Turkish MP: Erdogan’s anti-Semitism difficult to reverse

Even under a new government, it would take ‘quite some time to mend intersocietal relations,’ lawmaker Aykan Erdemir warns

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Former Turkish MP Dr. Aykan Erdemir. (Erhan Cankurtaran)
Former Turkish MP Dr. Aykan Erdemir. (Erhan Cankurtaran)

The effects of the Turkish prime minister’s ongoing anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic agitation have permeated society there and will not be easily reversed, a Turkish member of parliament said this week, amid reports of an imminent deal between Ankara and Jerusalem that would end a four-year long diplomatic crisis between the two governments.

While Israel and Turkey could easily repair bilateral ties on a political level, hostility toward Jews — deliberately fomented by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s fiery rhetoric — is likely to persist, even if a different government takes power in Ankara, said Aykan Erdemir, a freshman lawmaker from the center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, Turkey’s largest opposition party.

Turkey was not perfect before Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP, took power in 2003, he allowed in an interview with The Times of Israel at the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. “But after 12 years of Erdogan rule, we are at a more dangerous place. The anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic feelings are deeper and stronger. And to be frank, even after Erdogan and AKP are gone, even if CHP comes to power, it will take us quite some time to mend intersocietal relations through dialogue, awareness raising, and sensitivity training.”

Turkish society is ambivalent about Israel and Jews, according to Erdemir, who insisted that “positive attitudes toward Jews can coexist alongside anti-Semitic feelings.”

“The problem,” he said, “cannot be reduced to negative feelings about interstate relations — it is deeper than that. Erdogan is a very skillful master who manipulates public sentiments and capitalizes on them. So in that respect, as long as Erdogan is in power there will always be the possibility of a new and prolonged crisis.”

Erdogan is “Janus-faced” in that he has two seemingly opposing approaches to relations with Israel, Erdemir continued. “He can be quite pragmatic toward Israel while also capitalizing on the existing anti-Israeli sentiment in Turkey,” he said. “We have to accept that some of that sentiment is not just anti-Israeli but anti-Semitic… He is not only capitalizing on the existing sentiments but he is in a way fueling some of that anti-Israel and anti-Semitic feeling. How? With his rhetoric, conspiracy theories, campaign slogans and actions.”

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of the parliament from his ruling AK Party during a meeting at parliament in Ankara on January 28, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/Adem Altan)
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of the parliament from his ruling AK Party during a meeting at parliament in Ankara on January 28, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/Adem Altan)

Erdemir, 39, was first elected to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, the country’s unicameral legislature, three years ago. Born in the Western Turkish city of Bursa, he studied in the United States, and after obtaining a doctorate in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University, he went into politics, where he mainly focuses on the rights of minorities. He is the only Turkish MP to attend the local Jewish community’s Holocaust Remembrance Day event; he has done so every year since his election.

Diplomatic relations between Ankara and Jerusalem could improve very quickly, but deep-seated animosity toward Jews is more problematic, Erdemir said. “At the policy level you can take concrete steps, you can initiate joint projects and increase volume of trade. But as an anthropologist who has researched prejudice, discrimination and hate crimes, I’m very concerned about the long-term repercussions of hate and prejudice.

“When you provoke prejudice and hatred, it’s not that easy to reverse it,” he posited. “It will take a lot of time and effort. Turkish society will have to live with these problems for years to come.”

Earlier this week, Haaretz reported that Israel is willing to pay $20 million in compensation to the Turkish families of those killed and wounded in an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla nearly four years ago. If Ankara accepts the offer, the deal would — at least officially — end a longstanding diplomatic crisis that led bilateral ties to the brink of collapse.

“Israel and Turkey are close to signing a reconciliation agreement, and it’s possible that ties between the two nations will improve in the next few days,” senior Israeli officials told the paper on Tuesday.

On May 31, 2010, pro-Palestinian activists and IDF troops clashed aboard the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara ship, resulting in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens. The so-called flotilla incident precipitated a dramatic deterioration in the already strained relations between Israel and Turkey. On March 22, 2012, at the personal behest of US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Erdogan, apologizing for “operational mistakes” made during the boarding of the ship, and pledging to compensate the families of those killed. In turn, Erdogan agreed to restore warm diplomatic ties with Israel.

So far, however, a genuine détente between the formerly close allies has remained elusive, partially because of Erdogan’s relentless accusations against Israel, anti-Semitic statements and alleged breaches of confidence. The Turkish prime minister has, for instance, accused Israel of engineering the military coup in Egypt, which saw his ally Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammad Morsi removed from power. He also blamed an “interest rate lobby” for the spread of the Gezi riots that rocked Turkey this summer, and described Zionism as a “crime against humanity” on par with anti-Semitism and fascism.

The government in Ankara is indeed involved in under-the-radar efforts to improve relations with Israel, Erdemir confirmed. “But my worry is that Erdogan’s approach is based on wrong premises. Erdogan’s core values vis-à-vis Jews and Israel prevent him from dealing with this issue in a tolerant, embracing and sustainable way.”

An authoritarian leader, Erdogan could alter his party’s position on Israel very easily. “He can change its political, economic and diplomatic course of action single-handedly. Can he do the same vis-à-vis the values, attitudes and stereotypes? I don’t want to call the damage irreversible, but we have to admit that it’s going to be difficult.”

Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wait for his arrival in Ankara, Turkey, on Sunday, June 9, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Vadim Ghirda)
Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wait for his arrival in Ankara, Turkey, on Sunday, June 9, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Vadim Ghirda)

Erdogan’s attitudes and political moves “cannot just be reduced to Sunni radicalism, although that’s a major component,” Erdemir said. “Some of it is neo-Ottomanism. He has visions of being a world leader, particularly influential in the former Ottoman territories.”

Even if a different party wins the next elections and changes the course of the current government, eradicating anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment will be a long-term process, he predicted. But diplomatic, military, cultural, educational and tourism ties “could be strengthened to a great extent.”

Erdemir is encouraged by CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who said during a recent visit to Washington that had his social democrats been in power, the flotilla incident would have never happened. A CHP-led government would not have allowed the Turkish Mavi Marmara to leave the port with fabricated and incomplete documentation, knowing what kind of provocation the trip entailed, Kılıçdaroğlu reportedly told Jewish American leaders.

“This, of course, is a bold and risky statement in contemporary Turkey,” Erdemir said. “But what makes me both proud and hopeful about my party’s leader is that he was willing to repeat this statement in different platforms, knowing full well the political risks involved. But it was morally the right thing to do.”

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