The Turkish Government’s Attitude to Israel and Zionism as Reflected in Israel’s Military Operations 2000-2010

Efrat Aviv. Israel Affairs. Volume 25, Issue 2. April 2019.

This article explores the Turkish government’s attitude towards Israel during the first years of the AK Party’s rule, as reflected in several military operations by the IDF. The article examines the various responses of Turkish politicians and journalists during the operations and attempts to answer the question of whether the AK Party holds anti-Israel stances or if its members’ responses were confined to the discussed operations only.

The Rise of the AK Party

Turkey’s domestic politics experienced an earthquake on 3 November 2002, when the AK Party, established in August 2001, won the elections. Milli Görüş (National View) formed the ideological basis for the political Islamist movement founded by Necmettin Erbakan, who pursued an Islamist agenda through a number of political parties. These began with the National Order Party in 1970 and subsequently three more Islamist parties led by Erbakan (Refah Partisi and Fazilet Partisi) who were able to obtain the support of the majority of Islamic circles, including the İskenderpaşa, a branch of the Nakşibendi order, and politically active Nur communities (communities inspired by Said Nursi, a Kurdish Sunni Muslim theologian and his writings, the Risale-i Nur Collection, a body of Qur’anic commentary), and which continued the Milli Görüş’ political Islamist line. A split developed within the Milli Görüş between first-generation leaders loyal to Erbakan, who moved to the newly founded Saadet Partisi (Felicity Party), and a younger generation, which was led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Abdullah Gül and 69 others who founded the AK Party in August 2001. The AK Party (AK = white, unblemished) claims to have abandoned the mission of Milli Görüş and has become a conservative Democratic party.

The party platform avoided reference to Islam and expressed support for laicism as a fundamental requirement for democracy and freedom. Laicism, however, was defined in the party principles as state impartiality towards Islam and politics in contemporary Turkey towards religion, rather than state control of religious affairs. The AK Party government faced a number of immediate challenges, including veiling and the American invasion of Iraq through its bases in Turkey but, importantly, the AK Party began to assert that it no longer made policy decisions on the basis of Islamic philosophy, that its platform was secular and that it had no intention of changing the secular nature of the state it governed. Rather, it presented itself as a conservative Democratic party running a secular government apparatus. Government officials took pains to point out, however, that they retained their Muslim ethical values. Some prominent members of the AK Party are influenced by Islamic philosophy developed by a group of scholars from the Department of Theology at Ankara University. It calls for a rejection of Arab reformist Islam and links between Islamic law and the state. Instead, it views religion as human nature or an internal state and the secular state as an administrative mechanism, thus assuming that there is no contradiction in political leaders of a democratic secular government holding personal Muslim values. These scholars faced criticism from more orthodox Muslims and radical Islamist intellectuals, but their ideas were brought into the mainstream within AK Party’s core.

Despite the founding leaders having come from banned Islamist parties, the AK Party rejected the label ‘Islamist’ and defined themselves as a ‘conservative democratic party; they likened themselves to Christian Democratic parties in Western Europe. They insist they are ‘committed to the secularism of the Turkish state’, and they only oppose ‘the petty exclusion of religious symbolism from public life’, such as the headscarf in public buildings. The goal of Islamist parties now is to ‘build an Islamic identity without openly violating the constitutional principle of secularism’, and critics of the AK Party argue this is their hidden agenda. It is important to note, though, that when the Fazilet Partisi collapsed, the AK Party split not only from the leadership of the Felicity Party but also from the ideology of the old pro-Islamic circles. The Virtue Party marketed itself as a religious-orientated party, with a programme to match. However, in an effort to distance itself from Islamist beliefs, the AK Party rejected any ideological liaison with the Felicity Party, as well as the old Welfare Party; the AK Party has subsequently depicted itself as a national party ‘not based solely on regional, ethnic, or religious support’. To add weight to the AK Party’s claims that they are not an Islamist party threatening to destabilise the secular Turkish state, their actions concerning the EU are important. Efforts to get Turkey accepted into the EU lend support to the claim that they stand for ‘democratic conservatism’; the EU’s requirements of democracy, human rights and pluralism hardly support the principles of Islamism. It is ironic, however, that while secularists in Turkey favour EU membership in order to contain the Islamists and secure the modernisation of Turkish society, the Islamists favour joining the EU to contain the state.

The party, highlighting its anticorruption agenda and its roots in ‘Islamic Conservatism’ (coined by the AK Party), sought to balance its commitment to Turkey’s secular constitution with its Muslim worldview and faith. The rise of the conservative AK Party in 2002 and its Muslim worldview as a dominant force in Turkish politics, as demonstrated by its successful passing of the constitutional referendum on 12 September 2010, and the party’s third consecutive electoral victory 11 months later has heightened fears among many in the West, claiming Turkey is ‘lost’ and turning its back on the historical US-Turkey alliance, especially after reducing military and secular elites in Turkey. The main concern was and still is that while Turkey is regarded as an important Islamic actor, it will lead to a more radical, undemocratic, anti-Semitic and anti-Western brand of Islam. In a broader perspective, scholars labelled the AK Party’s new foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, as ‘Neo-Ottomanism’, ‘re-Islamisation’ or even as ‘Middle Easternisation of Turkey’. According to Davutoğlu, instead of dissociating itself from the past, Turkey should embrace its diverse Ottoman past and culture and combine it with contemporary republican values. His famous ‘strategic depth’ notion meant tackling Turkey’s historical and geographical depth as sources of political capital that can make Turkey a global influential factor in the post Cold War era.

