In Trouble, Turkey’s Leader Blames Israel—Raising Tension for His Country’s Jews
Many blame Recep Tayyip Erdogan for rising anti-Semitism, but the legacy of his conspiracy-mongering may outlast his rule
One recent sunny Shabbat morning just after services, the congregation of one of Istanbul’s synagogues, in the city’s Galata district, sat down at long tables for breakfast. Plates laden with cheese, boiled eggs, and savory Turkish pastries called poğaça were passed around to the hungry members, whose numbers totaled about 38, most of them men. Carafes full of strong tea offered warmth in the drafty room, but some who were feeling festive drained a bottle of raki, an aniseed liquor with an alcohol content slightly higher than most whiskeys.
The conversation, between the tea drinkers and raki drinkers alike, quickly turned to politics. A few days earlier, high-ranking businessmen with ties to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP—including the sons of a few of Erdogan’s Cabinet ministers—had been arrested on charges of corruption, a scandal that has prompted protests and calls for Erdogan’s resignation. Erdogan responded by blaming “international groups”—by implication, Israel—for conspiring to unravel the Turkish state from within.
Erdogan has long been aggressively critical of Israel, and his rhetoric includes some show-stoppers. In 2009, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he told Israel’s president Shimon Peres, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill”—and then walked off the stage. The 2010 Israeli commando raid on the Mavi Marmara “Gaza flotilla” ship, in which nine activists were killed, further fractured the relationship; only last year, and only under the personal ministrations of President Barack Obama, did the conversation become something close to constructive. When protests against Erdogan’s government spread from Istanbul’s Gezi Park throughout Turkey in the summer of 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay blamed the “Jewish diaspora,” members of which were “jealous of Turkey’s growth,” although he quickly retracted the statements.
The breakfasters at the synagogue were transfixed, and exasperated. A man sitting to my left rolled his eyes. “We have a problem,” he told me, “called Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” Certainly Erdogan’s repeated decision to scapegoat Israel and the idea of Jewish power—whether out of genuine conviction or simple political expediency—increases the pressure on individual Jews by erasing the line between the personal and the political. For at least the past decade, the narrative around Turkey’s Jewish population has been that they are leaving, often because of political or social alienation owing to Erdogan’s rhetoric against Israel. It’s become a familiar headline which, for the congregants wiping poğaça crumbs from their laps and plotting their ferry rides home, seems like a less-than-subtle push out the door.
Of course, not all of Turkey’s Jews plan on leaving, and many emigrate for reasons having nothing to do with politics or religion. But those who stay see ties between a rise in casual anti-Semitism and Erdogan’s habit of conspiracy-mongering, and they worry that the longer Erdogan remains in power, the more deeply ingrained and reflexive the impulse among Turks to blame Jews for the country’s problems will become—even after Erdogan leaves the stage. “I’ve heard things like when someone owes a Jewish person money,” one young Jewish woman told me, “they give them half and say, ‘Yeah, I donated the rest to Gaza.’”
The total population of Jews living in Turkey today is reported anywhere from 17,400 to 22,000—a steep drop from the hundreds of thousands who lived in the region under the Ottoman Empire, which included Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain. (The Jewish Museum in Istanbul devotes much of its exhibition space to the celebration of this period of tolerance.) The vast majority of those who remain live in Istanbul. Izmir, a coastal city to the south, is home to a couple thousand, and in Antakya, a city on the border with Syria, the number of Jewish families is barely in the double digits.
When the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, a campaign to carve a national Turkish identity from the remains of the vast Ottoman Empire clashed with the existence of minorities. Compared to Armenians and Greeks—who were intensely persecuted, pushed from the country, and killed—the emigration of the Jewish population was more gradual. “In the Turkish Republic they were a ‘good minority,’” the young woman told me. But pogroms whose primary targets were the Greeks and Armenians had an impact on the Jewish population as well, and a “wealth tax” in 1942—ostensibly to fill war coffers but seen by critics as an attempt to reclaim economic power from minorities—resulted in the emigration of thousands of Jews to Palestine. After Israel was established, nearly half of Turkey’s remaining Jews left.
