Check out the previous installments in this ongoing series:
#10: David Irving
#9: Roger Waters
Back on June 10, 2005, in New York, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accepted an award from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on behalf of Turkish diplomats who had saved Jews during World War II. Erdoğan had been elected two years earlier as head of the Islamist AKP Party, at a time when the Turkish-Israeli strategic alliance and trade relations were thriving.
Although antisemitism ran deep in the AKP and in the Turkish Islamist camp generally, Erdoğan’s words at the award ceremony sounded reassuring. “Anti-Semitism has no place in Turkey,” he said.
It is alien to our culture.
The Turkish nation has been living for centuries with the Jewish people and will continue its close and friendly relations with them in the future.… Our consistent policy towards anti-Semitic diatribes can be nothing short of zero tolerance.
Erdoğan went so far as to call antisemitism “a criminal disease of mind.”
Just a month earlier Erdoğan had visited Israel with a large group of businessmen, held talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, laid a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and said Iran’s nuclear program was a threat not just to Israel but to the whole world.
Today Erdoğan is still in office, having been reelected twice. And yet, while unofficial trade relations continue, Turkish-Israeli strategic and military ties are in shambles. The small Turkish Jewish community of about 20,000 (some put the figure lower) has been subjected to terror attacks and vilification and largely lives in fear. The same ADL has denounced Erdoğan’s “vitriolic condemnation of Israel and unqualified embrace of Hamas.” Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg has called him “a semi-unhinged bigot.”
What went wrong?
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The answer is that nothing really did go wrong. Samuel Westrop of the Gatestone Institute notes that as far back as 1997, when Erdoğan was mayor of Istanbul, he said at a meeting that:
The Jews have begun to crush the Muslims of Palestine, in the name of Zionism. Today, the image of the Jews is no different from that of the Nazis.
The Working Definition of Antisemitism cites “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” as one of the manifestations of antisemitism. For Erdoğan, it was not just Israeli policy but “the image of the Jews” that had sunk to that low level.
In other words, despite the sugary words at the ADL award ceremony, Erdoğan had long harbored a different attitude.
So it made sense that in December 2008 and January 2009, when Israel struck back at Hamas in the Gaza Strip after thousands of rockets had fallen on Israeli communities, Erdoğan reacted with fury—against Israel, while supporting fellow-Islamist Hamas. That was despite the fact that the European Union—which, in those days, Turkey was still angling to join—outlaws Hamas as a terrorist organization.
On January 29, after the war had ended, Erdoğan went so far as to launch a fifteen-minute philippic against Israel at a meeting of the European Policy Forum in Davos. As the New York Times described it, Erdoğan became “red-faced, and with one hand grasping the arm of the moderator,” he turned to another attendant of the meeting, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and said:
Mr. Peres, you are older than me…. Your voice comes out in a very loud tone. And the loudness of your voice has to do with a guilty conscience. My voice, however, will not come out in the same tone…. When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.
Soon after, Erdoğan stormed out of the meeting.
It was in October 2009 that Erdoğan started gutting Turkish-Israel strategic ties by banning Israel from a NATO air force drill. Three months later, a report by the Israeli Foreign Ministry charged Erdoğan with “indirectly incit[ing] and encourage[ing]” antisemitism, among other things by “backing…radical Islamist newspapers.”
But all that was only a prelude.
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In May 2010, a flotilla of five Turkish ships set out for Gaza with the aim of breaking Israel’s naval blockade of the Strip and bringing supplies to its population. The flotilla had—at the very least—the blessing of Prime Minister Erdoğan.
The blockade was in place to stop Iran from transporting hundreds of rockets and other weaponry to Hamas in Gaza. Israel, for its part, said the Turkish ships could dock in Israel, and then the supplies—so long as they were harmless—could be conveyed overland to the Strip. That was eventually what transpired—but not without incident.
The main contingent of one of the ships, the Mavi Marmara, comprised members of the IHH, a radical Islamist organization with ties to Al-Qaeda. When Israeli commandos—who encountered no resistance on the other four ships—rappelled down onto the Marmara’s deck bearing paintball guns, they were set upon by an IHH mob wielding knives, clubs, iron bars, and handguns snatched from a couple of the commandos, and ended up drawing their remaining handguns and killing nine of the attackers.
Erdoğan went apoplectic. He called the commandos’ defense of their lives “state terrorism” and said Israel should be “punished” for its “bloody massacre.” He recalled Turkey’s ambassador to Israel and put official Turkish-Israeli relations in a deep freeze.
And that’s where they’ve been ever since, despite an attempt this year to patch them up that has led nowhere.
Erdoğan, meanwhile, has increasingly been crossing the line into open antisemitism.
Speaking last February 28 in Vienna at a UN forum called Alliance of Civilizations—supposed to promote dialogue between the West and Islam—Erdoğan called Zionism a “crime against humanity” and likened it to antisemitism, fascism, and Islamophobia. Calling “Zionism,” code for Israel’s existence, a “crime” means attacks of any kind against Israel are justified. UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO, blasted Erdoğan’s “Ahmadinejad-style pronouncements.”
In late May and June, the Gezi Park protests against Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian, Islamist rule erupted across Turkey. Erdoğan and fellow AKP officials pinned the blame on…the Jews.
Or, as Erdoğan himself put it, on “dark forces” and the “interest lobby”—prompting 46 members of the U.S. House of Representatives to protest the classic antisemitic terminology. Others in Erdoğan’s camp dispensed with the code words; as the Turkey Analyst reported:
the main pro-AKP daily newspaper Yeni Şafak claimed that it had uncovered evidence that the…protests had been orchestrated by the “Jewish lobby” in the U.S. and even published the names and photographs of a number of prominent Jewish Americans who it alleged were the leaders of the conspiracy. The Yeni Şafak article was publicly endorsed by a succession of leading members of the AKP, who maintained that the government also had concrete evidence of the plot.
But Erdoğan was hardly deterred by the congressional protest or by the fact that he was fueling a sinister antisemitic atmosphere. On August 20 he crossed yet another line, this time into outright paranoid conspiracy-mongering.
Speaking at an AKP meeting, Erdoğan accused Israel of engineering the anti-Islamist coup that had toppled Mohamed Morsi’s regime in Egypt over a month earlier. The proof? During a 2011 panel with Israeli politician Tzipi Livni, French Jewish intellectual Bernard Henri Levy had said: “The Muslim Brotherhood will not be in power even if they win the elections. Because democracy is not the ballot box.”
As Erdoğan explained: “This is what has been implemented in Egypt. Who is behind this? Israel. We have evidence.”
The U.S. State Department responded: “We strongly condemn these statements. Suggesting that Israel is responsible for recent events in Egypt is offensive, unsubstantiated, and wrong….” The Al-Monitor website called it “the harshest words against Turkey from the United States in recent times.”
Erdoğan hardly created Turkish antisemitism, which has a long pedigree. But he has done much to encourage and strengthen it—and give it continued valence in an all-too-receptive Middle East.
Before the Erdoğan era, Turkey stood as a hope-inspiring case of a majority-Muslim country that was in some important respects a functioning democracy. But, under Erdoğan, Turkey has been reverting to authoritarian darkness, and his antisemitism is a major symptom of the downturn.
If, at some point in the future, Turkey reverses course again, it will be despite Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and not because of him.