There’s a new bogeyman in Turkey, and, for a change, he’s not a Jew

Surveys show most Turks harbor anti-Semitic views, and the Erdogan government has often capitalized on that sentiment. But in the wake of the failed coup, the president is focusing on a different enemy while moving to warm ties with Israel. Does this leave the Jewish community optimistic? Not exactly

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

A crowd brandish national flags and shout shouts slogans during a July 25, 2016 anti-coup rally in Istanbul, as a nationalistic fervor engulfs Turkey following the failed military coup attempt. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias, FILE)
A crowd brandish national flags and shout shouts slogans during a July 25, 2016 anti-coup rally in Istanbul, as a nationalistic fervor engulfs Turkey following the failed military coup attempt. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias, FILE)

In the course of a long-running, massively successful, 007-esque Turkish adventure series named “Valley of the Wolves,” hero Polat Alemdar has fought off scores of “evil” Israelis and Jews.

There was, for instance, a twisted Jewish American army doctor (surprisingly played by Gary Busey), who sold Iraqi prisoners’ organs to rich people in Tel Aviv in 2006’s “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq.” Reviving ancient blood libels, 2010’s “Valley of the Wolves: Ambush” focused on Israeli Mossad agents spying against Turkey — and kidnapping Turkish babies.

With ratings that can reach above 50 percent on mainstream Turkish TV, the television and film series breaks box office records as it unapologetically depicts the latent, consensus anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment rife in Turkish culture. (According to the Anti-Defamation League, 71% of adult Turks harbor anti-Semitic views.)

But the series goes even further in 2011’s “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine,” wherein Israeli soldiers are shown wantonly slaughtering Turkish activists on a Gaza flotilla. In its mix of fact and fiction, the film becomes a propagandist rabble-rousing window into the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The series was launched in 2003, when Erdoğan came to power. And tellingly, the next planned installment is called “Valley of the Wolves: Coup.” According to The Hollywood Reporter, production company Pana Film revealed its plans on Twitter last week “in response to intense public demand to make a film or television series about the coup bid.”

But this time the bad guy is not an Israeli or a Jew, but a Turkish Muslim — former Erdoğan ally Fethullah Gülen.

Labeled a terrorist by the Erdoğan government, American-based cleric Gülen and his network of followers, the Hizmet (Service) movement, are accused of masterminding the July 15 failed coup.

The government alleges that Gülen was behind the “Peace at Home Council” — named after Turkish founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s famous public policy of “Peace at Home, Peace in the World” — a splinter group within the Turkish Armed Forces that attempted to wrest control of the country on the grounds that its secular democratic nature was in jeopardy, and that human rights violations were mounting.

In a bloody night of violence played out largely in the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, some 300 people were killed and over 2,100 were wounded.

The aftermath has seen a government purge of tens of thousands of military, police, civil servants, teachers, and judges in what some in the media have labeled the “counter-coup.” Recently some 38,000 convicts were released from prison to free up room for those accused of aiding the coup while hundreds of Gülen-aligned news agencies were shuttered. The country is still officially under a state of emergency.

Additionally, the US is facing accusations of aiding and abetting the coup’s mastermind as it continues to rebuff Erdoğan’s calls for Gülen’s extradition.

In this March 15, 2014 file photo, Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen sits in his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Selahattin Sevi, File)
Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, March 15, 2014. (AP/Selahattin Sevi)

The newest bogeyman

From his Pennsylvania home of the past 17 years, Gülen has criticized Erdoğan, his onetime ally, over the Turkish leader’s “increasingly authoritarian rule.” In a rare interview with AP following the coup, Gülen denounced the Erdoğan government’s “repression and persecution” of his followers in Turkey.

In response, Turkey has repeatedly accused the United States of collusion with Gülen and demanded his extradition, a subject headlining the agenda of the US-delegation to Turkey this week.

On the other hand, a new rapprochement with Russia signals to international investors that despite dire predictions, Turkey’s markets are fighting back. It’s an uphill battle: In addition to its 10% unemployment, in August following the July coup both Fitch and Moody’s rated Turkey at their lowest investment-grade rung.

