Pressure on Islamic extremists and the political difficulties of the
Refah (Welfare) Party may have been among the main reasons for the sharp
decline in anti-Semitic activities in 1997. Before being forced to resign by
the secular military, the coalition government led by Refah included
anti-Semitism as part of its rhetoric.
THE JEWISH COMMUNITY
Some 20,000 Jews live in Turkey out of a total population of over 60 million.
The great majority of Jews live in Istanbul, but there are also communities in
Izmir and several other cities, including Ankara. More than 95 percent of the
Jews are Sephardim.
The Jewish community is represented to the state through its chief rabbinate,
which is headed by the Haham Bashi. There are about 30 synagogues in Turkey,
more than half of them in Istanbul, and Jewish schools operate in Istanbul and
Izmir. The community publishes a weekly newspaper in Turkish and Ladino called
Shalom and a monthly journal, Tiryaki.
ISLAMIC EXTREMISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM
In recent years the powerful Islamic Refah (Welfare) Party has been the main
source of anti-Semitism in Turkey. Its main spokesmen, including former Prime
Minister Necmittin Erbakan, combine an extreme anti-Israeli attitude with
anti-Semitic expressions. The party maintains links with Iran and Libya and
with fundamentalist groups such as the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Even when
Refah was the main coalition component of the government, it did not tone down
its anti-Semitic rhetoric. As a result, in February 1997, eight Jewish
demonstrators gathered at the Turkish embassy in Washington to protest
anti-Semitic statements made by senior Turkish officials and the media,
especially an anti-Semitic article which appeared in the Milli Gazete, the
semi-official voice of the Refah Party. Discussing the "nature of the Jew," the
article said a snake was created to express its poison, just as a Jew was
created to make mischief." The statements were not repudiated by Erbakan's
government (see also ASW 1996/7).
In 1997, under pressure from the staunchly secular military, which was
determined to prevent Islamic cultural changes in Turkish society, the
coalition led by the Refah Party was forced to resign. Soon after, the
prosecutor of the Constitutional Court ordered the dissolution of the party,
whose anti-secular activities were contrary to Turkey's secular constitution.
It should be noted that one of the incidents which prompted the military, and
later the Constitutional Court, to act was a performance called "Jerusalem
Night" staged in the town of Sincan, near Ankara, in early February. During
this event the Iranian ambassador took the floor and called for the liberation
of Jerusalem. The Islamic government was succeeded by a secular coalition of
center-right and left-wing parties, led by Mesut Yilmaz.
RESPONSES TO ANTI-SEMITISM
The pressure on Islamic extremists and the political difficulties of Refah may
have been among the main reasons for the sharp decline in anti-Semitic
activities in 1997. This decline was manifested in much less anti-Semitism in
the Islamic media and in public speeches. The mainstream media published many
articles denouncing anti-Semitism and supporting growing Turkish-Israeli
cooperation in economic and military areas. At the end of 1997 Prime Minister
Yilmaz received the Distinguished Statesman Award from the Anti-Defamation
League. On that occasion he declared: "Today in Turkey, the Jewish community
continues to prosper. They are fully integrated into our national life. Vibrant
and proud, they make our nation stronger."
Another positive development was the failure of the anti-Semitic publisher
Adnan Okar in a lawsuit regarding his Holocaust denial publications. In 1996,
Okar had sued a prominent Turkish painter and writer, Bedri Baykam, for
criticizing and defaming Okar's book The Holocaust Lie (see previous reports).
In March 1997 following several court sessions, the plaintiffs withdrew their
case when they realized that the verdict might turn against them.
Despite this more positive atmosphere, the strengthened relations between
Turkey and Israel led to major protests by Islamic circles, especially after
Friday afternoon prayers when Israeli flags were routinely burned. Since in
Turkey anti-Israel feeling and anti-Semitism are frequently combined,
intensified anti-Israel protests on the part of these elements may lead to an
increase in anti-Semitism.