Not only the Islamic background of the AK Party members but also the AK Party’s relative lack of foreign policy experience left the USA and the West suspicious. However, above all, the rise of the AK Party proved that Turkey’s national interests were no longer completely compatible with America’s interests, yet the importance of this relationship cannot be overestimated. With the victory of the AK Party, the US administration immediately began courting Turkey. Official visits were made to Ankara in 2002 by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman to make official requests for Turkish cooperation in the Iraqi war planning efforts. However, the Turkish PM and Minister of Foreign Affairs made it clear that despite the importance of their commitment to the USA, the importance of receiving ‘international legitimacy’ meant securing a UN mandate before any action in Iraq. The term ‘cooperation’ now gained a different understanding in the eyes of the Turks and the Americans

Since the establishment of the AK Party government, Turkey has positioned itself as a rising soft power that cannot be ignored. Turkey, a former non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, having elected its candidate for Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), member of the G20 group of nations, the world’s eighth strongest military, NATO member, with multilateral relations with various political actors, sees itself as an emerging soft power in the regions extending from the Balkans to the Middle East and Central Asia. Also, although Turkey’s image in the Middle East has deteriorated somewhat, the Turks still attribute to their country a growing influential political role. For example, 64% of the Turks claimed in TESEV’s (Türkiye Ekonomik ve Sosyal Etüdler Vakfı: The Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation) poll in 2013 that its political role in the Middle East is becoming more influential with every passing day.

The rise of the AK Party gave the Islamist press a boost of self-confidence. An example of this is the reporters from the daily Anadolu’da Vakit, a newspaper that for years had been publishing anti-Semitic articles including Holocaust denial, who have been part of the press corps to accompany Erdoğan and Gül during their travels, creating a legitimisation of their viewpoints and newspaper. This also indicates the close ties between the government and the Islamist media in Turkey. The same happened with Islamic non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who, after Israeli military operations, protested violently in front of the Israeli Embassy and Israeli Ambassador’s residence in Ankara as well as the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul, besieging them for several days. Generally speaking, the Turkish Jews have had an affinity to the Kemalist ideology and from the 2000s to CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, Republican People’s Party), although some Jews voted for the AK Party, at least in the first years. As a representative from the Rabbinate said, they had a ‘good, proactive relationship with the AK Party’ and that it is ‘wise to keep lines of communication open between us, we live in the same country and are willing to give them a chance’, but Jews still see their future in Turkey linked to the maintenance of secular law. During the last decade, Jews kept calm even while the government-endorsed anti-Semitic rhetoric in Turkey increased because they were certain that the Turkish military would not allow any twist from Kemalism. After the AK Party de-militarised politics and created a strict political control of the army, this hope vanished.

Relations with Israel and Zionism

The affinity between the Ottoman Empire and Zionism has been widely discussed by several scholars. Throughout the years, Zionism has been considered a secret agenda of the Jews and has always been a reason for not trusting them. Bali notes that at least between 1965 and 1980 the nationalist and Islamist press were directly targeting Turkish-Jewish industrialists and merchants in Istanbul, but later on many of the anti-Semitic expressions in Turkey were not directed at Turkish Jews per se but to every Jew, and one of the most distinguishing features of this figure is ‘Zionism’. In other words, Zionism has been used to describe evil Jews. The Jews in Turkey are considered ‘good Jews’ as long as they are not Zionist. Anti-Zionist Jews, such as Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Neturei Karta members and others are considered ‘good Jews’ in the eyes of the Turks, just as those who condemn anti-Semitism or publicly support the Jewish leadership in Turkey are called ‘Zionists’, ‘Israel lovers’ or ‘pro-Israelists’. Being a Zionist or having any affinity to Israel is a crime in Turkey. For example, Ersoy Dede from Yeni Akit clearly states that he expected famous figures from the Turkish-Jewish community, such as the singer Can Bonomo, the actor Yossi Mizrahi and others to clearly condemn Israeli policies. Dede called against including Mario Levi’s (the Jewish writer who serves as a professor at Yeditepe University) book in the campaign to boycott Israeli products during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, due to Levi’s expressions against Israel and in favour of Erdoğan during Mavi Marmara. In other words, even if a Jewish figure wishes to distance himself/herself from politics, they will be criticised for not condemning Israel, but even when they express no sympathy towards Zionism, they still feel different. Tunay Faik, a parliament member from the CHP, explained the existence of anti-Semitism in Turkey by noting that for the masses, Jews are equated with Israel and vice versa. The ignorant mob believes that every Jew is a Zionist, but the truth is, said Tunay, Turkish Jews don’t always support Israel’s policies.

A similar response was expressed by a Turkish Jew following accusations of Turkish-Jewish participants among IDF commandos storming the Mavi Marmara flotilla (May 2010): ‘As a Jew, I can attest that there is a difference between being a Turk and an Israeli’, Ediz, a Turkish Jew, told Al-Monitor. ‘But whenever there is fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, the atmosphere in Turkey turns against us, and people start acting as if we’ve committed a crime’. ‘The media paints such an image that many won’t even consider us human’, Leri, another Turkish Jew, told the paper. It’s no wonder the Jews of Turkey feel intimidated when the word ‘Zionism’ in its various derivatives, is used to taunt the Turkish Jews, even when they deny doing so. For instance, IHH (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri İnsani Yardım Vakfı; Humanitarian Relief Foundation) chairperson Bülent Yıldırım, while responding to the Marmara incident, said that the case was not against the Jewish nation but against Zionists and murderers. If one understands that the State of Israel was established on the basis of Zionism in order to be an asylum for the Jews, making this odd differentiation between Jews and Zionism expresses a misunderstanding of the Jewish state. Sometimes, even the synagogues in Turkey are accused of hostile Zionist activity, as Nurettin Şirin wrote in Vakit on 2 September 2004:

Firstly, the Chief Rabbi who uses his synagogues as Zionist bases must learn that no Jew has the right to teach a lesson on ‘human rights’ to [us], the children of the Ottomans. These [Jews], who fled Spain’s massacres and found shelter thanks to Ottoman tolerance, have carried out nothing but treason and plots on Ottoman territory, and have [always] carried out the ugly designs of Zionism on this [Turkish] land.

