“Minorities don’t want tolerance — minorities need to be equal citizens.”

“Minorities don’t want tolerance — minorities need to be equal citizens.”
Update: 29 July 2022 22:02
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Culture of “impunity” fosters anti-Semitism and attacks on minorities in various forms
Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir is currently the Coordinator of the Anti-Defamation League’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities, co-chair of the Middle East Working Group of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, and a Non-Resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. In this episode of Turkey Uncut, she sits down with Jared Conrad-Bradshaw to discuss anti-Semitism in Turkey.

This week there was an attack on the Jewish cemetery in the Haskoy neighborhood of Istanbul where 81 gravestones were knocked over.

Can you tell us what we know so far about this incident?

All we know are the reports we’ve received through the media and some information that’s come from the Jewish community in Turkey. The reports say that there 36 tombstones knocked over and 81 that were significantly damaged and vandalized. As for perpetrators, we are told that it was a bunch of kids between the ages of 11 and 13 who followed their ball into the graveyard and decided to knock these stones down as part of their play. This is a horrific event and it should not be covered over by children’s play.

While we do not fully know these children’s motivations, how do you think it fits into the larger picture of anti-Semitic and anti-Christian events in Turkey? 

If you look at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reports over the last five years, there have been significant instances of attacks on non-Muslim cemeteries, both Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Jewish, and sometimes non-Sunni such as Alevi cemeteries. There have also been attacks on churches and places of worship. So these attacks, although they seem random, they take place in context in which such events can take place over and over again.

One of the reasons why this might take place is there is a culture of impunity.

In 2014, the Anti-Defamation League did a global survey of anti-Semitic attitudes by country. According to this ADL Global 100 survey, which has been updated in some countries since 2014, Turkey had a higher anti-Semitism index than any country in Europe but a lower anti-Semitism index than in any other country in the Middle East. I know this asking a lot, but can you put Turkish anti-Semitism in the context of its neighbors? Is there a distinctive character to anti-Semitism in Turkey compared to its neighbors?

ADL’s global survey is very important and gives us milestones that will let us measure change. Let me talk a little bit about anti-Semitism in the Middle East. We sometimes use the word “competitive anti-Semitism” even. Think about Iran, where the government’s stance itself is anti-Semitic. The government hosts cartoon exhibitions that attack the state of Israel and Jews. Iraq is very much in Iran’s sphere of influence. The new anti-normalization bill that passed last month makes it so any Iraqi citizen that has contact with an Israeli citizen, or has anything to do with Israel, can face serious charges.  

That sort of state-level anti-Semitism is very different from what we see in Turkey. After the Haskoy incident, several Turkish authorities condemned the incident, which is really great. But at the same time, let’s think about other instances. For instance, last year, when Turkish President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan when he was giving a speech said, “This is in the nature of the Jews… they drink blood.” This horrible sentiment comes from the very top of the Turkish state. In another incident in 2014, when he was slapping a Turkish citizen, he yelled at them saying, “You are the spawn of Israel.” Think about this, even though Turkey is totally different from the case in Iran, and in many ways there are positive developments, too, but if you are hearing these statements from the top of the hierarchy — and these are not just random things, other people in the Turkish hierarchy, elected officials, repeatedly say similar things — that creates a very precarious environment for Jewish people living in Turkey.

The day after the incident in Haskoy, the Turkish humor magazine Misvak, which is an Islamist cartoon journal, in commemoration of the July 15th, 2016, failed coup attempt, had a very strange cartoon on their cover. In the background, you see a TV screen showing the events of July 15th, and you see two hands holding two glasses with red liquid in it, eating a big in front of a menorah. The red liquid in the glass makes a reference to what Erdogan said, “This is in the nature of Jews, they drink blood,” making clear reference to the faith with a menorah, showing Jews as the force behind the coup d’état. This is a horrible, horrible way of showing Jews. This is directly creating an environment of hate towards Jews. These are some of things that are very dangerous, and very ingrained in Turkish society that we need to be more careful about. For example, I wish the Turkish authorities had come out and said something about that cover. This is an invitation to a hate crime towards the Jewish community.

What can the Turkish government do to protect minorities in general?

First and foremost, equality in front of the law. Minorities demand to be equal citizens. The way the system is set up at the moment is, if you behave well, the government can offer you help.

There are positive things. Over the last few years, we’ve seen public Hanukkah celebrations in Ortakoy — done by the local municipality.

Done by the local municipality but with the help and effort of the authorities. This makes a clear statement that “these people are our people”. This is a key point in building a pluralistic society.

The academic Alfred Stepan argued that one of the signs of a tolerant society is that minorities have public holidays celebrated.

I don’t like to use the word “tolerance.” Minorities don’t want tolerance — minorities need to be equal citizens. Tolerance connotes a hierarchy where minorities are given things; it’s not that they deserve things.

The other thing that needs to be implemented is the culture of impunity for attacks on minority sites needs to stop. In most of the cases that we look at — graffiti on church walls, there was a case, I think in Corlu, where the gate of the Jewish cemetery was stolen, random cases like these — in most of these, the perpetrators are never caught. In the cases in which they are caught, in a large number of them, the perpetrator is found to be “mentally unstable”. Okay, mentally unstable people do exist, but there is a systematic undermining of these crimes, and the perpetrators never get the punishment that they should be getting as required by Turkish law.

Some Jews I’ve talked in Turkey say that there’s been an increase in anti-Semitism, particularly since the 2008 and 2014 Israeli military conflicts in Gazza. Others say there’s no real change and the level of anti-Semitism that we currently see today is the level that it’s always been. Which do you think is a more accurate representation?

I think they’re both accurate representations, just different perspectives. If you look at the long perspective, there’s a deep and long story of discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes, government attacks even, on minorities. We cannot omit that trend.

But there’s also been a significant uptick over the last decade in terms of how these incidents take place, and how people’s sentiments towards them are changing. Over the last decade, for instance. Over the last decade, we’ve seen what’s been called a great “exodus” of minorities from Turkey. That gives us a sense that there is something that is wrong. That people are not feeling safe in the country at this moment in time.

As far as thinking about both of these, I think they’re both accurate, and they’re both still on-going.

Some of the most famous anti-Semitic attacks in Turkey didn’t specifically target Jews. The 1943 “Wealth Tax” and the 1955 Istanbul Pogrom, for example, were examples of larger anti-religious minority sentiment that also targeted Greeks and Armenians. Now it seems there’s a lot more antipathy specifically directed against Jews. If you go to synagogue, there are always security precautions that churches, for example, don’t take.

If we’re thinking about the different levels of security, we also need to think that over the last two decades there have been not one but two significant terrorist bombings on synagogues that contributed significantly to establishing the need for a safer space for Jews to practice their faith. To go into a synagogue, you need to go through a metal detector, you need to go through a double door security system. One of the saddest moments I had in a synagogue is when I realized under each seat there was a construction hard hat, a helmet. If you ask our Jewish friends, they’ll say, “Oh, Istanbul is on an earthquake zone,” but you know exactly what it is: if the next bombing happens, we’re going to be prepared. Every Jewish person in Turkey, each time they step into a synagogue, they feel that. This is inequality in the strongest way.

Thank you so much for your time.

Thank you so much. This was a pleasure.

The video contains the full interview, uncut.


*Jared Conrad-Bradshaw is a writer based in Istanbul. His writing has appeared in the New York Times among other venues.