Why Turkey matters to American Jews
In the aftermath of the recently attempted coup in Turkey and the subsequent crackdown by President Erdogan and the ruling AK Party on enemies real and perceived, it’s worthwhile to ponder Turkish-Jewish relations.
Turkey, or more accurately, the Ottoman Empire that preceded it, played a significant, generally positive role in Jewish history. It was a refuge for Jews escaping Christian persecution in Spain and elsewhere, and a place of relative openness and opportunity for the Jews of the Balkans and Middle East.
The list of Sultans with a record of saving Jews and valuing Jewish subjects, from the 14th century to the collapse of the Empire, is impressive. David Ben Gurion, the preeminent Zionist leader in pre-state Israel and the country’s first prime minister, emigrated from Poland while the land was under Ottoman rule, learned Turkish fluently, and earned his law degree in Istanbul. Prior to the Ottoman defeat in World War One and the beginning of the British Mandate for Palestine, Ben Gurion and other Zionists pinned their hopes for a Jewish national home on Turkey. Thirty years later, in March 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel.
Indeed Israel and Turkey have much in common. The development of Zionism and the Hebrew language have parallels to Turkish nationalism and the development of modern Turkish; so, too, do both nations grapple with similar identity issues, including the relationship of religion and state and the status of minorities.
Against this historical background current events present challenges for America’s Jewish community. We have skin in the game for several reasons.
First, there is concern for Turkey’s remaining Jews. They have had a difficult relationship with Erdogan and other political Islamists. A consistent anti-Semite, Erdogan, while mayor of Istanbul, famously said, “Today, the image of the Jews is no different than that of the Nazis.” Especially during the past six years, he has fomented anti-Semitism both for domestic and regional political purposes.
Second, in a world and a Middle East ravaged by hatred, Jewish history teaches that we had best identify who are our friends and who are our adversaries, being sure to support the former. In that regard, Erdogan’s restoration of relations with Israel reflects realpolitik rather than his transformation from a Jew hater into a friend. The American Jewish community therefore should be wary of Erdogan’s cynical attempt to use Jews to garner U.S. support at the expense of those Muslims he regards as his enemies–people who in fact are our community’s closest friends within Islam.
I am referring to the Muslim spiritual leader, Fethullah Gulen, and the group, the Hizmet (service) movement, who profess deeply-held humanitarian values and actively work to build common ground with Jews. These are the same people who the Turkish government accuses of coup plotting, something that no impartial court will ever have an opportunity to disprove.
Meanwhile, as an American Jewish communal professional, my heart breaks when my Hizmet-affiliated friends come under wanton assault for reasons I suspect have everything to do with Erdogan’s lust for power. Even before the coup attempt, Gulen’s followers in Turkey have been subjected to persecution precisely because they reject the xenophobic, triumphalist, authoritarian and anti-democratic worldview and aspirations of Erdogan and his Hamas-infatuated cronies. Erdogan has declared Gulen and his followers to be enemy number one primarily because their brand of Muslim values, including acceptance of the other, are at odds with his own. In short, nothing threatens Erdogan’s regime of fear as much as Gulen’s preaching of love.
In Chicago, on a communal organizational level, we have had agreements and also disagreements with Gulen’s followers, represented here by the Niagara Foundation. Through it all I have come to know them as honest people of faith, who embody the adage, “Be the change you want to see.”
In this era of cruelty and despair, Erdogan and his ilk put that change further out of reach, making reconciliation with the very Muslims who desire it, harder to achieve. Understandably, the Turkish people have determined that no good will come from coups d’états. Neither will any good come from the repression of people who consider everyone—including Jews—as fellow human beings created equally in the image of God.
Insh’Allah—God willing—Turks and Jews will find a way through this morass. Meanwhile, let us not betray those Turkish and American Muslims whose values align most closely with our own.