“The best way for a Jew today in Turkey is to keep quiet and silent and a bit invisible,” Ishak Alaton, an octogenarian businessman, told me when we met in his spacious office overlooking the Bosporus bridge. Alaton is charismatic and outspoken—a man set free by success to do as he pleases. “I have passed age 80, and my friends tell me that after 80 they don’t put you in jail,” he told me, both joking and not.
Alaton is close to Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic scholar living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania who has a deep and far-reaching influence in Turkey. Gülen and Erdogan were once allies, working together to challenge state secularism and the Turkish army, but as their influence increased they grew apart. The corruption scandal is widely seen as the eruption of this mostly behind-the-scenes conflict.
Gülen has himself been called anti-Semitic, but Alaton was quick to come to his friend’s defense. “Gülen is not anti-Semitic,” he told me. “He’s accused of being anti-Semitic because of a few sentences he uttered 30 years ago.” Now, Alaton insisted, he sees no trace of bias in his friend. “He started knowing the Jews,” Alaton went on, “and he came to the conclusion that these are not bad people.”
The day before we met, Alaton delivered the opening speech at a conference on Jews in Turkey at Kadir Has University in which he criticized the current government led by Benjamin Netanyahu for its treatment of the Palestinians and stressed that the citizens of Turkey and Israel would be fine partners, much better than their leaders. He was annoyed at some of the coverage from the conservative Turkish press, which was negative. “They just want to be nasty,” he said. “There is a latent anti-Semitism.” But he was happy about the conference itself, which was the first of its kind. He saw it as a chance to set the record straight about Jews in Turkey and reclaim the narrative from the state.
Alaton was adamant that the only reason there is anti-Semitism in Turkey is lack of information. Before the AKP came to power in 2002, Alaton told me, a survey was taken of Turkish society, in which 76 percent of those asked whether they would like to have a Jewish neighbor answered “no,” but 85 percent admitted to never having had a close relationship with a Jew. Alaton, who cited the statistics from memory, concluded, “Without knowing a Jew you are prone to say, no I don’t want a Jewish neighbor.”
Alaton has no false nostalgia for a more tolerant and moderate past. He was 14 years old in 1942 when the MV Struma, a ship carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees from Romania bound for Palestine, broke down in the Bosporus. “Every evening I transported sacks of bread to the Jews on the ship,” he told me. “They would shout at us and cry and beg and nothing would happen because the police wouldn’t let them off the ship.” After spending over two months motionless in view of Istanbul’s waterfront, the boat was dragged from the Bosporus into the Black Sea where, hours later, it was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. The incident shook Turkey’s Jewish population, and it still informs Alaton’s perception of his place in society. “A barge without sails and without an engine is a coffin,” Alaton told me.
Eleven years ago the sole survivor of the Struma, David Stoliar, traveled to Istanbul to make a 45-minute television documentary about the incident. The film was made, in spite of strong objections from the government, according to Alaton. “They were worried it would be another Midnight Express,” Alaton told me, referring to the 1978 movie about an American in a Turkish prison. “The government wanted to muzzle it all the way.”
More recently, Alaton was involved in an exhibition, currently touring Turkish cities, called Never Again!, which chronicles historical apologies, such as Bill Clinton’s for the American government’s inaction during the Rwandan genocide and Tony Blair’s decision to commission a new inquiry decades after the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland. The cover photo on the accompanying book is of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in front of the Warsaw Ghetto monument.
“There has always been this policy of negation, of hiding, of putting it under the carpet,” Alaton told me. In Turkey, he went on, “this has been the policy for the past hundred years.” The exhibition, he said, is a statement about the revisionist history that has been the fuel of Turkish nationalism and anti-Semitism. “We are giving an indirect message to the Turkish people,” Alaton said. “People will see how the world is coming to terms for the sins of the past. Meaning, you have to do the same.”