Subsequently, Kenan Kıran from Vakit ramped up the tension by saying on 27 August 2004: ‘Haleva, if you do not stop Sharon, anti-Jewish voices may turn into anti-Jewish action’. Except for the direct violence the statement conveys, it is obvious that in order to enact ‘revenge’ on Israel, the Turkish Jews are the victims. The distinction between Israel and the Jews does not exist within the Islamist media and as always, Jews are perceived as agents of Zionism or the State of Israel. Furthermore, when Turkey judged in absentia the four senior Israeli commanders due to their alleged part in the Mavi Marmara incident, demonstrators in front of the court building carried placards equating Hitler with Zionism and Israel. The boundary between rational criticism and irrational claim is contested and difficult to define. Sometimes the same claim may be either a rational criticism or a blunt weapon, depending on how it is mobilised and in what combination. Sometimes rational criticisms and irrational libels combine in toxic, angry swirls that are difficult to detangle and that assume an inappropriate style and tone. Accordingly, even if anti-Semitism is not clearly expressed, Turkish society can create the correlation between Israel, Zionism, world-ruling aspirations and evil in general with the Jews. In many cases, it is not even necessary to connect Jews and evil/Israel. The public makes the connections on its own. Such affinity is even harder for the Turkish Jews when Erdoğan himself calls Zionism ‘a crime against humanity’ but also mentions fascism and anti-Semitism as crimes similar to Zionism. In the Fifth Alliance of Civilizations Forum in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace in 2013, Erdoğan underlined the rising trend of fascism across Europe: ‘we are facing a world in which racist attacks have gained momentum … in a similar vein I must state that rising racism in Europe is a serious problem for the Alliance of Civilizations Project … we witness very frequently the alienation of the “other” in various countries instead of efforts to understand the culture and beliefs of the “other”‘. ‘The same goes for Zionism’, continued Erdoğan. ‘Anti-Semitism and fascism; it is inevitable that Islamophobia be considered a crime against humanity’. Despite the fact that Erdoğan was criticised for these statements on 20 March 20, he did not regret his sad comparison, but said: ‘I stand behind every word that I said’. Shay Cohen, Israel’s Consul General in Istanbul states that for the Turks, every type of racism is equal to Islamophobia. ‘Just two days ago I attended the ceremony commemorating the Struma tragedy and the Minister of Culture said the same thing. Prime Minister Davutoğlu said the same while meeting minority leaders’.

Within a decade, Turkey has changed its foreign policy from one pole to another: from an inward-looking, regionally isolated country uneasy with the challenges of post-Cold War globalisation to a respected member of the international community in terms of its economy, although it was part of NATO even before this period. Turkey has completed its transformation into an export-oriented, industrial producer, characterised by a vibrant marketplace that ranks sixteenth in the world’s largest economies. This economic rise was assisted by the start of accession negotiations with the EU in 2005. For the first time since Atatürk, Turkey has been basing its foreign policy on a home-grown doctrine shaped by the two key concepts of ‘strategic depth’ and ‘zero problems with neighbours’. This proactive outlook was even carried into international institutions when Turkey became one of the members of the United Nations Security Council for a two-year term between 2009 and 2010. Due to this change in foreign policy as well as the AK Party’s Islamic orientation, Turkey became more supportive of the Palestinian side in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The support grew so strong during the second half of the 2000s that even documents from the Ottoman Archive in Istanbul have often been transferred to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Following Erdoğan’s direct instruction, millions of documents dealing with the Ottoman provinces of what came to become mandatory Palestine have been transferred to the Palestinian Authority as part of what seems to be an attempt to create an evidence file that could be used by the Palestinians in future negotiations with Israel regarding refugees’ property. However, Uzer claims that the bilateral relations between Israel and Turkey did not deteriorate due to the Islamist ideology of the AK Party, something which the party does not openly embrace in any case, but due to Palestinian casualties, both militants and civilians, as a consequence of Israel’s operations in Gaza and the West Bank.

Turkish support of the Palestinian cause and the Turkish government’s support of Hamas, and their biased attitude towards Israel in this conflict, has also been manifested in the reports conducted by Turkey’s official press, Anatolian Agency (Anadolu Ajansı, hereafter AA). In 2014, for example, AA’s official English-language Twitter account posted photos of a terrorist, killed by Israeli security forces, without mentioning the context of Ibrahim al-Akari’s rampage through Jerusalem, captioned ‘Palestinian man shot dead by the Israeli police’. The report depicted a terrorist as a victim of the Israeli police. The Israeli MFA said: ‘The aim of the false tweet is to incite and fan the flames of hatred against Israel’. It was not the only case of untrue biased report against Israel coming from AA. On 18 July 2014, AA’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief tweeted a picture of Israelis standing on the border of Gaza watching Israel bombing Gaza. He also posted a picture ostensibly proving it. The picture proved to be a photomontage and was later removed from Twitter.

Turkey has always been sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle against Israel and this sympathy was expressed not only by Islamists but also by secular politicians, such as former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer (2000-2007) and former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit. Even Israeli diplomats were aware of this sympathy. Zvi Elpeleg, who served as Israeli ambassador to Ankara from 1995 to 1997, characterised the Turks as extremely sensitive to the plight of the Palestinians. Many Turks perceived the Palestinians as defending their rights and were critical of Israelis who called them ‘terrorists’. This sympathy has been encouraged by the Turkish media, which was a functional factor in its intensive and dramatic coverage of the Israeli so-called atrocities against Palestinians. This extensive coverage throughout the past decade has created massive general protests against Israel and made some civil society organisations more sensitive about the Palestinian question.

