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Anti-Semitism In Turkey: Myths and Facts (I)

[Originally published in Hürriyet Daily News] My column neighbor Burak Bekdil was writing about anti-Semitism in Turkey yesterday. And he was presenting not just a stance against this wicked trend, but also a blame he carefully put on one specific camp in Turkey. He, as you would have expected if you read him regularly, was accusing the "Islamists." He wrote: "But is the anti-Israeli/Jewish/Semitic mood exclusive to conservative/devout Turks? Certainly not. Only the nature is different. Secular Turks try -- probably unsuccessfully -- to distinguish between good and bad Jews and are programmed to think that anti-Semitism is a bad thing 'even at times like this.' They can be accused of sin of omission, but that's it. For the Islamist/mildly Islamist/conservative Turk this is a case of 'guilt by association.' They won't even try to find a dividing line between 'good and bad Jews.'" Propaganda versus Truth In other words, according to Mr. Bekdil, secular Turks don't despise the Jews categorically, while all Islamic Turks, including even the "mild" ones, are full of hatred against them. Really? No, not at all. I can show dozens of columns that appeared in the Islamic/conservative side of the Turkish media in the past few weeks, which, while denouncing Israel's militancy in Gaza, emphasized the need to distinguish between the State of Israel and the Jewish people. One prominent Islamic pundit, Ali Bulaç, reminded that while the Koran blames the Jews for some sins, it reminds, "They are not all the same." Then he went on to argue that Muslims should respect "non-Zionist Jews, who can be religious, atheist or agnostic." Personally speaking, I am not even anti-Zionist as Mr. Bulaç sounds to be. I am rather against the militant and expansionist form of Zionism, the one which denies the rights of the Palestinians and suppresses them with brute force. To be fair, it is true that a categorical hatred against Jews exist in the Islamist camp in Turkey, but that can be observed only in the very marginal publications, such as daily Vakit. If you come to much more mainstream and popular Islamic/conservative papers such as Zaman, you can find only condemnations against anti-Semitism. They, of course, have reacted strongly to what Israel has done in Gaza, but that is a legitimate reaction. "It is unreasonable and unfair to assume that opposition to Zionism or criticism of Israeli policies and actions," reminds Bernard Lewis, "is an expression of anti-Semitic prejudice." (Lewis, Semites & Anti-Semites, 1997, p. 20.) But what about the wonderful, open-minded "secular Turks" that Mr. Bekdil was presenting to us as people who are always "programmed to think that anti-Semitism is a bad thing"? That is again a line of propaganda, not truth. The secular camp in Turkey includes secular nationalists (known as "ulusalcılar" in Turkish) who are the proponents of all sorts of racism and xenophobia. They hate Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Europeans, Americans, and, of course, Jews. One of the craziest figures in that camp, retired Col. Fikri Karadağ, formed a secret brotherhood in Mersin in 2005 whose members took oaths swearing, "there is no Jewish blood in meÉ I am ready to kill and to be killed for Turkishness." Another ulusalcı, Ergün Poyraz, wrote anti-Semitic bestsellers that portrayed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül as secret Jews collaborating with the "Elders of Zion" to undermine Atatürk's Republic. Both of these eccentric figures are now on trial in the Ergenekon case, which is about a network that allegedly has tried to provoke a military coup by armed propaganda. There are more "mainstream" proponents of secular anti-Semitism, too, such as popular conspiracy theorist Soner Yalçın, whose books and articles are full of paranoia about "covert Jews" in Turkey and how they have supposedly infiltrated everywhere. Back to the Ottomans The history of anti-Semitism in this country will also give us a much more different picture that Mr. Bekdil would have you believe. As starters, there is one thing which is certain: The Ottoman Empire was not anti-Semitic at all. In fact, that last Islamic superpower of the world acted as a benign protectorate for the Jews, since it welcomed them after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. When the first blood libel in the Middle East erupted in Damascus in 1840, by the hand of the fanatically anti-Jewish French consul at the city, Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid issued an edict which denounced the madness. "For the love we bear to our subjects," said the Sultan, "we cannot permit the Jewish nation, whose innocence for the crime alleged against them is evident, to be worried and tormented." The love affair between the Ottomans and Jews continued until the very end. Unlike the Christian peoples of the empire, who launched national uprisings one by one, the Jews, who had no territorial claims, remained loyal to the Sultanate. While the Ottoman army was resisting against the Russian advance in the Balkans, prayers were held in Istanbul synagogues for the victory of the former. Things would change, though, after the foundation of the Turkish Republic, whose nationalist ideology would bring in distrust against all minorities. And the Jews would find themselves much less secure in this secular republic than they did in the Islamic empire. That irony will be the focus of my next column.
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