Therefore, as the world’s eyes are turned to a Turkey rocked by political and economic turmoil, it is now advantageous for the country to repair its six-year rift with the Israeli government.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the G-20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, Nov. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, file)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the G-20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, Nov. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, file)


And so, in setting the mood for the masses in this turbulent time, Erdoğan’s rhetoric has been largely Judenfrei of late. (Last year he took on The New York Times, accusing it of being funded by “Jewish capital.”)

Notwithstanding a brief government denunciation following IDF strikes on Gaza, news of Saturday’s parliamentary approval of renewed relations with the Jewish State and the reportedly imminent return of the two countries’ respective ambassadors has been accompanied by a promising lack of anti-Israeli tropes in the media. Likewise, since official Turkey has turned to its new political bogeyman, Gülen, Turkish Jews report little escalation of anti-Semitic rhetoric following the coup.

But could this bubble quickly burst?

To ascertain the current mood of the Turkish Jewish community, the Times of Israel approached several wary Turkish Jews, based in Turkey and Israel. There are currently some 17,000 Jews (the potentially inflated official figure) in a Muslim-majority country of 77 million.

The results were mixed: As one polite email refusal stated, “I can’t talk about what I really think, because if I do, it might be harmful for my community. And if I can’t talk about what I really think, there is no point in talking at all.”

For those who did speak, every word was measured, and the conversations, conducted by phone, were followed up by careful examinations of quotes. In some cases, speakers requested the alteration or deletion of their names.

Jews in Turkey ‘live in a bubble’
Zali De Toledo, 73, Israel

Chairman of the Turkish Jews in Israel organization Zali De Toledo (courtesy)
Chairman of the Turkish Jews in Israel organization Zali De Toledo (courtesy)

In conversation with The Times of Israel this week, chairman of the Turkish Jews in Israel organization Zali De Toledo said the Turkish Jewish community chooses to see itself as safe, because they “live in a bubble.”

De Toledo, 73, moved to Israel in 1960 and served for a decade as the cultural attache for the Israeli embassy in Turkey, until 2003. She visits Turkey frequently and compared the country’s Jews to those living in ignorance to the impending danger of 1930s Europe. “The Jews in Europe, also they could not believe it. Until it touched the masses,” she said.

Decrying the country’s rising religious sectarian extremism, De Toledo said as fanatical religious ignorance grows, it will become even less comfortable for Turkey’s Jews. Even today, while the government is not currently spouting anti-Semitism, it is “setting the tone,” she said, that, for example, makes it acceptable for Turks to single out Jewish businesses and tell others not to purchase from them.

“The Jews don’t see it because it is outside of their eye level. They know there’s something, but prefer not to see,” said De Toledo.

‘Jews living as a minority are always under threat’
Jack Eskenazi, 30, Turkey

Turkish Jewish activist Jack Eskenazi said the reasons young Jews are leaving are primarily for educational and economic opportunities, not anti-Semitism. (courtesy)
Turkish Jewish activist Jack Eskenazi said the reasons young Jews are leaving are primarily for educational and economic opportunities, not anti-Semitism. (courtesy)

Turkish Jewish activist Jack Eskenazi, 30, said that in the country’s current political climate, Turkey’s Jews are not currently singled out more than other minorities.

“The pressure is on the Gülen movement,” said Eskenazi from his Istanbul offices. But at the same time he is witnessing a trickle-down effect of hate speech to all ethnic minorities.

“People are so ignorant of minorities and can say stuff to attempt to hurt people, such as claiming that Gülen’s mother is Jewish or Armenian, or that the coup was a Greek plot. They use the ignorance and intolerance of people because they need to point a finger at someone,” said Eskenazi.

MP Selina Doğan, a Turkish politician of Armenian ethnicity, recently publicly called for the end to hate speech targeted against minorities (Turkish language) vis-a-vis Gülen.

In his opinion, the Jewish community doesn’t feel any more threatened “than usual,” said Eskenazi. “But we were not under threat in 2003 and at the same time two synagogues were bombed. Jews living as a minority are always under threat, and so we’re taking necessary precautions, like Israel does for any terrorist threat,” said Eskenazi.