By constructing Palestinians as universally symbolic, their actual need for solidarity and freedom go largely unconsidered. Rather than actual people finding a multiplicity of ways to live and to struggle in difficult circumstances, ‘the Palestinians’ are portrayed as one single heroic victim of the homogeneous and evil ‘Zionism’. They become romantic and enraged carriers of our own anti-Western fantasies. However, it seems that under the AK Party, Turkey decided to take an active role in supporting the Palestinians. As a result, political and strategic relations with Israel have been deteriorating since 2008, after Turkey attempted to mediate between Damascus and Jerusalem following the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, and after the triumph of the resistance. This involvement yielded positive results, and Olmert stressed to the Turkish prime minister his willingness to return the Golan. However, as Operation Cast Lead (December 2008-February 2009) took place right after this attempt, Erdoğan became outraged and blamed Israel for ruining Turkey’s peace efforts. Twelve days before the Davos incident, Erdoğan made the following statement regarding Operation Cast Lead:

There is a world media under the control of Israel. This has to be pointed out. As a matter of fact, if their publications were objective then the incident would be seen in a very different light, but nobody says anything. Nobody says stop this inhumanity … I’m reading from the Torah. The sixth of the Ten Commandments says ‘thou shall not kill’. In Hebrew it’s ‘Lo Tirtsach’. Under which law, which religion, with what conscience can they justify the killing of innocent children?

On 29 January 2009, Erdoğan walked out of a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos after harshly criticising Israeli President Shimon Peres over the fighting in Gaza. ‘Mr. Peres, you are older than me’, Erdoğan said. ‘Your voice comes out in a very loud tone. And the loudness of your voice has to do with a guilty conscience. My voice, however, will not come out in the same tone’. Later on, Erdoğan described Peres as a man who ‘knew very well how to kill’. He continued by saying: ‘I remember two former prime ministers in your country who said they felt very happy when they were able to enter Palestine on tanks’. Erdoğan then told Peres, speaking in Turkish, ‘I find it very sad that people applaud what you said. There have been many people killed. And I think that it is very wrong and it is not humanitarian’. Eventually Erdoğan walked off the stage, vowing never to return.

Criticism of Israel

In Turkey, like elsewhere, criticism of Israeli policies and hostility to Israel come from a number of different political traditions: liberal-left and socialist, nationalist and fascist and Islamist-conservative. In parallel, those with anti-Semitic attitudes are mostly part of Turkish ultra-nationalism, radical Islam and radical left. These traditions are distinct, but they are also intertwined. Elements of rhetoric, especially from the 1990s onwards when communications and media became more open and more public in Turkey, evolved and switched easily from one to another. Taking into consideration that Turkish media is much controlled by the government, it is easy to understand how anti-Israel messages are conveyed from the government to the media. Yet, many critics of Israel do not seem to understand the link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. In other cases, they strive for the right to distinguish between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. This approach was defined by Talip Küçükcan, as the following: seeing someone who criticises Israel as an anti-Semite is an approach that is no longer in fashion. According to Küçükcan, every time Israel is criticised, Jewish organisations call it ‘anti-Semitism’. In his eyes, there is a clear distinction between Jews and the State of Israel. Not only Muslims criticise Israel, it is also being criticised on the streets of London and New York. There are even Jews who criticise Israel’s politics. Are they also anti-Semites? No. On the other hand, the fear of being called ‘anti-Semitic’ for criticising Israel is starting to disappear. Yunus Emre Kocabaşoğlu concurs. In a lengthy article he claims that criticising the ‘atrocities in Gaza does not make the critic an anti-Semite’. Kocabaşoğlu quoted several Turkish thinkers and journalists, such as Ümit Kıvan, who claimed that ‘the danger of anti-Semitism does not exist in 2004’, and said that Israel cannot be challenged without declaring those who challenge it anti-Semites.

Plausible proof of the claim that anti-Semitism is an integral part of Turkey’s attitude towards Israel is the statement made by Hüseyin Kıvrıkoğlu, the Turkish Chief of Staff between 1998 and 2002. He participated in a press conference following the decision to cancel a tank modernisation contract with Israel (after Israeli soldiers besieged Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in May 2002). In his speech, Kıvrıkoğlu described the politicians who opposed the contract with Israel as ‘those who were born anti-Semites and those who want to take a piece of the cake but cannot’.

Another example of the confusion between Zionism, Israel and Judaism/anti-Semitism is an article published in Milli Gazete on 8 January 2013. After Operation Pillar of Defence, a few Israelis created accessories from the remains of rockets launched at Israel from Gaza during the operation. The accessories were sold online. The newspaper did not mention the word ‘Israelis’ but ‘Zionists’ in describing the sellers, and deplored the fact that ‘the Jewish mind’ could come up with artwork as a ‘service for Zionism’. The article used descriptions such as ‘Jewish minds’, ‘Jewish merchant mind’, ‘ferocious Zionist’ and others. It is interesting to note that even the Turkish Jews feel that the Turkish regime does not distinguish between Jews and the State of Israel, and it is interesting to witness that this feeling prevailed in Turkey long before the AK Party was established. In 1971, shortly after the murder of Efraim Elrom, Yigal Lavie from the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul wrote to Jerusalem in a classified wire that the local Jews sensed a positive change in their general position in Turkey. As the regime felt guilty for the tragedy, it attempted to grant atonement for that crime. An Israeli construction company representative to Turkey even told Lavie that whereas in the past he had been successful in selling apartments in Israel to the Turkish Jews, that year (1971) he failed to repeat the same success. He was often told: ‘it is pointless to invest abroad now, when Jews are beginning to feel good here’. The Jews, who had usually denied any affinity with Israel, were enthusiastic to exploit this lack of distinction between Israel and Turkish Jews.

Even regardless of the Palestinian issue, Israel is depicted as problematic for Turkey with regards to other aspects as well. One of them is the Kurdish issue. Many Turks perceive Israel to be supportive of the Kurdish PKK, the terrorist organisation. They see Israel’s relations with the northern Iraqi Kurds as linked to support for the Turkish Kurds. Pro-government writers often hint that any opposition to the AK Party government may be related to the ‘Israeli lobby’ because the new Turkish government policy dares to challenge Israel. The link made between Israel and PKK aimed to ‘kill two birds with one stone’ by despising Israel and the PKK at the same time.

