OPINION: Could Mr Erdogan be the world’s ‘most virulent anti-Israel leader’?

OPINION: Could Mr Erdogan be the world’s ‘most virulent anti-Israel leader’?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Andrew Rosemarine
Andrew Rosemarine

By Andrew M. Rosemarine, International lawyer

Although there are only 17, 000 Jews in Turkey, out of a population of 77 millions, Jews’ views matter to Turks.  And what Turks think of Jewry also matters. 

For Turkey has the largest economy in the Middle East; it negotiated as a mediator with Israel’s enemies; it has run joint military exercises with the IDF and allowed Israel’s air-force to train on her territory; it has traded with Israel more than all the other states in the region, and has hosted tens of thousands of Israeli tourists year after year. 

Before Mr Erdoğan became Premier in 2003, Turkey was occasionally something of an oasis of pro-Israeli feelings, in a desert of Jew hatred!

A striking example of Turkish interest in Jews’ views appeared as the lead story on Sunday on the front page of Turkey’s most popular newspaper Zaman.  

It reported American Jewish Congress’ description of Turkish Premier Erdoğan as “the most virulent anti-Israeli leader” and its request for him to return its “Profile of Courage” award.  The award was given in 2004 for his stance at that time on fighting terrorism and working towards peace.

“Now, we want it back,” the AJC’s President, Jack Rosen, wrote in an open letter to Mr  Erdoğan. 

“A decade after we gave you our award, you have become arguably the most virulent anti-Israel leader in the world — spewing dangerous rhetoric for political gain and inciting the Turkish population to violence against the Jewish people,” explained Mr Rosen.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan making the Rabia sign, which protests the Egyptian army's coup d'état in July 2013
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan making the Rabia sign, which protests the Egyptian army’s coup d’état in July 2013

Zaman has a million subscribers, is published in around 11 countries and is the most-read Turkish newspaper by far.  It is a moderate Islamic paper, yet frequently critical of Mr Erdoğan’s governing party, also Islamic.

Was Zaman seeking to damage Mr Erdoğan’s electoral chances when he stands for President of the Republic on 10 August?  Or did  Zaman see this just as a spicy political story? 

Was the letter authentic, and does Mr Erdoğan deserve the description of ” the most virulent anti-Israeli leader”?

He has certainly improved his credentials for the role lately.  He’s calling for the International Criminal Court to try Israel for alleged war crimes in Gaza, and claims Israel is “spitting blood.” 

Recently, he stated “Israel has surpassed Hitler in its barbarities” and “Israel is perpetrating genocide on the Palestinian people.”  Does he deserve the American Jewish Congress’ opprobrium?  How should world Jewry handle such leaders?

I contacted Jack Rosen directly. He kindly provided me with a copy of his letter to the Prime Minister. Zaman’s article was correct.  

The American Jewish Congress was founded in 1918 by, among others, US Supreme Court Justices Brandeis and Frankfurter to defend Jewish interests and Human Rights for all Americans.  Jack Rosen has done fine work in building bridges with Muslim and Arab leaders.

Reading his letter, one feels the disappointment and frustration that Mr. Erdoğan’s wholly irresponsible comments have engendered.

Mr Erdoğan replied on Sunday, through his Ambassador to Washington, stating the Premier’s willingness to return the AJC’s award. 

Mr Erdoğan’s devotees put the story on the front page of the Sabah  newspaper, on Tuesday, with a massive photo of the Premier next to the words “Turkey’s Answer to the American Jewish Congress.”  

Sabah used to be critical of Mr. Erdoğan, before Mr Erdoğan’s son-in-law’s company took over its management.  Since then, it has been very supportive of his politics.

In his reply, the Turkish Ambassador states “Attempts to depict Prime Minister Erdoğan’s legitimate criticisms of Israeli government’s attacks on civilians as expressions of anti-Semitism is an obvious distortion and an effort to cover up the historical wrongdoings of the Israeli government.”

The story is a classic example of a well-intentioned initiative back-firing at the hands of a shrewd opportunist.  Mr Rosen was rightly shocked into action by the Premier’s wholly irresponsible words, but Mr Erdoğan was sure to use the attack upon him for electoral advantage. 

Turks see pictures of Gazan civilians dead and injured every day, but know little of the realities of that dispute, nor of the brutalities of Hitler.   Mr Erdoğan is a proud ally of Hamas and, according to Wikileaks, has stymied his country’s relations with Israel.  

Nonetheless, the Ambassador’s letter concluded with a commitment to uphold the safety and well-being of the Jews of Turkey. This will not reassure them.  Targeted by bombs and bullets in previous years, they live in fear of extremists.

  • Andrew M. Rosemarine runs an International Law Office and has just returned from Turkey.



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