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José Miguel DIAS ROCHA

The following comments followed a war of words between Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Turkish President over the Israeli crackdown on unarmed Palestinian demonstrators during mass protests in Gaza on March 30 which caused the death of 18 people[2].

“An anti-Semite who continues to support Hamas” and the leader of a country “that is massacring the Kurds and occupying northern Cyprus” which should not “be accepted as a legitimate nation by the West”[1]. This was the way Israel’s public security minister Gilad Erdan referred to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In addition, Erdan said that Israel’s 2016 reconciliation agreement with Turkey may have been a mistake.

It all started when Erdoğan accused Israel of what he called an “inhumane attack”, and, a day after, in a televised address, said: “Hey Netanyahu! You are occupier. And it is as an occupier that are you are on those lands. At the same time, you are a terrorist”. In another speech, the Turkish president claimed that Israel is a “terrorist state” which no one likes in the world. “Bibi” reacted on Twitter, by writing that “the most moral army in the world will not be lectured to on morality from someone who for years has been bombing civilians indiscriminately”, mentioning northern Cyprus, Kurdish regions and the “slaughtering” of civilians in Afrin.

The incidents in Gaza meant a recrudescence of tensions in a way not seen since the 2016 deal which had put an end to years of diplomatic tensions between Israel and Turkey due to the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in May 2010. That was an Israeli naval raid in the Mediterranean Sea against a Turkish aid ship which was part of the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla”, an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip controlled by the Hamas. The United Nations “concluded that a series of violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law, were committed by the Israeli forces” leading to the death of 10 Turkish citizens[3]. The 2016 reconciliation agreement[4] meant a restoration of full ambassador-level relations, a financial compensation for the families of those killed or wounded and the creation of better conditions for Turkey to build infrastructures and provide humanitarian aid and other non-military products to Gaza. In return, Turkey renounced all appealings (both in domestic and international courts) against Israeli soldiers and the deal was received by Netanyahu as a great news for his country’s economy: For instance, it (re)opened the opportunity for Israel to supply natural gas to (and through) Turkey.

After the most recent heated exchange of accusations one can hardly expect an improvement on the way Turkish people perceive Israel and its prime minister. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey shows that in Turkey just a very few people (7%) view Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu favorably, making him the less popular Middle Eastern leader in the country[5]. (As for Erdoğan, 15% of Israelis – but just 4% of Israeli Jews – have a positive opinion of him.)

The same fact tank announced in 2015 another survey in which it is revealed that Israel is the least liked country in Turkey: 86% of Turks hold an unfavorable view of Israel, whereas only 2% like it[6]. These numbers are even more surprising if one takes into account that there are more negative opinions of Israel than of Al-Qaeda (85%), Hezbollah (85%) and Hamas (80%). Also in 2015, in a poll conducted by Istanbul’s Kadir Has University nearly half of Turks (43%) named Israel when asked about their country’s biggest security threat[7].

Some Turkish Jews complain that “when lashing out at Israel, the [Turkish] government condemns Jews without making a differentiation, which incites hatred toward the community”[8]. In other words – and this is a frequent feeling among Jews all over the world –, there is a high number of Jews who think the criticism of Israel is a step to something bigger: anti-Semitism.

As the specialist on Middle East Studies Efrat Aviv points out, criticizing Israel is not an act of anti-Semitism, but that happens “when ideological references are made which denounce not only the Zionist Jews’ deeds but also stereotyped negative characteristics such as being evil, greedy and [engaging in] deviousness…”[9].

In Turkey, an Istanbul-based Hrant Dink Foundation report found Jews as the most targeted group by hate speech in the country’s media: both national and local media were taking into account[10]. The report states that the majority of the items containing some kind of hate speech against Jews were connected to articles and columns about Israel, in which the word “Jew” was often used as a substitute of “Israel”, “Israeli state” or “Israel Defense Forces”. The perspective of Jews as a “secret power” and/or “threats against Turkey” was also not rarely witnessed.