Israeli Military Operations and Their Impact on Anti-Zionism

Second Lebanon War (2006)

The Second Lebanon War seems to be the turning point in relations between Israel and Turkey. It can also mark the media’s convenience in publishing anti-Semitic articles. Prior to 2006, Erdoğan seemed to be an advocate of fighting anti-Semitism. An important example is Turkey’s close relations with the ADL. A series of meetings with high-level officials took place between 2004 and 2005 in Istanbul and Ankara. A delegation of leaders from the ADL met with Turkey’s PM, Erdoğan, who pledged that his country would continue to fight anti-Semitism and take a leading role in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The meetings included talks with the Justice Minister, members of parliament, representatives of the Jewish community and Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, and were led by Barbara B. Balser, ADL National Chair, and Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. Erdoğan told the ADL leaders that Turkey would send its Foreign Minister to Israel before the end of the year and that he himself planned to visit Israel in 2005 (Erdoğan did visit Israel in 2005). Foxman emphasised the important role Turkey could play in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as well as in re-energising peace talks between Israel and Syria. On 10 June 2005, at a ceremony attended by various high-level Turkish government ministers, UN diplomats and leaders of the Turkish and American Jewish communities, Erdoğan accepted ADL’s Courage to Care Award on behalf of diplomats who saved Jews during the Holocaust. At this event, Erdoğan strongly condemned anti-Semitism and stressed his country’s close relationship with the modern State of Israel. Erdoğan reaffirmed his nation’s commitment to maintaining strong ties with the USA and the State of Israel. According to Zali De Toledo, Erdoğan held a positive approach to Israel at the beginning. She believes that Erdoğan was not always this anti-Semitic. She stressed that she knew him from the days when she worked at the Israeli Consulate in Turkey and that she accompanied him during his visit to Israel: ‘The Americans thought he would be a great moderate Muslim leader and helped him win elections. I also thought he would be great. He used to be friendly to Israel and Turkish Jews’. De Toledo noted that she had lunch with Erdoğan’s wife and they discussed fashion, food and other stuff that women like to talk about: ‘Everything seemed quite normal and then the change suddenly happened’. De Toledo explained that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert got along well with Erdoğan and used to speak about the establishment of peace in the region with him. However, Erdoğan was personally insulted after Operation Cast Lead. She stressed that his reaction to Israel after the Operation was ‘based on his inflated ego and not politics’. When it comes to the crisis with Israel, De Toledo mentions, apart from the Olmert incident, that ever since Erdoğan became closer to Davutoğlu, who ‘wrote an imaginative history book claiming that Israel has no right to exist and planted in his mind the establishment of the Neo-Ottoman Empire that will include all of the Turkic countries and the Middle East’, he began developing his anti-Israel, anti-Semitic approach. ‘Since then’, said De Toledo, ‘they have believed in it. They both influence each other to reach madness’.

The three ideological wings and a broad sector of Turkish society reacted against Israel after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, with these accusations:

  • Israel is a non-legitimate State.
  • Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people is no different than Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews. Israel is an oppressor that conducts genocide and uses terror against the Palestinians.
  • Israel uses the accusation of anti-Semitism as a shield against its critics. A Muslim can be an anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic. Bali quotes Nuray Mert, a professor of Political Science at Istanbul University, contributor to Radikal, who criticised the Turkish Islamist anti-Semitic responses during the Second Lebanon War. Yet, at the same time he says that ‘Israel gains its strength through anti-Semitism’.
  • The Jews control the American media and Hollywood and constantly feature the Holocaust to stir up sympathy for Israel. Turkish society believes there is a Jewish lobby in the USA that is involved in undercover international affairs. The term Jewish Lobby often appears in the Turkish media.

The criticism and anti-Zionist stances were not expressed solely by politicians and in fact penetrated Turkish society as well: during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, Israeli tourists travelling in south-east Turkey sometimes encountered hostile reactions from locals. A shop window in Alanya displayed the awkwardly worded placard, ‘For Children Killers, Israelis No Sale, No Entry’. Anti-Zionism did not even skip entertainment. Turkish state television broadcaster TRT’s decision to drop from its programme schedule the Oscar-winning film The Pianist, which deals with the Holocaust, has drawn criticism by those who say the axing was prompted by government pressure. The film, which tells the story of a young Polish Jewish pianist who escapes the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis during World War II, was scheduled to be shown on Wednesday night. However, without prior announcement, the American film Wall Street was broadcast instead. According to the Islamist-oriented daily Yeni Şafak, the decision to show The Pianist represented bad timing, as the day before Israel murdered 57 people while attacking a refugee camp in Lebanon. ‘The movie explains in full detail what the Jews went through during the war, through the point of view of a hopeless pianist, which shows that the bitter events and the discrimination the Jews went through years ago, they now inflict on the Muslim Palestinians and Lebanese’. In response, TRT removed the programme. In response, Ahmet Hakan, a columnist for the leading daily Hürriyet and moderator of a popular debate programme on the CNN Türk television channel, criticised TRT’s decision. Yet, he claimed the decision, while perhaps necessary, meant ‘missing the opportunity to show the Turkish people how those who are often “oppressed” can today become “the oppressors”‘.

On 13 September 2014, the movie The Pianist, which was aired on Gün TV (located in Diyarbakir) a day earlier, was found ‘not fit to be shown on TV’. by RTÜK (Türkiye Radyo ve Televizyon Üst Kurulu: Radio and Television Supreme Council), a body under the supervision of Yalçın Akdoğan, Deputy PM in Turkey during that period. RTÜK warned Gün TV and every other television channel in Turkey that if they screened the film they would be risking shutdown for a few days or a fiscal penalty. The decision to prohibit the airing of The Pianist is because the film includes ‘violent scenes’. The opposition in Turkey strongly opposed this decision, saying ‘the whole world will laugh at us’ and expressed their surprise that RTÜK did not find Seda Sayan’s morning show, in which she hosted a murderer, offensive or dangerous in the same way. However, relations with Israel continued after the war. For instance, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met in Ankara on 22 December 2008. Israeli President Shimon Peres toasted with Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a dinner in his honour at the Cankaya presidential residence in Ankara on 12 November 2007. For these and other meetings he conducted with Israeli politicians, he was called ‘A Zionist in disguise’.

