Israel, Jews at forefront in Turkish politics ahead of vote

The lasting effects of anti-Israel rhetoric and discussion of “Jews” by politicians lead to increasing antisemitism online.

A pro-Palestinian demonstrator shouts during a protest against the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem, near the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, Turkey May 15, 2018 (photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
A pro-Palestinian demonstrator shouts during a protest against the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem, near the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, Turkey May 15, 2018
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
In the wake of the US embassy move to Jerusalem and the death of sixty Gazans, Israel and the Jewish community have moved to the forefront of Turkish politics. General elections are a month away on June 24, and Turkish nationalism, targeting Israel among other countries, has conveniently become a new populist rallying point.
The focus on Israel began on May 13, a day before the embassy move. Ibrahim Kalin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman and adviser, tweeted that Turkey calls “on the Israel government to act in a responsible, restrained manner.” The next day Kalin tweeted that “occupation will end, and truth and justice will prevail.”
From that point the statements grew increasingly harsh. The world was “shameful” in its silence towards Palestinians being killed. “Netanyahu is the Prime Minister of an apartheid state,” the Turkish President said on May 15. The Israeli ambassador was expelled and purposely humiliated during a security check at the airport in front of the Turkish press.
The groundwork was already being laid to make the issue of Israel’s actions a Jewish issue. Ankara said Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should “read the ten commandments.” Erdogan was in the UK at the time of the Gaza crises and he reached out to Neturei Karta for a meeting.
Turkey’s EU Affairs Minister Imer Celik and Kalin both attended a half-hour meeting in which a representative of the Jewish group reportedly said “we are against the State of Israel.” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu appeared to refer to this meeting when he said, according to a translated recording, that “Jews are thankful for Erdogan and tell him that they are also opposed to Zionists in Israel.”
On Friday, May 18, Turkey summoned an extraordinary meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul ostensibly to discuss Jerusalem, but Jews became a center of the condemnations. “There is no different between the atrocity faced by the Jewish people in Europe 75 years ago and the brutality that our Gaza brothers are subjected to,” Erdogan told the OIC.
Turkey also has taken other practical steps against Israel. Cavusoglu said that Israel should be taken to the International Criminal Court and said Ankara would help the Palestinian Authority in its case. Kalin wrote in the Turkish pro-government Daily Sabah that Muslim countries, Europeans, and African, Asian and Latin American nations should all come together to “stop the downward spiral of blatant violations of international law by Israel… the problem is the occupation and without ending it there will be no peace.”
ALTHOUGH governing officials continue to rail against Israel on social media, many things continue on as normal behind the scenes. Oil is still being shipped from Ceyhan to Israel. Even though two opposition parties sought to end the agreement that Jerusalem and Ankara signed in 2016 normalizing their relations years after the Mavi Marmara incident had cooled them, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) stood by the agreement.
In Turkey the media has barely reported that the Knesset may recognize the Armenian genocide. Anadolu News Agency, which represents the government’s view, does not contain a story on the issue and neither does Daily Sabah. Hurriyet, Turkey’s most popular daily paper, which is more critical of the government, has one article on it.
Turkish media prefers stories highlighting Israeli settlement growth or protests against Israel in the US. Wrath has turned against the US instead, with the Turkish president claiming that the US had “reduced its reputation to zero” because of its Jerusalem decision.
The dialing down in rhetoric just a week after anger had reached new heights reflects Turkey’s myriad other concerns. The AKP rolled out its election manifesto on Thursday, May 24. The country has a stalled economy and rising inflation as its currency weakens; it also has to manage its involvement in the Syrian conflict.
The lasting effects of anti-Israel rhetoric and discussion of “Jews” by politicians, however, lead to increasing antisemitism online. A quick search of “yahudiler” – meaning “Jews” in Turkish – shows tweets blaming Jews for ruining the economy and asserting that the UAE is run by “crypto-Jews.” Other tweets claim Jews and Zionists secretly control Manchester University and that they ruin Ramadan.
But the worst antisemitic article was run on May 18 in the daily Yeni Safak, known to be a hardline supporter of both Erdogan and AKP. It described “ruthless, soulless Jews” who spill the “blood of the innocent.” The article claimed Jews “took Americans and Europeans as prisoners to establish hegemony over the world” and that “the American deep state is controlled by Jews.”
The author, Yusuf Kaplan, concludes that “the Jews must be stopped immediately.” The newspaper has 750,000 followers on Twitter; Kaplan has 356,000. On May 21 he published a second article claiming that Jews and the British created the “global system” of capitalism. Such articles published openly and without critique do not bode well.
Despite these examples, Turkey has officially been outspoken against antisemitism and the Holocaust. It’s foreign ministry has sent high-level delegations for years to the Holocaust remembrance ceremonies at Auschwitz.
As the country heads towards elections, one of the many issues it faces is whether politicians will use populist incitement against Israel and Jews, or work towards a more inclusive society instead.