in anti-Semitism around the world and pledged America’s commitment to combating it. “As Americans, we respect human dignity,” he said. “It’s why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world.” This week, Obama’s pledge will be put to the test when it comes to a NATO member and U.S. ally.
On Monday, a pro-government Turkish TV station aired a horrifically anti-Semitic documentary, featuring current ruling party officials and advisers. Al-Monitor and International New York Times columnist Mustafa Akyol describes the film, “The Mastermind,” as “a sequel to ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ the early 20th century anti-Semitic hoax claiming to describe a Jewish plot for global domination.”
The film opens with an infamous statement from Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, who told his supporters:
Don’t be misled. Don’t think that these operations are against my persona, our government, our party. Friends, these operations are rather directed against Turkey itself — its unity, its peace, its economy, its independence. And as I have said before, behind all these steps there is a mastermind. People ask me, “Who is this mastermind?” Well, you have to figure that out. And actually, you know what it is.
The implied answer, of course, was the Jews, and the film proceeds to helpfully fill in Erdogan’s blank.
“We hear from a series of Turkish ‘experts’ who explain how ‘the children of Israel’ want to dominate the world, subjugate other peoples and thus surround the world like a ‘giant octopus,’” Akyol writes. “A ‘historian’ asserts that Darwin proposed his theory only to depict non-Jews as ‘animals’ — an idea that he believes is rooted in Judaism. At every stage, the film reminds us how the Judaic ‘mastermind’ has oppressed humanity for thousands of years, making the world a stage for a perpetual war between good and evil.” Along the way, the film manages to implicate Maimonides, philosopher Leo Strauss, and Charles Darwin in this generational conspiracy, apparently unaware that the latter was not actually Jewish.
Though the “documentary” is not an official production of Turkey’s ruling party, AKP, as Akyol notes, “there is no doubt that it is pro-AKP (and pro-Erdogan) propaganda,” as the film includes party stalwarts “such as Yigit Bulut, top adviser to Erdogan, and Etyen Mahcupyan, top adviser to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.”
Turkey is a U.S. ally and NATO member. Its parliament was the very first President Obama addressed following his election in 2008, where he called Turkey a “critical ally.” In 2012, Obama named Erdogan, then Turkey’s Prime Minister, as one of the five world leaders with whom he maintains a close personal relationship. Since then, however, Turkey’s government under Erdogan has taken a decidedly disturbing turn, as anti-democratic trends already in evidence previously have blossomed.
In 2012 and 2013, Turkey ranked first among all countries in imprisoned journalists. In 2013, when anti-government protesters filled Gezi Park and demonstrations erupted across the country, Erdogan cracked down violently, killing 11 and injuring 8,000. On the eve of the Turkish election in 2014, Erdogan blocked Twitter and Facebook to prevent voters from viewing leaked material that exposed corruption in his government. (After Erdogan was elected president, his party moved to impose even more draconian government censorship of the internet.)
As in many places, these illiberal trends have gone hand-in-hand with rising anti-Semitism. Last July, Ankara mayor and former AKP parliament member Melih Gökçek tweeted pro-Hitler sentiments. Around the same time, as Turkey scholar Michael Koplow documented, Bülent Yıldırım, the head of IHH–the organization that organized the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza and has since been linked to al Qaeda–“warned Jewish tourists … not to show their faces in Turkey and threatened Turkish Jews that they would pay dearly for Israel’s actions in Gaza.” During the summer’s Gaza war, a reporter for Yeni Akit wrote an open letter to Turkey’s chief rabbi demanding that he and the country’s Jews apologize for Israel’s actions. Similar sentiments were published in Daily Sabah, the English language outlet aligned with Erdogan’s AKP. And in November, the AKP governor of the Turkish province of Edirne threatened to turn a historic synagogue into a museum, leading one opposition lawmaker to declare, “hatred and anti-Semitism have seized the state.”
Between Erdogan’s bigoted dog-whistling and his own officials and supporters’ more explicit anti-Jewish propaganda–including this so-called documentary–it is time the U.S. administration called the country’s leadership to account. It has, to its credit, done something like this before, when last November, Obama adviser and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power chastised European leaders for failing to show up to a conference on anti-Semitism just as it was spiking in their countries. If that mere absence was worthy of sanction–and it was–surely such blatant anti-Semitism in Turkey from the party headed by a man Obama once legitimized as a friend and confidant deserves no less a condemnation. At a time when Jews are increasingly unsafe outside the United States and Israel, such escalating anti-Semitic incitement by a U.S. ally and NATO member cannot go unanswered.
If Obama is to live up to his State of the Union pledge to combat Jew hatred around the globe, in other words, this would be a good place to start.