Apart from that, a 2015 Anti-Defamation League’s global anti-Semitism survey showed that almost 3/4 (71%) of Turks hold anti-Semitic views: Even though, considering the 2014 and 2015 index together, with the exception of Iran, Turkey is the country in the Middle East and North Africa with the least percentage, it is the nation in Europe with the highest average score[11]. According to a Pew Research Center survey of Turkish opinion, published in September 2008, 76% express unfavorable opinions of Jews and only 7% have a positive impression[12] – therefore, it does not come as a surprise that 64% of Turks don’t want Jewish neighbors, as stated in a 2009 Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University study.

Furthermore, Efrat Aviv quotes a 2012 poll suggesting that 46% of Turkish people bolstered their own anti-Semitism due to some politicians’ anti-Israel remarks[13].

It has to be said, however, that Erdoğan and his party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), have “been funding the renovation of synagogues and sites of historical value to Turkey’s Jewish community as well as providing security against possible attacks from sympathizers with the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or other extremist groups”[14].

That has not been enough to stop the decrease of the number of Jews in Turkey: in 2015, 17,300 were living in the country, while, ten years earlier, they were almost 20,000 people[15]. Be that as it may, it is still the largest Jewish community in Muslim-majority countries.

In an article about Sephardic Jews in Turkey, The New York Times (NYT) interviewed one of the members of that community who said: “There are many reasons to leave (…) but the hatred toward our community has been the tipping point for me”[16]. Besides, it has become quite normal to find several reports (especially) in the Israeli media on the increasing difficulties Jews face in Turkey.

One should not forget that during the 15th century the Ottoman Empire was a safe haven for about half a million Sephardic Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain) – those who stayed there were either killed or forced to convert to Christianity. As the historian of the Middle East Bernard Lewis wrote in his book “The Jews of Islam”, “the Jews were not just permitted to settle in the Ottoman lands, but were encouraged, assisted and sometimes even compelled”.

This means that Turkey (as the Muslim-majority country holding the biggest Jewish community) and its predecessor empire have been seen through the last centuries by the Jewish community as a safe place in which they could be living safely. Unfortunately, there are some signs about the current situation defying that historical idea.


José Miguel DIAS ROCHA – Erasmus Volunteer of SASAM
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[1] PressTV – “Israeli minister says reconciliation with Turkey a mistake”. 04/02/2018.

[2] BBC – “Gaza-Israel violence: Netanyahu and Erdogan in war of words”. 04/01/2018.

[3] United Nations General Assembly – “Report of the international fact-finding mission to investigate violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law, resulting from the Israeli attacks on the flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian assistance”. 09/27/2010.

[4] The Guardian – “Israel and Turkey end six-year standoff”. 06/27/2016.

[5] Pew Research Center – “Key Middle East Publics See Russia, Turkey and U.S. All Playing Larger Roles in Region”. 12/11/2017.

[6] Hürriyet Daily News – “Turks do not favor US, like themselves the most”. 11/04/2014.–73834

[7] The Times of Israel – “Turks think Israel is their biggest threat, poll finds”. 05/31/2015.

[8] The New York Times – “Sephardic Jews Feel Bigotry’s Sting in Turkey and a Pull Back to Spain”. 05/26/2015.

[9] Efrat Aviv – “Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism in Turkey: From Ottoman Rule to AKP”. Routledge, 2017:2.

[10] Hürriyet Daily News – “Jews most targeted by hate speech in Turkish media: Report”. 11/23/2017.

[11] Anti-Defamation League – “Turkey”. 2015.

[12] Pew Research Center – “Unfavorable Views of Jews and Muslims on the Increase in Europe”. 09/17/2008.

[13] Efrat Aviv – “Erdoğan Exploits the Temple Mount Crisis to Foment Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism”. 07/29/2017.

[14] Michael B. Bishku – “Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism in Turkey: From Ottoman Rule to AKP by Efrat Aviv (review)”. The Middle East Journal. Volume 71, Number 4, pp. 686-688. 2017: 686.

[15] The Times of Israel – “Young Turkish Jews trickling away from shrinking community”. 06/06/2015.

[16] Ibid. 8.

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