Operation Cast Lead 2008-2009

Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 was a direct continuation with regards to Turkish society’s reaction towards Israel and anti-Semitism, but this operation caused the AK Party to discontinue the ‘business as usual’ approach with Israel in the military and economic sectors. The same assertions that were directed at Israel in the Second Lebanon War were again more extensively used during Operation Cast Lead. Prior to the operation and perhaps the main reason for Erdoğan’s harsh criticism of Israel was Turkey’s disappointment at not being able to mediate peace talks between Israel and Syria, although for a time it looked like the efforts Turkey invested in this mediation were about to succeed. A few days after PM Olmert’s return to Israel from Ankara where he met with Erdoğan and discussed Syria and other regional challenges, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza without giving Turkey advance notice. The operation postponed Syrian-Israeli talks and was viewed by Erdoğan, who saw it as a personal affront, as ‘an act of disrespect toward Turkey’. But it was not only Erdoğan’s personal insult; the Syrian-Israeli talks were a particular source of pride for Turkish statesmanship and diplomacy and Operation Cast Lead put them all on hold and also possibly damaged Erdoğan’s prestige as a patron of Hamas. During the Operation, Israel’s legitimacy was questioned. A few examples: Ahmet Turan Alkan, a retired academic and contributor to the daily Zaman and the journal Aksiyon, described Israel in these terms:

When Israel emerged as a state after World War II, there was an aspect to it that had the air of a science fiction novel, or a very ancient epic. Israel is the product of a fantasy: a fantasy that is unparalleled, that leaves one speechless and boggles the mind; it’s the product of an illusion. Perhaps the most fantastic story of the 20th century is the establishment of an Israeli state in Palestine: Israel reminds one of a sort of Disneyland. An imaginary nation that lived [only] in the minds of Zionist Jews, now resurrected on the territories of Palestine; it’s a cartoon.

Some journalists, such as Ayhan Demir from the Islamist Milli Gazete, said that the only solution to the ‘Zionist problem’ was the dissolution of the Israeli state. Again, Israel was mentioned in the Holocaust context as comparisons between Gaza and Auschwitz were made in some newspapers. A columnist from Sabah even demanded that a list be created of children who survived Israel’s cruelty and atrocities in Gaza just like the lists of Jewish survivors that were made after WWII. Ali Bulaç from Zaman even described Gaza as ‘1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza under siege for 18 months. In fact, it surpasses the Nazi camps’.

Hakan Albayrak wrote these harsh words in Yeni Şafak:

Those who were saved from the remains of Warsaw ghettos that were crushed by the mechanism of the Nazi massacre, carried out what they learned from the Nazis in Palestinian villages like Dir Yassin, established the siyo-Nazi occupation regime known as ‘Israel’ over the blood of the Palestinian people. Now also their children do in Gaza what the Nazis did to the Warsaw Ghetto and they try to endure the siyonazi regime, which is fed by Palestinian blood. The Jewish SS at work! And the ‘people of Israel’ who are inside this collective craziness (except for 5%), cheeringly celebrate by crying ‘zig heil zig heil’ their murders of more than 200 kids within 15 days in Gaza as by a professional herd of killers which is proud that comes out of its bosom. May God curse them for a thousand days. Some say that it is not true to compare Nazi deeds to Israel’s. There are those who say that there is no comparison to the Nazi’s deeds as drawing attention to the difference in quantity and nature between what the Nazis did to the Jews and what the Jews and their Zionism did to the Palestinians … why wouldn’t it be true? Why wouldn’t such a comparison be made? The Zionists could not go further with their massacre due to technical problems but their mentality has the same manifestation, doesn’t it?

Another example is Evren Gürşen, who said:

I wonder what Adorno would feel today if he saw that the victims of Auschwitz had become the biggest killer-executioners? As if she (Israel) proves that the greatest cruelty comes from those victims that did not have their heads cut off (in the nature of the evidence), Israel, brazenly, continues its ruthless persecution.

The Turkish journalist presents Adorno as the very incarnation of both Jewish intellectualism and denunciation of the Holocaust, and then suggests that, were he still alive, he would have been appalled, or should have been appalled, by Israel’s ‘Nazi-like’ behaviour: a classic template of current anti-Semitism. What supports this contention, to the best of my knowledge and understanding, is that the City of Frankfurt created a Theodor W. Adorno Prize in 1977 as a prestigious award for ‘ethical’ authors; that many of its recipients were Jewish or of Jewish origin; and that some other recipients were Jewish or non-Jewish relatives or absolute anti-Zionists or anti-Semites – from Jean-Luc Godard to Jacques Derrida to Judith Butler.

Under the title: ‘Not Auschwitz, Gaza’, Ahmet Kekeç writes that:

This saying is attributed to Gündüz Aktan. Israel’s attack on Lebanon was used to define the ‘collective punishment’. It’s called ‘diplomatic jargon’; it (diplomatic jargon/speech) always adopts indirect statements. Even this deceased man, who had not concealed that he had been an Israel supporter, (Israel lover) finally lost his temper and indirectly stated that Israel carried out genocide on Israel’s occupying lands. For how many days has Gaza been under fire? For how many days have countless children’s bodies, bombed houses, mutilated civilians, hunger, thirst, disease, death been shown on our screens? This is not Gaza, it is like Auschwitz. Thousands of novels dealing with genocide, Holocaust history … thousands of movies, books, music, theater, stage works. Are these the values that the State that complains of suffering from genocide submits to humanity? Thousands of kids’ death? Bombed houses? … What is the difference between Israel’s ongoing disgrace to Auschwitz’s? What distinguishes between the Holocaust and the method of collective punishment? For years, the Israeli government has been accustomed to the Nazi mindset, the illegal mindset that discriminates against others for being different. The Israeli government believes in the mantra of ‘he who criticises me is my enemy’, and they’ve been discriminating against Palestinians, whose lands they occupy …what Israel is doing is not only illegal, but also inhumane and immoral at the same time.