The government, he said, is doing everything it can to protect Jewish schools and institutions. “As Jews we live happily here, as happily as in other countries. We do not have physical violence as in France or Germany, and we have really close ties with the government as well — because we have to.”

‘As a community we are sick of seeing the same kind of article with the title of ‘Scared Jews of Turkey leaving Turkey’

He does see a widespread exodus of Turkish Jewish youth, however, which stems, he said mainly for reasons other than anti-Semitism. “As a community we are sick of seeing the same kind of article with the title of ‘Scared Jews of Turkey leaving Turkey,'” he said. Most emigration is for economic and education reasons, said Eskenazi, although Turkey’s increasing Islamicization is a real factor.

Turkish aliyah is a sensitive topic, but according to official sources, more than 63,000 Turkish Jews have immigrated to Israel since 1948, most in the decade after Israel’s establishment. In the past decade, more than 1,000 Turkish Jews have made aliyah. There is anecdotal evidence that these numbers may be on the rise.

“People are leaving because they have kids and they don’t want them to grow up in an unstable country, which we are,” said Eskenazi. “Have you seen Istanbul lately?”

‘We were really actually living in a balloon’
Rafy Feldman, 27, Israel

Rafy Feldman, 27, is a veteran of both the Turkish and Israeli armies. (courtesy)
Rafy Feldman, 27, is a veteran of both the Turkish and Israeli armies. (courtesy)

Rafy Feldman is a veteran of two armies: After completing his six-month stint in the Turkish army, in 2011 he decided the time was ripe for him to make aliyah and immigrate to Israel, where he then served in the IDF.

In conversation with The Times of Israel this week, the 27-year-old, who today works in finance, said that while growing up in Istanbul, he felt that all the securities measures regularly taken by the insular Jewish community were “normal.”

The “normal” at his synagogue was a set of vault-like secure doors; at his Jewish school, he said, it entails walking through a series of doors — a three- to four-minute walk, until the main building is reached.

“Until I came here, I felt everything is fine for Jews in Turkey. People who grow up there think that this is how it’s supposed to be. Only after coming to Israel, I understood we were really actually living in a balloon,” he said.

“You don’t tell anyone that you’re Jewish. And of course, since you’re not telling anyone, you’re not having any problem [with anti-Semitism],” said Feldman. “There’s really like 20,000 Jews left in Turkey, out of 80 million people. They’re mostly going to the same places, have the same small friends’ group, doing things together, working or studying together. They’re generally not going out so much.”

‘You don’t tell anyone that you’re Jewish’

Feldman pinpoints a shift in the Turkish culture to about 10-15 years ago. Until then, he said, “it was much easier to express yourself, whoever you are. There was free speech in any subject.”

In the past decade, however, he said, Turkish society has “polarized into little ethnic groups that are more fanatic and radical in their ideologies — more extremist.”

Jews are unlikely to discuss the sensitive issues of anti-Semitism or anti-Israeli sentiment openly.

“Today, it’s hard to speak about these kind of things, because you don’t know what kind of ideology the other person belongs to. You don’t want to randomly speak with someone about a sensitive subject,” he said.

‘The Jewish community is not scared of living in Turkey’
Selin Nasi, 37, Turkey

Journalist Selin Nasi, 37, says the Jewish community is frustrated by attempts to label it as scared. (courtesy)
Journalist Selin Nasi, 37, says the Jewish community is frustrated by attempts to label it as scared. (courtesy)

Selin Nasi, 37, is a columnist for Şalom-Turkish, the Jewish community’s newspaper, and for Hurriyet Daily News, a mainstream English daily in Turkey. She was born Muslim, but has lived as a member of Istanbul’s Jewish community since her marriage in 2000, and, with her religiously observant husband, is raising her children as Jews.

“The Jewish community is not scared of living in Turkey,” Nasi told The Times of Israel. However, as Turkish citizens, Jews are concerned about recent political developments — “just like the rest of the society,” she said.

“On the night of the coup, it was very scary,” said Nasi, with jets flying low over the city and mass shootings in the streets. As the details of that horrific night and the plans to take over government institutions were revealed later on, said Nasi, “We realized the extent of immediate danger we faced with the coup attempt. What we went through was really inhumane and very cruel.”

