THE BLOG
09/08/2014 03:52 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

Stoking the Fire: Anti-Semitism and Intellectuals in Today's Turkey

That the latest Israeli assault on Gaza which claimed the lives of close to 2,000 Palestinians (the figures vary depending on which side is reporting) has led to a veritable outburst of anti-semitism in Turkey is not in itself surprising. Ethnic minorities have always been a thorn in the political visions of the founding elites, bent on creating a homogenous nation out of the hodge-podge of different linguistic and religious groups they had inherited from the defunct Ottoman Empire. The Jews were not an exception. Often the target of such Turkification policies as the "Vatandaş Türkçe Konuş" (Citizen, speak Turkish) campaign of the 1930s or the infamous Wealth Tax of 1942, the Jews have also borne the brunt of the Thrace pogrom which began in June 1934 in the northwestern city of Çanakkale and engulfed much of the region within the span of a month, reaching a climax on the night of the 3rd of July, when the houses of the Jews in Kırklareli, located close to the Bulgarian border, were raided. The majority of the Jews who abandoned their homes in 1934 never went back; several others left for good in 1948-49 when the state of Israel was established.

Despite their ever shrinking numbers, the Jews, along with other minorities, continued to be the "other" against which (Sunni Muslim) Turkishness has been defined, and the fire of anti-semitism continued to simmer, flaring up every now and then -- be it in the media, political discourse or actual acts of violence

Mainstreaming Anti-Semitism?

Yet something was different this time around. Something to do with the intensity and audacity of displays of anti-semitism, and the not so covert official backing they received, which was one of the talking points of the recent meeting between U.S. President Obama and Turkish President Erdoğan who discussed, according to the statement by the NSC Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden "the importance of ... combating the scourge of anti-Semitism," among other things.

And for good reason. According to a survey conducted by Gonzo Insight, 30,926 messages in Turkish have been posted by 27,309 Twitter users in support of the Holocaust within the span of 24 hours on 17-18 July, ten days after Israeli Defence Forces launched Operation Protective Edge. By then, a famous pop singer, Yıldız Tilbe, had already led the way by sharing the words "May God bless Hitler" with her hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter -- a tweet which was backed up by Melih Gökçek, the current mayor of Ankara and a senior member of the ruling AKP. Şamil Tayyar, an MP from the same party, joined the bandwagon, howling "May your race be exterminated; may you never lack your Hitler" -- a tweet he deleted later. The notoriously anti-semitic pro-government newspaper Yeni Akit (with a readership of 58,000) was a tad more "creative" (!), publishing a crossword puzzle with Hitler's picture at the center and the slogan "We are longing for you!" which appears when the puzzle is solved.

In this context, it was not surprising to hear clarion calls to Turkey's 17,000 strong Jewish community to condemn Israel's military actions, often expressed in "or else" form, or more direct forms of threat such as the one directed at Louis Fishman, an Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. Fishman who spent several years in Turkey was attacked by another academic, Ali İhsan Göker, the Chair of the Physics Department at Bilecik Şeyh Edibali University. In response to an article Fishman wrote for Haaretz, Göker tweeted the following: "Treblinka will be ready soon. Constructing the railway to transport jews (sic) at the moment", in English, a blatant threat punishable by law. It needs to be added in passing that, instead of being punished, Göker has recently been awarded a research grant by the government-funded The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, TÜBİTAK).

We cannot conclude, on the basis of the above examples alone, that anti-semitism has increased in Turkey, a claim which needs to be substantiated by further research and cross-time comparisons. We can safely stipulate, however, that anti-semitist sentiments are much more mainstream and legitimate than before, given the open backing of the representatives of the ruling AKP, the lack of legal sanctions against hate speech towards Jews (and other minorities) and the general atmosphere of intolerance and polarization which breed these sentiments.

Curiously enough, it was the so-called "liberal/democrat" intellectuals who were at the forefront of the campaign against Turkey's Jewish community. Etyen Mahçupyan, an advisor to the prestigious Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), the former editor-in-chief of the Armenian weekly Agos (and a close friend of the former editor of the journal, the Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink who was brutally murdered on 19 January 2007), is a good case in point.

Enter Intellectuals: The Curious Case of Etyen Mahçupyan

In an article published on 3 August 2014 in the pro-government newspaper Akşam (in which he has a regular column), Mahçupyan argues that "non-Muslim minorities have always considered themselves to be more modern, developed and civilized" -- hence "superior" to -- the Muslim majority in Turkey. This attitude he claims, leads them to underestimate the "revolutionary change" brought upon in Turkey by the ruling AKP. It is possible to explain the dilemma faced by non-Muslim minorities, Mahçupyan continues, by referring to their ambivalent relationship with the leading "Kemalist nationalist" newspaper, Sözcü: "Today, the majority of minorities, in fact almost all the Jewish community reads Sözcü ... By memorizing the insults directed to Erdoğan ... they reproduce the anger and hatred they have accumulated in years on a daily basis." This way, Sözcü is catering to a "historical psychological need", helping the minorities, in particular the Jews, to resist indigenization, hence remain alien to the society in which they live.

It would have been possible to dismiss these highly controversial claims as the musings of a confused mind, had they not come from a self-proclaimed "democrat." After all, the author takes the existence of a minority state of mind, an "essence" so to speak, for granted which equally affects each and every member of the quite heterogeneous and dissimilar Jewish, Armenian and Greek communities. In this view, minorities despised Muslims for more than a century. Yet Mahçupyan provides no concrete evidence for this sweeping claim and turns a blind eye to the vast literature, academic or non-academic, detailing the plight of the minorities under successive governments. The same goes for the main thesis on which the article is based, that "almost all the Jewish community read Sözcü", a claim which could only be verified by an extensive survey (apparently, a trivial matter for the purposes of the article's underlying logic) -- not to mention the politically dangerous and morally problematic way out of the purported dilemma, "indigenization", whatever that term means.

Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of ignoring these claims for two reasons. First, Mahçupyan is one of the contributors to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's presidential vision statement, hence an informal -- at least by the time of the writing of this article -- advisor to the current regime. Second, as a Turkish Armenian himself, Mahçupyan is writing from "within", with an authority that few non-minority intellectuals can muster. This position of authority turns Mahçupyan's claims into highly explosive material that could detonate at any time, opening fresh wounds within an already torn community. That this is not a distant risk is made clear by an open letter signed by several prominent Turkish Jewish academics, professionals and journalists who felt the need to publicly denounce the calls to condemn Israel's actions by stating that "No citizen of this country is under any obligation to account for, interpret or comment on any event that takes place elsewhere in the world, in which he/she has no involvement. There is no onus on the Jewish community of Turkey, therefore, to declare an opinion on any matter at all."

The Turkish government and its "organic intellectuals" have been stoking the fire of polarization and exclusion for quite some time now. Yet the fire of anti-semitism, and more generally racism, bears few resemblances to other fires. When it gets out of control, it burns not only a particular community, but a whole society.