WASHINGTON — While members of Congress urged President Bush last week to hold Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “responsible for the increase of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism in Turkey,” the Anti-Defamation League gave the Turkish leader its Courage To Care Award, in honor of his nation’s rescue of Jews during World War II.
The apparent contradiction highlights the complexity of relations between America and Turkey, between Israel and Turkey, and between Jewish organizations and Turkey under the rule of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party.
The 10 members of the House of Representatives, led by Democrat Steven Rothman of New Jersey, wrote a letter to the president on the eve of his June 8 White House meeting with Erdogan, pointing out expressions of antisemitism in the Turkish press and calling on Bush to insist that the Turkish leader denounce antisemitism and fight it.
The lawmakers, mostly Democrats from New York and New Jersey — four of them Jewish — cited recent reports by the Middle Eastern Media Research Institute, which has been monitoring the Turkish media for the past six months. The reports — three published in the past two months — are filled with examples of blatant antisemitic expressions in the Turkish press. They also detail expressions of outrage, also in the Turkish press, at the antisemitic vitriol in Turkey’s public arena.
Most of the antisemitic expressions appeared in small, nationalistic or Islamist newspapers. Most of the criticism of antisemitic utterances appeared in widely circulated mainstream newspapers.
Erdogan, who last month visited Israel for the first time since his victory in the November 2002 elections, has been outspoken in his criticism of antisemitic and anti-American expressions in Turkey’s public arena. Last week, as he accepted the ADL award, Erdogan stated: “Antisemitism has no place in Turkey. It is alien to our culture.”
“It is the task of leaders around the world to join me in condemning the spread of hatred, whether through publications or otherwise,” Erdogan told the ADL. “Our consistent policy towards antisemitic diatribes can be nothing short of zero tolerance.” Erdogan also affirmed his nation’s commitment to maintaining strong ties with America and Israel. He said that while few Jews still live in Turkey, “They are cherished and prized elements of the Turkish society.” Leaders of Turkey’s Jewish community attended the ceremony.
The New York Sun, a conservative daily, delicately took issue with the ADL’s honoring of Erdogan, commenting in an editorial last Wednesday: “Whatever strategy the ADL pursues to encourage Mr. Erdogan to do the right thing, the American government will need to keep a careful eye on the dramatic resurgence of anti-Semitism within his borders.”
The ADL’s communications director, Myrna Shinbaum, said, “We don’t see a problem here.” The ADL, she said, was not honoring Erdogan personally but acknowledging what Turkish diplomats did to save Jews in World War II.
Florida Democrat Rep. Robert Wexler, who heads the Turkey caucus in the House of Representatives, said that he saw no reason to doubt Erdogan’s sincerity. “I have gotten to know Prime Minister Erdogan quite well,” Wexler told the Forward. “I have visited Turkey at least six times and spent a fair amount of time with him both in Ankara and in Washington. There is just no doubt in my mind that it’s not fair to use the term antisemitism in any context in reference to Prime Minister Erdogan.”
Turkey’s relations with the United States and with Israel were particularly bumpy in recent months. Tension in relations with Israel is attributable mainly to the way that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is portrayed in the Turkish media, said Soner Cagaptay, an Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Reports of Israel’s alleged assistance to Iraqi Kurds have strained relations further, Cagaptay said. Turkey’s relations with the United States have worsened as a result of the war in Iraq, he said.
However, Turkey’s relations with both Israel and America have improved significantly in recent months.