Turkey’s changing attitude toward Holocaust commemoration

Whether Holocaust remembrance ceremonies and official participation in anti-Semitism forums will have a positive spillover effect on Turkish-Israeli relations remains to be seen.

Turkey President Recep Tayyip erdogan (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkey President Recep Tayyip erdogan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli-Turkish relations in the past few years have been deteriorating as there are no longer ambassadors in the respective capitals but only low-level diplomatic representatives.
Strategic relations between the two countries during the 1990s continued on a positive path in the early years of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule but after 2007, as the party gained strength, Turkey pursued pro-Palestinian, in fact pro-Hamas policies.
And things went from bad to worse as a result of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-2009, which Turkish leaders, especially President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister, perceived as a personal insult, as they had not been informed of the operation, which was launched just five days after prime minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to Turkey in late December 2008. The escalation continued with the Turkish prime minister lashing out at president Shimon Peres at the Davos meeting in early 2009, accusing Israel of being responsible for killing Palestinian children.
Israel’s negative depiction in Turkish film and television resulted in an impolite reaction to the Turkish ambassador in Israel, during the so-called “low chair incident” in which deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon intentionally seated the envoy on a lower chair. Furthermore, the impact of the Mavi Marmara affair on bilateral relations needs no further elaboration.
As a result of the escalation of verbal assaults on the part of Turkish politicians toward Israel because of Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, as well as President Erdogan’s recent criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for having attended the rally in France following the Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish market attacks in Paris, relations have reached a historic low.
Foreign minister Avigdor Liberman has called Erdogan “an anti-Semitic bully.” This war of words sunk bilateral relations to new lows.
That is why Turkey’s recent official attitude toward the Holocaust is particularly surprising. While Turkey has been an active observer country at International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance since 2008 and the Holocaust has been openly commemorated in Turkey since 2011, this year’s Holocaust ceremony was different. On January 27, 2015 International Holocaust Remembrance Day was commemorated at the prestigious Bilkent University, in a ceremony attended by Turkish Parliament speaker Cemil Cicek, Culture Minister Omer Celik and a number of parliamentarians from the opposition People’s Republican Party, as well as diplomats from the Israeli embassy and consulate, academics, generals, Chief Rabbi of Turkey Isak Haleva and the head of Turkish Jews Ishak Ibrahimzade, as well as members of the Jewish community.
It should be remembered that the office of speaker of the parliament is the second highest in Turkish state protocol after the president, and his attendance is particularly noteworthy even though his criticism of Israel at this event led to consternation and was characterized as “inappropriate” by the Israeli foreign ministry. Be that as it may, the fact that such a ceremony was organized in a country which is ever more sensitive to the Palestinian problem and Islamic issues, and attended by such high-level dignitaries, should be acknowledged.
It should also be pointed out that on January 26, Cicek participated at the “Let my people live” forum in Prague, which addressed the issue of anti-Semitism and was organized by the European Parliament, the Czech parliament and the European Jewish Congress and attended by around 30 heads of parliaments from all over Europe, as well as the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz.
Meanwhile, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was in Auschwitz together with Rabbi Naftali Haleva and deputy head of Jewish community Josef Nassi representing the Turkish Jewish community as part of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
One wonders: what does Turkey’s intensive Holocaust initiative mean? However, one should remember in addition to Turkey’s involvement with Holocaust Remembrance Day, a number of Holocaust-related organizations such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Anne Frank House and Paris-based Aladdin Project have been organizing teacher training programs, conferences, summer schools and the like. Yad Vashem, on the other hand, has designed a specific program for Turkish academics which included a seminar in Istanbul in 2013, an online course on the Holocaust, and culminated in a week-long seminar in Jerusalem for a number of academics in 2014.
Consequently, there has been a gradual increase in interest in the Holocaust and Holocaust education in the past few years. While the exact reasons for this interest seem unclear, the fact that these activities are allowed, in fact encouraged, by officials is a positive step.
One reason might be an attempt to control the blatant anti-Semitism in a number of Islamist newspapers, another might be trying to prove and remind people of Turkey’s history of tolerance toward the Jews, be it in 1492 or 1942, and to prove its European credentials.
Some see this as a sinister public relations campaign on the part of Turkey, but it should also be kept in mind that Turkish politicians might have to pay a political price for participating in these commemoration events. Whether these Holocaust remembrance ceremonies and official participation in anti-Semitism forums will have a positive spillover effect on Turkish-Israeli relations remains to be seen.

The author is an associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences of Istanbul Technical University.