Israel’s military operation in Gaza and the reactions from the Turkish government and the public have put the Turkish Jewish community in a delicate situation in which they could face attacks from Islamist and other segments of society.
After the Gaza incident a growing number of shops began displaying signs on their windows reading "Jews are not allowed in this shop." On January 8 a group of people organized a demonstration in front of shops carrying signs "even dogs are allowed but Armenians and Jews are not" (www.iha.com.tr, January 8). Israel’s military radio claimed that even in the hotels that Israeli tourists visited most were similar signs saying "Jews are not allowed" (www.ntvmsnbc.com, January 30). Turkish Jews have received death threats through text messages on their cell phones (Hurriyet, January 17).
Galatasaray football club fans in Istanbul recently booed Pini Balili, an Israeli soccer player from the Sivas football club. The Turkish Football Federation has launched an investigation into the anti-Semitic protests with an eye to disciplining Galatasaray (Milliyet, January 28). Although several soccer players, journalists, and fans from Besiktas, another major Istanbul soccer team, launched a campaign to support Balili (Kanal D television, February 2), it does not change the fact that the anti-Semitism rooted in Turkish society could potentially become worse if the officials do not take effective measures to prevent it.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has openly declared several times that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity, does not see any danger of an anti-Semitic wave in his country. Speaking to The Washington Post, Erdogan said, "I’ve seen the anti-Semitic signs around Turkey recently. These are individual attempts" (The Washington Post, January 31).
In the midst of the concerns about anti-Semitism, it was reported that an al-Qaeda attack on Jews in Bursa Province had been prevented in the planning stage (Bugun, February 3). The Israeli Haaretz claimed that a synagogue in Bursa had been set on fire, but the Turkish Jewish community has denied the report (www.internethaber.com, February 2). During the recent public outrage against Israel, an e-mail has been circulating on the Internet asking Turkish Jews to donate to a fund to help the people in Gaza. The group distributing the e-mail reminded Turkish Jews that the Ottoman Empire had helped their ancestors 500 years ago and that it was now time for them to repay the favor (Today’s Zaman, January 19).
Perhaps because the Jewish community does not want to be seen as disparaging Turkey, it has always given positive response at such times of crisis. This tradition is continuing now as well. Silvyo Ovadya, the head of Turkish Jewish community, declared that "there is no anti-Semitism in Turkey, but we face discrimination against us. We, as citizens of Turkey, do not want tolerance toward us but equality" (www.ntvmsnbc.com, February 3).
In contrast to official statements from the Jewish community, Leyla Navaro, a Jewish academic and psychologist, openly wrote her concerns: "until recently I have always thought about what to do for Turkey. Today, however, I am concerned about what could happen to me. I am sad, frightened, and appalled that Turkey is moving toward racism" (Radikal, January 22).
It seems that Turkish authorities have realized the danger of anti-Semitism and racism and have taken steps to prevent it. After Navaro’s article appeared, President Abdullah Gul called her to assure her that "Those who [promote] racism are marginal groups and the prime minister is working hard to prevent these marginal groups" (Bugun, February 3). Erdogan added, "Everything we have said is against the current Israeli government, nothing against Jews. In my speeches I have stated very clearly that anyone who even thinks about doing anything against the Jews in Turkey will find me against them" (The Washington Post, January 29; Zaman, February 1). After a cabinet meeting on February 2, Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Cemil Cicek once again underlined the government’s position: "What Erdogan said was against Israel’s policies in Gaza, not against the people of Israel or Jews. Turkey wants to continue to have relations with Israel" (Yeni Safak, February 3).
Besides public statements and personal assurances, the Turkish government has already taken action. It was reported that the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs called the head of the Jewish community to offer to help ease the pressure on Turkish Jews. Immediately afterward, the Mufti of Istanbul "sent a letter to the imams in Istanbul to make sure that imams will not deliver speeches that may upset Jewish people" (Hurriyet, February 3)
Because radical Islamists could exacerbate anti-Semitism in Turkey, perhaps the most important step toward preventing this would be to involve the imams in fighting anti-Semitism. It would be a positive step for Turkey if the government could at least stop imams from preaching anti-Semitic messages. In addition to the neo-nationalist Yeni Cag and the radical Islamist Vakit, a few marginal journalists and some politicians have asked Erdogan to return the award he received from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in 2005 (Yeni Cag, Feburary 3). Islamist media outlets and the mainstream media, however, have not asked Erdogan to return the ADL award. Most media outlets tend to differentiate among Turkey’s relations with the Jewish people, the Jewish lobby, and the government of Israel.
The major missing link in the government’s preventive measures is the implementation of the articles in the penal law that prohibit racism. Erdogan has made his strong opposition to anti-Semitism clear on several occasions, and Article 312 in the Turkish Penal Law prohibits "Instigating a part of the people of a different religion or sect to hatred or hostility against another part of the people" (Turkish Penal Law, Article 312). The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has determined, however, that the implementation of Article 312 is usually used against separatist or radical Islamist movements. Only a few people have been prosecuted for anti-Semitic and racist remarks toward minorities. The ECRI reported that although anti-Semitic and racist statements had been made publicly, including in the media, Article 312 had not used against those making such remarks (ECRI Third Report on Turkey, Adopted on June 25 2004). A singer was recently prosecuted for his racist remarks against Armenians (www.bianet.org, November 7, 2007); but as of yet, no prosecution of the neo-nationalist and radical Islamist newspapers that circulate anti-Semitic remarks has been reported. It would be a reassuring step if the Justice Minister urged prosecutors at least to investigate anti-Semitic remarks in the media.