In Turkey, you can go to jail for calling someone a Jew. Earlier this month, a Turkish court sentenced a man to ten months in prison, which the judge then commuted to a $700 fine, for a 2020 Facebook post in which he referred to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “a Jew who disguises himself as a Muslim.” The accused’s lawyer said the word “Jew” is not an insult, but the judge appeared to agree with Erdogan’s attorney, who described the word as offensive “toward the president’s honor, dignity, and reputation.”
This peculiar disagreement between antisemites helps explain both the precarious state of Turkey’s dwindling Jewish community as well as the hot-and-cold ties between Turkey and Israel. At times, both Erdogan and his critics find it convenient to pretend that they have only the utmost respect for a fellow people of the book, yet their visceral antisemitism is plainly visible behind that veneer.
This is not the first time Erdogan has become a target of antisemitic critics who claim that the Turkish leader is a crypto-Jew. In 2007, an ultranationalist author went as far to publish The Children of Moses, an entire book of antisemitic conspiracy theories about Erdogan, whom he insisted was Jewish. It is a testament to Turkey’s toxic antisemitic climate – worse than Iran’s according to the Anti-Defamation League’s cross-cultural surveys – that Erdogan has become a victim and not just a perpetrator of antisemitic attacks.
Since the rise to power of his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, Erdogan has moved away from the overt antisemitism of his early career. Back in the 1970s, when he was a youth leader in Turkey’s leading Islamist political party, Erdogan openly propagated antisemitic conspiracy theories. He even directed and starred in a play called Mason-Communist-Jew, in which a Jewish agitator poses as a Muslim Turk to incite workers against a factory owner. In the play, one devoutly Muslim character recites the moral of the story: “All evil regimes are Jewish inventions!” It should not be surprising that Erdogan’s antisemitic critics suspect him of having a Semitic pedigree!
ONCE IN power, Erdogan switched to using antisemitic dog whistles so that he could have plausible deniability when faced with accusations of antisemitism. Following the nationwide protests that rocked Turkey in 2013, Erdogan alluded to a treacherous “interest-rate lobby” working behind the scenes, an unmistakable reference to global Jewry. The following year, the Turkish leader yelled at a protester whom he called “Israeli spawn.” Also in 2014, Erdogan first mentioned the so-called “mastermind” that conspires against Turkey. A documentary on a pro-AKP channel has since revealed the mastermind to be a millennia-long Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world.
Sometimes, Erdogan slips and employs crude antisemitic stereotypes. Earlier this year, he attacked Israel by saying, “They are murderers, to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old. They only are satisfied by sucking their blood.” The US State Department and the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism condemned Erdogan, the latter slamming his statements as being “tantamount to blood libel against the Jewish people.”
Erdogan, however, also devotes a lot of effort to thwarting accusations of antisemitism and demonstrating his tolerance toward the Jewish community. Over the years, the Turkish president has held well-publicized meetings with Jewish leaders in Ankara, London, New York and Washington. These meetings, however, do not always have the intended effect. In 2016, when Erdogan met with Jewish leaders in Washington, a Haaretz contributor asked, “Is Erdogan trying to co-opt US Jewish leaders to launder his reputation?”
In London, Erdogan did not meet authentic leaders of the British Jewish community. Rather, he hosted Neturei Karta, a fringe group of anti-Zionist Jews with whom Iranian leaders often meet, hoping in vain to dispel accusations of antisemitism. It worked no better for Erdogan than for the Tehran regime.
AMONG ALL the Erdogan government’s clumsy attempts to shield itself from accusations of antisemitism, the award goes to the fiasco that took place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this year. When Erdogan failed to secure an appointment with leading American Jewish groups, the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), a Turkish-American organization with close ties to the Erdogan government, announced on September 21 the cosigning of a joint declaration with the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce (OJC), a small New Jersey- and New York-based initiative, in support of the Abraham Accords and against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Turkey’s deputy foreign minister joined both organizations in posing with the declaration, even though Ankara echoed Tehran last year by slamming the Abraham Accords and the Turkish government also sponsored, this June, a symposium dedicated to promoting BDS and delegitimizing the Jewish state, an event organized by a convicted Palestinian Islamic Jihad conspirator.
It did not take long for the Erdogan government, and hence TASC, to walk back from its publicity stunt in New York. Within 24 hours, TASC announced, “Due to lack of proper consensus, TASC is withdrawing from the Joint TASC-OJC Declaration.” The following day, TASC went even further by issuing an apology, implying that Turkey’s deputy foreign minister wasn’t really aware of the content of the joint declaration with which he posed for a photo.
Over the years, Erdogan’s opportunistic relationship with the Jewish people and the Jewish state has led to wild mood swings in Turkish-Israeli relations. Erdogan has built an entire political career on the scapegoating of Jews, but he also wants to perform the role of the tolerant leader toward Jews and other religious minorities, modeled after the Ottoman sultans and their putative benevolence toward their subjects. Similarly, Erdogan wants to benefit from cordial relations with Israel, especially in trade, defense and diplomacy, but he would like these benefits to accrue while he bashes the Abraham Accords, supports the BDS campaign and provides Hamas a logistical base in Turkey.
Given that Erdogan’s lifelong antisemitism appears to be beyond cure as he approaches his seventies, Turkey and the world will need to wait until he is voted out of office for Ankara’s relations with Israel and the Jewish people to return not only to sanity but also to the win-win relationship of the 1990s.
Dr. Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Enia Krivine is the senior director of the Israel Program and the National Security Network. Follow them on Twitter at @aykan_erdemir and @EKrivine.