Adem Altanadem Altan / AFP / Getty Images

Turkey’s 'dark village' no longer safe for Jews

Erdogan and his party leaders are tearing Turkish-Jewish social fabric for short-term political gains

August 6, 2014 6:00AM ET

In Turkish, “kara” means dark or black, and “koy” means village. Yet the name of Karakoy, the Istanbul neighborhood where I live, is a nod not to the area’s sooty industrial past, but to the Karay — Turkish-speaking Jews from Crimea who settled here en masse in the 19th century.

The Karay and other Jewish communities have mostly left, but many of their places of worship remain. Some have been converted into new facilities, such as the Jewish Museum of Turkey at the site of the former Zulfaris Synagogue. Tucked away down a narrow side street, the museum highlights Turkish-Jewish cooperation dating back to 1492, when Ottoman Sultan Beyazit II welcomed thousands of Sephardic Jews who had been evicted from Spain.

A few streets away is the still-active Neve Shalom synagogue, Istanbul’s largest Jewish temple. Security has been tight here since 1986, when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on worshippers, killing 22 people.

Nearly three decades later, another conflict in the Holy Land has put Turkish Jews on edge. Since Israel began its latest assault on the Gaza Strip, killing some 1,800 Palestinians, most of them civilian, Turkish officials have launched a verbal offensive of their own. 

At an Istanbul campaign rally this week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also happens to be the leading presidential candidate, declared Israel “will drown in the blood they shed.” He had previously said Israel had “surpassed Hitler in barbarism,” and called its actions “genocide.”

In a recent television interview, the head of the government-backed Humanitarian Relief Foundation, Bulent Yildirim, said, “Turkish Jews will pay dearly” for Israel’s actions. He warned Jewish tourists: “Don’t dare come to Turkey.” Hours later, protesters descended on the Israeli Embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul, throwing stones, smashing windows and hanging a Palestinian flag on the home of the Israeli ambassador.

In response, Israel’s foreign ministry advised its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Turkey and pared back its diplomatic staff here, fearing for their safety. But Turkey-Israel relations haven’t exactly been peachy since the Gaza Flotilla incident in 2010.

Thus, the more troubling impact will likely be felt here at home. Turkey’s first direct presidential election is only weeks away. Speaking out against Israel, and by extension, Jews, has become a talking point for Erdogan and his ruling party — much the way Islamophobia is for conservatives in the US and parts of Europe.

Erdogan has little need for dirty tactics. Some political observers expect him to receive the required 50 percent of the vote in the initial, August 10 election. Failing that, he is expected to easily win the runoff two weeks later. Still, he has attacked his primary opponent, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, for reacting “late” to Israeli aggression.

Ihsanoglu, a former secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, offered a measured response. “Helping Palestine recover from its problems is a duty for all of us,” he said in an interview with NTV. “[Yet] I become very upset when I see this issue being used as a means for politics in Turkey.”

Condemning Israel's operations in Gaza is one thing. But crossing the line into racist insults for political benefit is an offense of a higher order.

It’s understandable for Turks to feel Muslim solidarity in the face of Palestinian suffering. Thousands of people — Muslims, Christians and Jews — across the United States, Britain, France, Australia and other countries have held street demonstrations calling for the end of Israeli attacks.

Condemning Israel's operations in Gaza is one thing. But crossing the line into racist insults for political benefit is an offense of a higher order. If Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) continues to win elections, as expected, this sensibility is sure to trickle down into society at large, inciting broader racism and hate crimes.

It has already begun. “If God allows, it will be again Muslims who will bring the end of those Jews, it is near, near,” popular Turkish pop singer Yildiz Tilbe wrote on Twitter on July 10. A prominent AKP parliamentarian Samil Tayyar recently tweeted similar sentiments. “Hope your race disappears under many more new Hitlers,” he said in apparent reference to Jews. On July 19, the pro-government newspaper Yeni Akit ran a crossword puzzle in which the final answer, displayed under a photo of Hitler, could be translated as “We long for you.” 

For Rifat Bali, a historian and Turkish Jew from Istanbul, none of this is surprising. “Anti-Semitism in Turkey in general and among Islamists in particular is not a new phenomenon,” Bali said in a recent email interview. “This society and the Turkish Jews have seen worse.”

Necmettin Erbakan, the Islamist political mentor to Erdogan in the 1980s and ’90s, was known for his anti-Semitic views. In early 2005, a wave of anti-Israeli sentiment pushed Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the bestseller list in Turkey. And just last year, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay blamed the “Jewish diaspora” for the nationwide Gezi Park protests.

On July 18, the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League expressed alarm at the increasingly hostile environment in Turkey, calling on Erdogan to reject the targeting of Turkish Jews. To his credit, the prime minister has done just that. “I don't approve of any attitude against Jews in Turkey, who are our citizens,” he said at a recent campaign rally. “They are under our guarantee.”

But this is similar to a dinner party host releasing a pack of Dobermans on his arriving guests, and then chastising his four-legged minions as they sink their teeth into the visitors’ necks. Erdogan and his party believe this rhetoric resonates with their base and, possibly, boosts their standing in the Arab world.

For this, they are willing to sacrifice relations with Israel, and possibly social cohesion. Yet while bilateral ties between two countries can be repaired with careful diplomacy, a torn social fabric is harder to mend.

Some 20,000 Jews live in Turkey today, down from perhaps ten times that number a century ago. In the early decades of the republic, animosity toward outsiders, mostly Greeks and Armenians, but also Jews, led to discriminatory taxes and pogroms. Thousands of Jews left Turkey as a result, with many immigrating to Israel after its founding in 1948.

Those who remained found themselves in terrorist crosshairs. Seven years after gunmen ambushed Neve Shalom, Hezbollah claimed responsibility for a grenade attack on the same synagogue. And in 2003, truck bombs exploded at Neve Shalom and the Bet Israel synagogue, also in Istanbul, killing 27 people. 

Turkish leaders have long sought to dampen down such hostility, acknowledging a strong bond with Jews, even a sense of duty to protect them. “Whenever Jews have been targets, Turkey has offered herself as a haven from hatred,” Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz said in 1997.

Few in Erdogan’s AKP party would say the same. Still, given their long history of cooperation, Bali has a hard time envisioning violent attacks against Turkey’s Jews, as seen in France and other European countries in recent days. But he notes “a lethal cocktail of anti-Semitism and stereotypes about Jews” within Turkish society.

By constantly whipping up venomous emotions to maintain power, Turkey’s most powerful politician in nearly 80 years may be transforming his country into a more troubling sort of Karakoy — a dark village for Jewish citizens.

David Lepeska is a freelance writer based in Istanbul. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Financial Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Slate and other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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