By Andrew M. Rosemarine, International lawyer in Southern Anatolia
The sun beats down on this paradisal peninsula, perhaps once the Garden of Eden. There are still creatures with forked-tongues here.
The Turkish Prime Minister has just declared “Israel has surpassed Hitler in its barbarities” and “Israel is perpetrating genocide on the Palestinian people.”
A popular pop-singer has tweeted “[Jews] are hostile to Allah…May God bless Hitler,” and received support from the Mayor of the capital city!
Jewish and Israeli organizations are issuing warnings against travel to Turkey. Is it really unsafe? Am I also at risk?
The Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, is an accomplished populist and has repeatedly won elections by telling his electorate what it wants to hear.
He is currently campaigning to become President of the Republic in August. He intends to change the constitution from being a Parliamentary democracy into a Presidential one, with as much power in his own hands as possible.
His party’s ideology is a mild and moderate Islam, nonetheless controversial in a state founded by an avowed secularist Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. Like all Islamic parties everywhere, a fundamental platform of the international agenda of Erdogan’s party is solidarity with fellow Muslims.
As Israel strikes in the Gaza strip and many Palestinian civilians die, it’s inevitable that Muslim tempers rise, especially before electoral campaigns, and that politicians will make hay, while their sun shines.
Mr Erdogan justified his comparison with Hitler. “Israelis have no conscience, no honour, no pride. Those who condemn Hitler day and night have surpassed him in barbarity.”
His comment was a highly tasteless wholly unjustifable one, but absurd rhetoric grips the Middle East at times of blood-shed, and he needs to cover up the extensive co-operation between his own regime and Israel behind the scenes, by portraying himself as anti-Zionist.
Yildiz Tilbe, a singer of folk-music who has written for Tarkan,made her even nastier comments in praise of Hitler, and stood by them, when she was accused of racism.
The Mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, a member of Mr Erdogan’s party, rushed to support her, calling her comments “full of intelligence.”
But the singer’s own justification of her words speaks volumes: “There is oppression against Muslims everywhere in the world. Is there any single American or Jew being massacred, whose country is bombed or whose people are killed?” In my view, these comments show a gross ignorance of what is really happening in Israel and in Jewish communities elsewhere.
Many Turks know no better. They are not maliciously anti-Jewish, just very ignorant. An Army officer even told me this week that the Christians and Jews want to conquer Istanbul!
It is sad that relations between Israel and Turkey are so poor in public, when they began so well. Turkey was the first Muslim country to have diplomatic relations with Israel, in 1949, believing that they would assist its own relations with Washington.
Ben Gurion evolved a theory of the strategic importance of relations with periphery neighbours. As Israel’s first circle of neighbours was, then, implacably hostile, it was essential for Israel to have good relations with its second circle. And so extra energy was devoted to cultivating Turkey, the Shah’s Iran and Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia.
In the 1950s and 1960s Ben Gurion made secret visits to Turkey. “The importance of Turkey to Israel is beyond any doubt” said Israel’s first Premier. But relations were kept low profile until after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, and the collapse of the Former Soviet Union. Embassies were then opened.
Turkish attitudes to Israel and Israelis generally vary according to what is happening in the Middle East. Haim Revivo, the famous Israeli footballer, was welcomed to both of Istanbul’s teams, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, by many, but encountered “Go home!” placards, when Israel received bad TV coverage.
Today, the two countries’ relationship is complex and wide-ranging. From Israel’s point of view, Turkey is an essential ally close to Israel’s potential enemies of Iran, Syria and Iraq (all next door to Turkey.)
Turkey is the only Middle East country in which Israeli activities are able to function openly. Israelis are regularly interviewed in the press, there is an open dialogue with Muslims, and Israelis regularly participate in cultural dialogue.
Israel’s top diplomat in Istanbul told me in 2008 that “we would like our relations in Turkey to be a model for our relations with other Muslim states.”
This week, however, Israel is pulling many of its diplomats out of Turkey, for fear of attacks from angry civilians, after a very violent demonstration outside the Israeli consulate in Istanbul.
For good reason – two Istanbul synagogues were attacked by a bomb-laden lorry in 2003 – 27 died, more than 300 were injured. An Israeli consul was abducted and murdered here in 1971. The situation is volatile, and Jews are at risk.
Prime Minister Erdogan knows it too. To his credit, he has in the past described anti-semitism as a crime against humanity, a courageous statement for a leader of a Muslim party.
This week, he added, “I disapprove of any bad behaviour towards our Jewish compatriots, in spite of all of that. They are citizens of our country.”
Nonetheless, the 17,000 Jews of Turkey live in fear of extremists.