During the period of the operation, daily life was also affected by anti-Semitic expressions that followed an anti-Zionist agenda: as evidence of growing societal anti-Semitism, they pointed to billboards prominently displayed around Istanbul calling for donations to support the people of Gaza (some like Solidarity Foundation clearly sponsored by the AK Party and others bearing the picture of PM Erdoğan’s wife, Emine), as well as some more provocative ones directed towards Jews saying ‘Sen Musa’nın çocuğu olamazsın’ [You can’t be the son of Moses] and featuring a bloody baby shoe. But not only pictures appeared. ‘Killer Israel’ was painted on synagogues in Izmir and the Haydarpaşa neighbourhood in Istanbul and even an informal boycott campaign targeting Jewish-owned businesses was successful, especially among the smaller shops. The Turkish Consumers Union (Tüketiciler Birliği) called for a boycott of Israeli products, a call that repeated itself before and after this operation. Under the title: ‘Terrorist Israel’s ammunition will not be supplied by us’ it provided the reader with allegedly abusive soldiers and crying Palestinians as well as a list of Israeli products that should not be purchased. It should be noted that similar lists exist for other countries as well (USA, Iraq). On 27 May 2009, a press conference took place, which aimed to condemn Israel’s actions and also to criticise the Armenians signature campaign started by a group of leftist and liberal intellectuals apologising for the 1915 massacres. Niyazi Çapa, the chairman of the Eskişehir-based Osmangazi Federation of Cultural Associations declared that ‘Jews and Armenians are not allowed to enter from this gate’ and ‘the entrance for dogs is free’. A lawsuit against Çapa was filed, demanding one year in prison by the state attorney according to law number 216 (312 in the older version), second paragraph, which prohibits any discrimination on the basis of social class, language, race, colour, sex, political thought, faith, religion, religious sect, and similar reasons. The state attorney asked for 6-12 months imprisonment, but his request was rejected by the Eskişehir 4th Magistrates Court. In his defence, Çapa said that before the incident there was a sign saying: ‘association entrance’ and separately ‘the entrance for dogs is free’. These two signs were hung at the same time, but the media interpreted it the same way it was presented to the public. Çapa was eventually fined 3000 Turkish lira instead of sitting 5 months in prison as the first decision ruled.

Mavi Marmara (May 2010) and After

It was the death of nine Turkish citizens during the Mavi Marmara incident that led to an almost complete degradation of diplomatic relations with Israel and to the suspension of all military ties in September 2011. The Mavi Marmara incident, which took place on 31 May 2010, is the name given to the Israeli military raid on a Turkish-led aid flotilla to Gaza that resulted in the death of nine Turks and in the shattering of the once-close ties between Ankara and Jerusalem. The Mavi Marmara incident was basically political, but almost immediately after taking place, it turned into a great campaign against Jews in general and Turkish Jews in particular. For example, a few days after the incident, Erdoğan gave a speech at the Turkish Arab Cooperation Forum [Türk Arab İşbirliği Forumu] and expressed his continuous accusation that Israel dominates the world media: ‘when the word Media is spoken, Israel and the Israeli administration come to mind. They have the ability to manipulate it as they wish’. The next day, Erdoğan reiterated that ‘the international press is supported by Israel; the press get their instructions from Israel’ and then criticised the Turkish press for not prioritising reports on Mavi Marmara over the Turkish government’s then overtures to Iran, saying ‘Turkish newspapers are subcontractors [of Israel]’.

Erdoğan’s assertions following the Mavi Marmara incident were truly anti-Semitic. Yet, Türkmen and Öktem claim in their article that subsequent to the Mavi Marmara, Israel-Turkey relations had no impact on Turkish Jewry, even though the incident was so rough that it had caused bloodshed, for the first time in the history of both countries’ long and warm friendship. When PM Erdoğan declared that the Jews of Turkey had nothing to do with the Mavi Marmara incident, and moreover as he declared that he opposes the Israeli government and not society, the Jews of Turkey, as well as other minorities, were and are no longer affected by diplomatic rows. Unlike this perception, during the incident and thereafter, anti-Semitic rhetoric grew stronger in Turkey. One interviewee of Jewish origin, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of upsetting her employers, said the following to blogger Max Blumenthal, on her life as a Jew during Mavi Marmara:

B: Everyone was scared to go to malls or synagogues. Not that I ever go to a synagogue but in times of trouble I limit my risks. During the crisis, some protesters blocked the entrance outside the Israeli Consulate and were waving flags and shouting. Even if I wasn’t Jewish I would have been scared to go there. This wasn’t a peace march. The crowd wanted blood. If it came out that I was a Jew, what would they have done to me?

The same fears are expressed by a Turkish Jew who immigrated to Israel. According to her testimony given to Milliyet newspaper, ‘the day preceding the Mavi Marmara was the scariest day I have ever experienced in Turkey’. The fear for her family’s future urged her to immigrate to Israel. She also added that following the Mavi Marmara, her old university friend wrote on her Facebook wall: ‘how can you eat the Israeli bread in peace?’ These fears were followed by enhanced security measures that were taken in Istanbul. Turkish Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay said security had been stepped up at 20 different sites in Istanbul alone, which has several synagogues and centers serving 23,000 Jews.

