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Turkey’s state-supported anti-Semitic atmosphere grows

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan flashes four finger sign (rabia sign) during an electoral meeting in İstanbul in 2018. AFP

Alin Ozinian

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed that Turkey would not remain silent and accept the Israeli persecution of the Palestinians, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said, “Turkey is ready to take whatever action is necessary over Israel’s attacks on Palestine,” while violence between Israel and Palestine continued to rage.

“Half of those who lost their lives in Gaza are women and children,” said Çavuşoğlu at an extraordinary meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), urging “unity and determination on Palestine” from Muslim states and the international community as mosques across Turkey broadcast prayers in support of Palestinians injured in violent confrontations with Israeli police in Jerusalem.

Turkey’s mainstream media and social media have turned into a growing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic platform. Despite a full lockdown aimed at curbing the coronavirus, thousands of people gathered outside the Israeli Embassy in Ankara and its consulate in Istanbul to protest Israeli actions against Palestinians. The protesters in Istanbul, including Syrians and Palestinians, carried Palestinian flags while chanting, “Turkish soldiers to Gaza” and “Down with Israel, down with America.”

Turkey’s anti-Israel rhetoric has rapidly increased, and the country’s Jewish community has once again become the main target of the latest wave of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks.

Turkish Minute spoke with Betsy Penso, a Jewish lawyer from Istanbul currently based in Tel Aviv who thinks the Turkish government is clearly a party to the conflict and that this atmosphere of hate has developed as a result of its protection of Palestine-Hamas under the name of “religious brotherhood” but that in fact there are different interests at play.

“Turkish society is easy to provoke and, in general, cannot separate the Israeli government and the Jews. In addition the government — especially the president, the majority of bureaucrats and also the opposition parties — defame Israel to varying degrees and never pay attention to the difference between the Israeli state and the Jews,” said Penso.

The leader of Turkey’s nationalist İYİ (Good) Party said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the “Israeli version” of Erdoğan, drawing ire from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and added that Netanyahu did not hesitate to target the lives of civilians and children in order to stop his rivals.

Several AKP officials responded to Akşener’s remarks on Twitter. Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül urged Akşener to apologize for the analogy, while Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said likening the Turkish president to a “bloody-handed murderer” was no way to conduct politics. Mentioning Erdoğan and Netanyahu in the same sentence would serve to make Zionists happy, Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın said in a tweet.

According to Penso, Turkish Jews, who cannot be held responsible for anything good or bad in Israel, are suddenly forced to account for the violence between Israel and Palestine, explain and take sides. “The pressure on the Jews in Turkey would not be so great if the government and opposition had not clearly chosen sides and made an appearance,” she said.

Communications chief Altun tweeted, “It’s time to stop Israel’s heinous and cruel attacks.”

His comments came two days after Erdoğan denounced Israel.

“Israel, the cruel terrorist state, attacks the Muslims in Jerusalem, whose only concern is to protect their homes and their sacred values, in a savage manner devoid of ethics,” Erdoğan said.

Turkey’s Jewish community news website Şalom was hacked by the anti-Semitic IBDA-Cyber Front for Palestine in an assumed protest of Israeli military operations against Hamas in Gaza. The home page of the Şalom website was taken down, and the hackers posted, “Our actions will continue until Palestine is free and independent.” The perpetrators have yet to be caught.

Nesi Altaras, editor of Turkey’s Avlaremoz (Ladino for “Let’s Speak”) website, which examines relevant news and monitors anti-Semitism, thinks constant Turkish demands on Jews to condemn Israel strengthens the siege mentality in a way that actually makes Jews in Turkey more pro-Israel.

“Jews in Turkey are clearly feeling targeted — you can see various examples on social media. The community felt compelled to make a very vague statement calling for ‘peace.’ The fear is that this could escalate into physical attacks on local synagogues as it did before,” says Altaras.

Turkish-Jewish columnist Karel Valansi was recently attacked by the pro-government Takvim daily in a news report that dubbed the columnist a “foreigner,” presented her work as criminal activity and even told readers to “never forget” her name.

The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ) condemned recent news articles in the Turkish media that involved blatant anti-Semitic attacks on the columnist. “The news outlets accused Karel of protecting Israel over the journalist posts on her social media about the developments regarding the airstrikes carried out by Israel,” CFWIJ said in an official statement.

The US State Department strongly condemned Erdoğan’s recent anti-Semitic comments regarding the Jewish people, saying in a statement: “We urge President Erdoğan and other Turkish leaders to refrain from incendiary remarks, which could incite further violence. We call on Turkey to join the United States in working to end the conflict. Anti-Semitic language has no place anywhere.”

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price also tweeted: “Turkish President Erdogan’s anti-Semitic remarks are reprehensible and have no place on the world stage — or anywhere. We call on Turkey to refrain from language that could incite further violence. The U.S. is focused on bringing an end to the conflict.”

Before the condemnation, Erdoğan criticized the US for its approval of a weapons sale to Israel and said President Biden had “bloody hands” because of his support for the country. “You are writing history with your bloody hands in this incident that is a serious disproportionate attack on Gaza, which is leading to the martyrdom of hundreds of thousands of people,” he said, according to Reuters.

The Turkish Jewish Community (the official account of the Turkish Chief Rabbinate Foundation & Turkish Jewish Community) retweeted Price’s tweet, saying: “While tragedies in the region are deeply saddening – & global rise of anti semitisim is unacceptable- it is unfair & reprehensible to imply that President Erdogan –

@tcbestepe – is antisemitic. On the contrary, he has always been constructive, supportive & encouraging towards us.”

“This statement by communal elites does not reflect reality, my opinion, or the opinion of the vast majority of Jews in Turkey who know this government to be antisemitic. It is a result of massive government pressure and the learned helplessness of unelected community leaders,” Altaras tweeted.

According to Penso, after Şalom was hacked by the IBDA-Cyber Front for Palestine, which also threatened Avlaremoz, she can understand that Jews are frightened but can’t figure out the meaning of Turkish Jews expressing public thanks to state officials and civil servants.

“I do not find their public statement of thanks to the Turkish government — for ‘performing their duties’ – to be sincere. However, I understand they are happy to see that Turkish civil servants are performing their duties as we are subjected to marginalization and discrimination in Turkey. I think that the message of thanks was dictated by the Turkish Jewish Community [TJC] and was not written by Şalom. The TJC constantly shows solidarity with the state by posting similar tweets. At the end of the day, the TJC fears anti-Semitic physical attacks and thinks that the security problem will be solved with the help of the state,” Penso told Turkish Minute.

Turkey’s Jewish community members have been immigrating to Israel and Western countries over the last few years to escape Turkey’s anti-Semitic environment. It’s no secret that Turkey’s Jewish community, approximately 15,000 strong, is in decline and that families leave in search of a safer future for their children elsewhere.

“Young people, in particular, underline that they hesitate to express themselves and that they cannot live freely with their own identities. Sometimes life seems to be normal and safe, but then hate crimes start up again and in those tougher times the Jewish community mostly prefers to be invisible. Young people seek to immigrate to places where they will not be judged for being Jews and will not live in fear of exposure to anti-Semitism,” said Penso.

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