Turkey: The worst antisemitic incidents of 2019

Anti-Semitism has been rising in Turkey largely because of the anti-Semitic atmosphere that the government actively promotes, Işıl Demirel, an editor of Avlaremoz, a Turkish-Jewish news website, told Ahval.

Demirel said that her observations on anti-Semitism are based, among many other things, on a survey recently held by Avlaremoz in which readers chose the most egregious antisemitic incident of the last year. The news site published a number of incidents on one page, describing each one, and readers chose which they viewed as the worst.  

The results of the survey include a wide range of antisemitic events – schoolchildren indoctrinated at a summer camp and comments by opposition lawmakers, pro-government and anti-government newspapers, mayors, politicians, Islamic preachers and the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

 “We have conducted a similar survey at SEHAK (the Civil and Ecological Rights Association) on how the people of Turkey perceive Jews,” Demirel said. “That, and other media monitoring activities including Hrant Dink Foundation’s reports, demonstrate that anti-Semitism has intensified in Turkey in recent years.  

“The fact that the media in Turkey have increasingly become pro-government and have no real alternative to being pro-government has also helped make anti-Semitic rhetoric commonplace,” Demirel said. 

“And the regime’s tolerance towards anti-Semitic discourse makes antisemitism even more widespread among the public. Of course, Turkey’s policy towards Israel also affects this situation to a great extent.”

Participants in the survey picked a video calling for “death to Jews” as the most anti-Semitic event of 2019.

By whom and where the video was shot is unknown, but it went viral at the end of July. It showed what appears to be a summer camp where children, with a group of burqa-clad women behind them, were led in anti-Semitic chants in Turkish by a young girl or woman counsellor. In the 39-second clip, when the girl says, "the Jews", the women and children reply, "death!" When she says, "Palestine", they reply, "it will be saved".

The anti-Semitic incident that came second in the survey was a display on billboards, which contained images of blood-splattered crosses and Stars of David. The posters began to appear in October on bus stops in the city of Konya in central Turkey. The disturbing images - created by two groups affiliated with the Islamist opposition Felicity (Saadet) Party, - were accompanied by Qur'anic verse, 5:51, urging Muslims “not to take Jews and Christians as friends”.  

The Committee against Racism and Discrimination of Turkey's Human Rights Association (IHD) lodged a criminal complaint against the mayor of Konya and the Islamist groups who prepared the posters. However, prosecutors in Istanbul decided not to prosecute them.

One of the most anti-Semitic incidents involved Erdoğan, who targeted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a speech. He labelled Netanyahu as a “persecutor”, saying: “We have never persecuted any Jew in this country and have never done to any synagogue what you do [to mosques]. Do not provoke us! We will not fall for your scheme, but we will bring you to account on an international platform”. 

Commenting on the incident, Avlaremoz said: "Erdoğan thus used Turkish Jews as a trump card in his highly-charged foreign policy against Netanyahu, implying that he might persecute Jews and intervene in synagogues in Turkey if Netanyahu continued 'his provocations'. In Turkey, where the level of anti-Semitism is high anyway, Erdoğan’s statements incite people to hatred and hostility.”

Another Islamist who targeted Jewish people was a former mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek, who, in an attempt to insult Sezai Temelli, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) asked if he was Kurdish or Jewish.

Responding to allegations that people who joined a feminist march in Istanbul last March whistled during the Islamic prayer (Adhan), Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) Deputy Chairman Numan Kurtulmuş said: "Even non-Muslims respect the call to prayer”. The comment could be construed as discriminatory against non-Muslims.

In a sermon, pro-government Islamic preacher Cübbeli Ahmet Hodja described "being in hell on earth" as "submitting to persecution at the hands of Jews.”

Dogs also became a tool of antisemitism in an article in the pro-government press. Islamist newspaper Yeni Akit asserted that "the Jews have sent dogs to bite their Muslim neighbours” in the Beykoz district of Istanbul.

Dr. Efrat Aviv, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, believes that the government has deliberately made anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli statements, making the situation even worse:

“It is clear that antisemitism increases when it is supported and backed by the government and political leaders. The accusations by the Turkish president, Mr. Erdoğan, against Israel are an example of ‘the new antisemitism’.  

“Erdoğan's statements directly contribute to the increasing amount of antisemitism in the country, not to mention the wild conspiracy theories that are regularly splashed across the pages of the pro-government press. Mr. Erdoğan's harsh criticism of Israel has increased antisemitism in Turkey. I have no doubt that the demonisation of Israel has contributed to rising antisemitism in Turkey.

“Yet, what bothers me more than that is that it has become normal to express antisemitic ideas in Turkey. The fact that a movie (unrelated to World War II) highlights Nazi labour or death camps, the fact that antisemitism has invaded the cultural sphere and the fact that these cultural events evoke virtually no criticism means that antisemitism has been normalised in Turkey.”

Opponents of Erdoğan have made equally dreadful expressions of antisemitism. Cumhuriyet, a newspaper that fights against Erdoğan's government, republished a cartoon it had first printed in 1945, in which a Muslim Turk and a Jew are talking. The Turk asks the Jew if he would like to set up a new political party. The Jew, who is shown with a huge nose and a black hat, responds: "No, I would rather make money without so much work and without effort".

A lawmaker of the opposition Good Party (Iyi Parti), Lütfü Türkkan, defined being rich and comfy as “becoming Jewish” in comments on Twitter. Türkkan tweeted a video of an upscale event complaining that “there is a type of Muslim we call ‘Protestant’ living in wealth and luxury on an income that is unjust; these people have taken on the spirit of Jews”.

Jew-hatred has also been on open display in the streets of Istanbul. Graffiti written on a wall in the district of Gaziosmanpasa said: "May you get annihilated, Hitler's bastard, murderous Jew".  

Rifat Bali, a leading historian of Turkish Jewry and the author of many books and articles on Turkish history, told Ahval that anti-Semitism had always been a major problem in Turkey.  

“I never believed that antisemitism was new,” Bali said. “If we look at it over an extended period such as a few decades, it was already present and at peak levels in the analog era, but it became visible and expanded geometrically in the digital age. 

“The digital age has made available all the venues where people could express their true feelings openly (something not available in the analog age) so that they could be multiplied and spread all over the world a billion times.”

Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said that antisemitism is likely to increase further in the coming months and years.  

“Although there had been widespread antisemitism throughout late Ottoman and republican Turkey, it has only recently become this central to official discourse,” Erdemir said. 

“The state-funded and government-sanctioned propagation of antisemitic hate and conspiracies has exacerbated the problem among the public. Turkey’s culture of impunity when it comes to hate crimes and hate speech encourages perpetrators, both officials and the public at large, to repeat their wrongdoings.

Erdemir said Turkey’s ongoing economic crisis is likely to aggravate the problem, as members of the Erdoğan government look for scapegoats to blame for their mismanagement and corruption.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.