Moshe Kamhi, the Israeli Consul General of Israel in Istanbul between 2010 and 2014, marks Operation Cast Lead as the zenith of the skirmish between Israel and Turkey after Davos. According to Hoff, if in the past anti-Israel statements could be diverted to the Turkish Jews, anti-Israel statements are utilised as a political tool that every politician can wield to gain popular support and win elections. Semih Idiz from Hürriyet blamed Erdoğan for using the Mavi Marmara crisis to further his own ambitions for dominance in the region. Apart from the anti-Semitic activities held by IHH, were the demonstrations outside court, as Turkey put four former IDF commanders on trial in absentia for the killing of nine Turks on a Gaza-bound aid ship (Mavi Marmara). The 144-page indictment sought multiple life sentences totalling over 18,000 for each of the defendants – Israel’s former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, former Navy Commander Eliezer Marom, former Air Force Commander Amos Yadlin, and former Air Force Intelligence Commander Avishay Levi. It lists ‘inciting murder through cruelty or torture’ and ‘inciting injuries with firearms’ among the charges. IHH took advantage of this trial and made it an anti-Israel, anti-Zionist campaign by comparing Zionism to Hitler and the Nazi regime. As we have seen, comparisons between Israel and Hitler have often been made in Turkey, but this comparison has been made with other states, such as the USA, whose operations for the recapture of the city of Fallujah in November 2004 were followed by the publications of official statements in which US operations were called genocide and compared to the Holocaust. It seems like the Turks use the words ‘Hitler’, ‘Genocide’, ‘Holocaust’ and such whenever they disagree with ‘unfriendly regimes’ military and other operations. The uniqueness of the term ‘Holocaust’ has long been lost, if it ever existed within the Turkish mindset.

Except for the raids and protests following Mavi Marmara, Turkish Jews admitted that some Muslim merchants collected what was called ‘Gaza tax’ from their Jewish counterparts. According to the Jewish merchants, they had a difficult time collecting their payments from Muslim businessmen with whom they work. The claim is that the Turkish businessmen pay only a small amount of the debts owed to the Jews and then the latter are requested to supplement their debts; the Muslim businessmen declared that the rest of the money was just given to the ‘injured Gazan’. Alberto Patrini, for instance, a Jewish textile merchant who lives in Istanbul said: ‘in the past year, at least five times Turkish merchants who I sold merchandise to have not paid me my money. They claimed that they deducted a “tax for Gaza” from the debt, because Israel killed innocent people on the Marmara and because Israel puts a curfew on Gaza’. Testimonies of the Jewish merchants reached MK Danny Danon who wrote a letter to Erdoğan, saying: ‘the Turkish regime should be ashamed of itself; these racist behaviors are reminiscent of dark times in the history of Europe’. I must note that the Jews I spoke to, including merchants, were not familiar with this ‘tax’, which probably means that the incident was isolated. This hostile atmosphere continued during and after Operation Pillar of Defence, which was an eight-day IDF operation in the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip, officially launched on 14 November 2012 with the killing of Ahmed Jabari, chief of the Gaza military wing of Hamas. During that time, it seemed like the traditional tendency according to which the liberals in Turkey oppose anti-Semitism has also changed in recent years. According to Ege Berk Korkut, who published in Die Welt his impressions from Izmir, known to be the most secular city in Turkey: Jew-hatred has become an everyday phenomenon in Turkey:

Although I live in Izmir, the most democratic city in Turkey, [even here there is] growing anti-Semitism. Everywhere I meet Jew-haters and enemies of Israel, listen to their prejudices on the daily bus trip or during a visit to a popular fast-food restaurant. Many of them admired Hitler, wish he would have accomplished his ‘mission’, and not stop at six million murdered Jews…. I visit the twelfth grade of an [exclusive] high school. During a lesson the religious teachers talk about Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza. Some students began to complain about Israel. They became more and more violent, and the teacher, an official of the Turkish state, said, ‘Do not worry, Israel will be destroyed one day, and the day is near that all Jews will pay for it’. After the teacher had incited the students some students began to praise Hitler, while others expressed their readiness to drive the Israelis into the sea.

I was surprised. I did not expect that a teacher, a Turkish government official, would incite students to kill people just because they are different, especially in Izmir, where the people are known for their tolerance.

However, it seems that not only Turkish Jews have been intimidated; the perilous atmosphere exceeded the local Jews and risked Israelis as well. For instance, an Israeli woman, Ariel Relli Kalderon, who lives alternately in Israel and Panama, spent a few days vacationing on the Greek island of Kos. She took a ferry to Bodrum and while spending time on the main tourist road of Bodrum, entered a bag shop. After peacefully conversing in Spanish with the shopkeeper, who first insisted to know where she was from, her sister called her in Hebrew. As the shopkeeper heard Hebrew he started yelling and humiliating her, demanding she leave, and even cursing her: ‘stinky Jew, trashy Jew, why did you lie to me … I hate Jews, go out may you all die’.


The AKP’s approach towards Israel is part of its regional and international policies. The change it has undergone with the AKP’s rise has affected Ankara’s relations with Jerusalem, as well as with other countries and powers. Yet, Israel, as a Jewish state, holds a special place in the eyes of AKP members. Turks mostly fail to distinguish between Judaism, Zionism and Israel, leading to the outpour of accusations diatribes and conspiracy theories that exceed legitimate and rational criticism, notably the regular comparison of Israel to Nazi Germany. In this respect, Israeli military operations provide a handy pretext for bringing to the surface preexisting anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments. Nor is the anti-Israel approach solely expressed with regards to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israel has been accused with respect to other international activities, such as helping the Kurds or being a part of a secret international lobby (whatever this means), which means that the AKP’s hostility to Israel is not merely a result of its pro-Palestinian agenda. Furthermore, anti-Israel sentiments have penetrated Turkish society and affected other spheres, such as the media, culture and tourism as well. This is to say that the negative attitude towards Israel has moved well beyond the political realm. The fact that relations between Turkey and Israel have survived despite these negative attitudes, and the two countries have even reached occasional reconciliations, has to do with Turkey’s pragmatic attitude as well as both countries’ economic considerations as evidenced by Erdoğan’s continued attacks on Israel during these reconciliations.