Currently, Nasi said, “It is critical to see how the government handles the aftermath of the coup, and its process of cleansing the Gülenists out of government institutions. Turkish Jews share the concerns expressed in the foreign media of this process being turned into a witch hunt.”

Nasi emphasized the need for broader Turkish society to stop pointing fingers for the time being.

‘There has always been a deeply rooted anti-Semitism in Turkey’

Referring to Saturday’s suicide bombing at a wedding that killed some 50 guests, she said, “Turkey is living through difficult times, with terrorist attacks from [the Kurdish] PKK and ISIS… We need to stay united against terrorism, but this does not amount to giving a blank check to the government. Building on the consensus within the Turkish society against the coup attempt, there is a chance for inclusive, participatory politics.”

Nasi doesn’t whitewash society’s latent bias against Jews.

“There has always been a deeply rooted anti-Semitism in Turkey,” said Nasi. She said, however, that the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric has recently been considerably downplayed in the media owing to the current normalization process between the Turkish and Israeli governments.

“First the leaders lead the way and then the rest follow,” said Nasi. Whereas during the 2014 Gaza War the Turkish government was critical of Israel and sympathetic to anti-Israel protests, recently that hasn’t been the case, she said, although Israel’s strikes this week on Gaza have “provided an opportunity for those who are critical of the normalization agreement with Israel to attack the Turkish government.”

“The recent diplomatic spat indicates that the post-deal normalization process is still very fragile and that the Palestinian issue retains the potential to throw bilateral relations off kilter,” said Nasi.

‘Things change very quickly in Turkey’
‘Suzet,’ 29, Israel

Student “Suzet,” 29, immigrated to Israel in April 2014 and although her parents live in Israel, most of her friends and family are still in Turkey. For their protection, she asked to speak to The Times of Israel under a pseudonym.

She said that political instability in Turkey “has become so much a part a life” that she and her Turkish friends don’t speak much about it.

“From the outside it seems like the coup is the thing, but so much has been happening, it’s just one in many continuous things,” she said.

Regardless of the coup, her friends and family report becoming increasingly isolated and avoiding crowded public spaces such as malls.

“They’re trying to stay safe and meet indoors,” she said. “Islamist extremists have started attacking places where they serve alcohol.” While she doesn’t think their actions come directly from the government, “when these things happen they [the perpetrators] are not judged.”

She cites an incident that occurred during Ramadan on June 17, in which a Radiohead night at a record store that serves alcohol in Istanbul’s fashionable Taksim neighborhood was abruptly halted when a group of 20 Muslim extremists attacked the clients, breaking dozens of beer bottles. Wounds from shards sent patrons to local hospitals.

“I don’t think anything happens to those people who attack. Of course they get support from the government so they feel they’re on the right side,” she said. According to Hurriyet Daily News, three youth were detained after the incident but quickly released. The 300 demonstrators who protested the attack, however, were dispersed by Turkish police using water cannons and teargas.

“In the past, they [extremist youth] weren’t so courageous, but now, during the coup, they cut the head off a soldier,” she said. (Following the coup, pictures widely shared on social media of a soldier’s beheading were reported to actually date to a 2006 incident.)

‘Once there’s a war with Gaza, everything changes’

This climate of rising Islamist extremism, especially in education, affects everyone, not just the Jews, she said.

“Jewish youth is looking for a way out; but for those in their 50s and up, building up a life from scratch is difficult. Israel is an option, but surprisingly not the best option for Turkish Jewry,” she said.

Many Turkish Jews consider Israel unstable. Now that Spain and Portugal are offering citizenship to Sephardic Jews, most who are able opt to emigrate to the Iberian Peninsula — and garner a European Union passport.

Suzet emphasized that the reason Jewish youth is leaving is “not because of anti-Semitism.

“It is the situation in Turkey. We had anti-Semitism in the past, especially during the [2010] Mavi Marmara. Now we don’t hear anything anti-Semitic from the government, or in the newspapers.”

She paused and added, “But things change very quickly in Turkey.”

“Once there’s a war with Gaza, everything changes. One morning you wake up and they’re burning the Israeli flag. The spotlight is on the Jews and Jews are the problem,” she said.

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