Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday denied that he is an anti-Semite or even anti-Israel, arguing that he makes a distinction between Jews and Israelis on one side, and the current government in Jerusalem on the other side. At the same time, he accused Israel of having indiscriminately massacred innocent babies and children during this summer’s Operation Protective Edge.
“There are times when I personally am labeled as an anti-Semitic person. Criticizing Israel’s massacres that defy international law, and trample on human rights and life is not anti-Semitism,” Erdogan said during a speech in New York. “Holding a state that massacres 10 people by stopping an international ship taking aid to Gaza isn’t anti-Semitism,” he added, referring to an incident in 2010 in which pro-Palestinian activists and IDF troops clashed aboard the Mavi Marmara ship.
“And it isn’t anti-Semitism to criticize an administration that massacres, kills babies, children, innocent babies, children, in their homes, mosques, hospitals, schools, beaches, parks, without any discrimination,” Erdogan said, according to a transcript of his remarks.
Turkey is considered one of Hamas’s key allies in the region. But during his appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations on Monday, which included a question-and-answer segment, he mentioned the group only once. “When we look at Palestine, we don’t see Arab, Sunni, or Hamas. We first and foremost see people.”
The fate of the Palestinian people is important to all people of conscience and lies at the heart “of many of the issues” in the Middle East, Erdogan said. Israel knows this and yet decided to put “its own people and the people of the region in fire,” he said, speaking though an interpreter.
Distraught that he is conceived in the West as an anti-Semite, Erdogan emphasized that he makes a “distinction” between the people of Israel and the country’s government.
“Maybe I am one of the first prime ministers in the world to have said that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity,” he said. Indeed, Turkey has always helped Jews when they were persecuted, be it during the Spanish Inquisition or during the Holocaust, he declared.
“Our criticism is not directed to the Jews. It is only and solely directed at the Israeli administration and its policies, and no one should distort this. There is a distinction here,” he argued. “Whenever we criticize the massacring of innocent women in Palestine, some circles engage in a campaign to distort the perceptions about Turkey. Whenever we criticize the killing of innocent children, babies, in the Middle East, some media organizations target us.” But, he vowed, these “smear campaigns” will not deter Turkey from continuing its current policies toward Israel.
In recent months, Erdogan made headlines several times with statements and accusations perceived as anti-Semitic, for example when he called Zionism a “crime against humanity” or blamed Israel or the Jews for certain tragic events. US President Barack Obama in early September raised concerns over growing anti-Semitism in Turkey during a meeting with Erdogan.
Before this summer’s 50-day war with Hamas, Jerusalem was close to signing a reconciliation deal with Ankara that would have restored full diplomatic relations. During the operation, Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, fiercely attacked Israel for the operation’s civilian casualties, saying, among other things, that the government had “surpassed Hitler in barbarism,” effectively burying any hopes for better ties.
Speaking in New York, Erdogan said Israel and Turkey had “almost” reached a reconciliation agreement, “but at just about that time, we saw more settlements being built in the West Bank by Israel, and Israel began to bomb Gaza, and these developments stopped that process of normalization.”
Since Erdogan was elected president in August, he has refrained from publicly attacking Israel, but diplomatic officials in Jerusalem and Israeli foreign policy analysts are convinced that bilateral ties are likely to remain frozen for the foreseeable future, saying that for internal political reasons it is not currently in Erdogan’s interest to move toward rapprochement.