I met the young Jewish woman in a café near the Galata Tower, a medieval landmark that dominates the neighborhood. Her father is prominent in the Jewish community, and I was counting on her to help me gain entry to one of the city’s synagogues. In 2003 two of the city’s synagogues were bombed, and since then security has been especially tight. After our coffee we walked by Neve Shalom, where one of the bombs went off. The synagogue, located on a narrow bustling street, is a subtle fortress of back entrances and security cameras. We couldn’t get in.
While of a different generation than Alaton, the young woman nevertheless shares both a common sense of insecurity and perseverance as Jews in Turkey. Where Alaton has gone to great lengths to promote public programming and cultivate relationships with influential figures like Gulen, the woman has created a less conspicuous but no less rooted life in Turkey. After attending university in the United States, she returned to Istanbul to live and base her career. But she, like Alaton, accepts that she may have to leave Turkey again one day. What little faith she had in Erdogan—built on some progressive policies—faded during the Gezi Park protests and has been further eroded by the corruption scandal. “Always have a back-up plan,” she told me.
But she was quick to point out that the atmosphere in Turkey—the tension reverberating from Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and now anxiety over the political instability—affects the whole country, not only the Jewish minority. The targeting of opposition, particularly over the last seven years, has made criticizing those in power a risky proposition for the whole of the Turkish population, regardless of their religion. “Things are crazy here for everybody,” she told me. “We never know who’s going to use what, when, how. And that scares people.”
She attended the summer’s antigovernment demonstrations in Gezi Park, and there she saw hope that Turkey could move beyond “identity politics,” in which otherness can be a threat. “The people in Gezi were anti-racist,” she told me. She said she hopes that means they recognize the hypocrisy in Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric. “He says we are siding with the people in Gaza,” she said. “He says that to make himself look moral and in the meantime he’s taking people’s homes away.”
The next day, after breakfast, I followed the woman’s father into the office at their synagogue, where he and a visiting academic pored over some record books. He piled heavy, dogeared volumes with split spines in front of the scholar and ordered some tea. The books were artifacts, their heft a reminder of how expansive the Jewish population here once was, when the hilly streets of Galata were known for their diversity and the synagogue entrances weren’t capped with guarded doors. They read the names of the dead in one book that diagrammed the layout of an Istanbul cemetery. Another thick volume was a log of foreign visitors to the synagogue, all written in meticulous blue cursive.
“All Jews have a suitcase under their bed,” the woman’s father told me, when I asked whether he had thought of leaving Turkey. Then he laughed, thinking of a joke. “Do you know why Jews play the violin?” he asked me. “Because it’s easy to carry.” For him, rueful humor was the only way to answer the question; Istanbul, for better or worse, is his home, where he has a job, a family, and a community. How to stay concerns him more than when to leave. Before I left, he gave me another line, for good measure: “Do you know why Jewish men always wear a hat? Because they don’t know whether they’ll be coming or going.”
In late December, after more than a week of a thickening scandal during which Erdogan held fast to the idea of conspirators out to dismantle his government—an idea he continues to repeat, including in his New Year’s message to the nation—protesters took to Istanbul’s streets. “They are hoping to resurrect the spirit of Gezi,” an activist friend told me. The protests were not as big, but their message was strong: If the walls around Erdogan were crumbling, perhaps the protesters could help push them down. This time, rather than helping him, Erdogan’s talk of “international conspiracies” seemed to be hurting his cause, making him appear defensive, irrational, and, perhaps, guilty. If Turks have grown weary of this particular line of defense, some felt, it could mark a turning point for Turkey’s Jews.
This point was not lost on the congregants at the synagogue I visited. The day I was there, the young woman’s father delivered a talk on the topic of retribution. Those who discriminated against Jews would eventually be punished and not simply by divine forces, but social, political, and economic failures as well. At the breakfast table, the speech seemed to go over well. A few days into what would prove to be a long and, for Erdogan, agonizing investigation into the conduct of his inner circle the sermon’s underlying message—that bullies get it in the end—hit close to home.
This story was reported with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
An earlier version of this article named people who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issues discussed.
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