Can Turkey Pledge Zero Tolerance For Antisemitism?

In my previous blog post I explained the need to invest in more robust public diplomacy efforts between Israel and Turkey in order to build and maintain a long-term relationship.  However, grassroots engagement is not enough to narrow the trust deficit. There needs to be concrete steps taken by Turkey in addressing antisemitic behaviors to demonstrate that it has genuine intentions in re-establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.

Rapprochement between Israel-Turkey will not be an easy task as years of demonization of Israel and conspiracy theories about Jews have taken root in Turkey. In fact, Kadir Has University annual foreign policy surveys over the years indicate that Israel, along with Armenia and Greece are Turkey’s greatest perceived threats. For that reason, aspirations to renew ties should be reflected in actions which in turn will help reshape societal public opinion.

Reconciliation efforts between Israel and Turkey must include a number of strategies to fight anti-Semitism on various fronts including media monitoring on antisemitism, eliminating hate speech from everyday politics and curbing Turkey’s operational support of Hamas. The plight of the Palestinians, in particular the victimization rhetoric about Gaza, is employed in everyday Turkish political discourse to rally around the flag and position Turkey as the leader of the Muslim world. First and foremost, Turkey needs to stop fraternizing with Hamas and boot Hamas officials from Turkey. While distancing itself from a terrorist organization that openly advocates for the elimination of Jews, Turkey can still assert itself as a valuable actor in the region by providing sincere developmental assistance to Palestinian people     .

Second, Turkey needs a change in official discourse to foster a new era of relations between Israel and Turkey. To be sure, Israel’s actions are not immune to criticism. However, when state officials label Israel as a terrorist state and equate the Holocaust with Israel’s operations in Gaza, this discourse becomes a dog whistle demonizing Israel. Singling out Israel gives a boost to anti-Semitic sentiments that frequent the news and exacerbates conspiracy theories that revolve around Israel and Jews.

Third, editorial policies of both state and independent news outlets need a major transformation to not only reflect a new era, but also to foster a broader change in the disposition of Turkish society towards Israel and  Jews. Turkish public broadcaster TRTs English channel TRT World and public news agency Anadolu Agency often demonize Israel and provide one-sided coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. News coverage and social media posts have to change significantly to provide unbiased reporting while refraining from agitating the public. This also means investing in world-class reporters who will be able to cover issues on the ground without reducing the conflict to one about defending Islam. Further, a number of Turkish television series such as Kurtlar Vadisi, Payitaht Abdülhamid and recently the spy thriller Teşkilat, all portray violent Jewish and Israeli characters that reinforce stereotypes. Such depictions not only incite prejudice but also fuel animosity. The recent publication of an anti-Semitic conspiratorial opinion piece on pro-government Daily Sabah in the midst of reconciliation talks undeniably creates mistrust in Israel and contradicts the official efforts to re-build diplomatic relations. The anti-Semitic discourse by the political elite, and by extension demonization of Israel in the mass media, results in normalization of hate speech in Turkey.

Fourth, Holocaust education is an important part of understanding and communicating with Israel, understanding patterns of hatred as well as bridging the education gap with the rest of the Western World. Partly due to the lack of comprehensive Holocaust education in Turkey, the term “holocaust” is liberally applied to many crimes against humanity and is often misrepresented. Cohen Yanarocak’s recent report for the IMPACT-SE’s on Turkish textbooks indicate that while in 2019 Holocaust has been briefly mentioned for the first time the same textbooks have been weaponized to demonize Israel. The lack of studying history from a critical lens thus hampers Turks’ all-around comprehension of World War II and the repercussions of Turkey’s neutrality at the time. A thorough examination of the Holocaust and the socio-political processes leading to it should be taught in Turkish classrooms. Public commemoration of the Holocaust should also take place to educate Turkish society about this horrific event in world history.

Antisemitism in Turkey will certainly not be easy to overcome and requires an all-encompassing strategy that may take decades. This cannot be achieved only by encouraging statements from state officials, but actions that denounce hate crimes and a total change in state and public behavior. If Turkey wants to demonstrate its goodwill in its normalization efforts with Israel, it should penalize all forms of hate speech including antisemitism, create a task-force to combat antisemitism and establish commissions to revisit history education. Zero tolerance for antisemitism is the only way Turkey can sustain longer-term relations with Israel. Turkey’s investment in eliminating antisemitism will benefit both countries and the broader region which is undergoing major changes together with the singing of the Abraham Accords. As the first majority Muslim nation that recognized Israel’s independence Turkey is in the position to step up and lead the fight against hatred.

About the Author
Senem B. Çevik, Ph.D, is a communication scholar specializing in public diplomacy. She taught international studies courses at UC, Irvine and UCLA. Her research focuses on the intersection of identity, communication and psychology with an emphasis on Turkey and the Middle East. She is a member of the International Dialogue Initiative (IDI), Turkey-Israel Civil Society Forum (TICSF) and American Jewish Committee (AJC) Abraham Society MJAC. Dr. Cevik is currently continuing her research at UCI CEM.
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