The Owl: The Last Sultan

A new Turkish drama gives us fascinating insight into antisemitism, anti-Zionism and everything in between.

TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets the audience during a ceremony to mark the 16th anniversary of his ruling AK Party’s foundation in Ankara, August 14. (photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS / REUTERS)
TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets the audience during a ceremony to mark the 16th anniversary of his ruling AK Party’s foundation in Ankara, August 14.
(photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS / REUTERS)
Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, has recently become a star of the Turkish entertainment industry.
The Last Sultan, a popular new drama aired on the government network TRT, features the Zionist thinker as the main ringleader in a plot to destroy the Ottoman Empire and assassinate its energetic sultan, Abdul Hamid II. The scene of the Zionist Congress could have easily been taken from any Nazi antisemitic film.
The cunning, evil Jews – not in traditional garb but rather in expensive European suits – are plotting to enslave humanity, with Herzl leading.
His beautiful but malicious female assistant, Sarah, even insists that the Jewish state has to spread from the Nile to the Euphrates. The Jewish dignitaries in the audience cheer for the plot, yelling “Shema Israel” to affirm Herzl’s proposals. Later in the drama, the Jews plan to assassinate the sultan in league with traitorous, liberal Turks. The clandestine symbol of the plot is – you’ve guessed right – a Star of David.
Unfortunately, this is far from being the first antisemitic drama on Turkish TV. Previous shows, like Valley of the Wolves, have played on the same worn theme of Jewish conspirators planning to take over the globe, or at least Turkey (in popular Turkish discourse, the world and Turkey – its most important country – are always interlinked). However, unlike previous shows, The Last Sultan has strong institutional support from the government, specifically from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In a particularly venomous interview, Erdogan praised the drama and said that the same plots (presumably Jewish and Zionist) once aimed at Abdul Hamid II are still intact against contemporary Turkey. Indeed, the narrative of The Last Sultan belies the ideology of Erdogan’s emerging dictatorship. The president sees himself as a modern sultan, a leader of a religious, traditional society, under constant attack by malicious foreigners, internal traitors (seculars, liberals and even rivals from within the Islamist camp) and Jewish conspirators. The fantasy of Jewish conspiracy presented in The Last Sultan is in line with Erdogan’s no-less-fantastic conspiracy theories in many other fields. Every criticism or challenge is immediately interpreted as a conspiracy against himself, and by extension against the Turkish people as a whole.
Erdogan’s official sanction to this blatantly antisemitic show is also interesting because for years, Erdogan tried to keep a distance from antisemitism, even though antisemitic remarks were quite common among other politicians in his party. Yet the Turkish president said repeatedly that antisemitism, along with Islamophobia, is a crime against humanity.
Even after the Mavi Marmara crisis, when Erdogan said the vilest things about Zionism and Israel, he still tried to draw a line between Zionism and Judaism.
This line, however, became more and more blurry as time went on. Now, Erdogan and his government evidently endorse a blatant, semi-official antisemitism.
Like Erdogan, many people who hold anti-Zionist views insist that they are not antisemitic, that they differentiate between Jews (whom they have no problem with) and Zionists, whom they hate. They even say, like Erdogan, that they respect individual Jews and have Jewish friends and even allies. Yet, contemporary Israel houses the biggest Jewish community in the world, and contemporary Zionism is the Jewish mainstream. It is easy to forget that most antisemites throughout history were not fanatical racists, like the Nazis, who hated all Jews wherever they were. Instead, they hated the Jewish mainstream of their time – whether Talmudic Judaism, or “Jewish capitalism,” or, nowadays, Zionism. Most of them made exceptions and recognized some “good Jews.” Still, they were antisemites because they demonized the mainstream that most Jews, by default, were part of.
It is legitimate to criticize Israel, even harshly, and people who do so cannot be automatically branded as antisemites. Yet, for anti-Zionists who vilify Israel, like Erdogan, full-fledged antisemitism is only one step away.
When you demonize the mainstream of a culture, or religion, you will hate most of its adherents, sooner or later. That’s exactly what happened to the Turkish leaders, who are quickly sliding from vilification and demonization of Israel to vilification and demonization of the Jews.
The road from anti-Zionism to anti- Judaism is short, maybe even inevitable.
The writer is a military historian and senior lecturer in the History and Asian Studies Departments, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.