Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Erdogan and Davos

Howard Eissenstat writes:

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's outburst at The World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, in which he called Israeli President Shimon Peres a baby killer and much besides before stomping off the stage in a huff has served as a sort of Rorschach inkblot test for many observers, with supporters of Israel being roundly critical of the Turkish Prime Minister and critics of Israel being broadly supportive of his actions.

Perhaps more interesting has been the various ways in which Erdogan's Davos theatrics have served as a prism for understanding both transformations in Turkey under the AKP and their repercussions for both Turkish Jewry and for Turkey's relations with Israel.

The first thing to note regarding Erdogan's outburst is that it is very much in keeping with his public persona. Erdogan's famous temper is both a remarkable tool for cowing political opponents and journalists and a fundamental aspect of his charisma, which borrows much from his urban, working class roots. Regardless of whether his outburst was planned or not, it played extremely well in Turkey, where support for Palestinian rights runs across the political spectrum and where public outrage at the violence in Gaza was universal. A public defense of both Palestinian rights and Turkish honor could only serve Erdogan well in the upcoming local elections on March 29.

Many observers have seen in the Davos spat, signs of a larger shift in Turkish – Israeli relations and, indeed, continued public sniping in the wake of the Davos conference points to outstanding tensions. Nonetheless, it needs to be underlined that the Turkish – Israeli alliance is, from the Turkish perspective at least, very much a marriage of convenience and not of love. Thus it has been since its inception and thus it will be for the foreseeable future. It is, however, also true that successive Turkish governments have had to negotiate this relationship under greater public scrutiny. While there was always a certain sympathy for the Palestinian cause, Turkish public interest and concern for the issue of Palestinian rights has grown dramatically since the first Intifada. It was after all, the intensely secular Bulent Ecevit (then Prime Minister) who, in 2002, described Israeli actions in Jenin as "a genocide." While it is certainly true that Islamists have tried to make political hay out of the Israeli – Turkish alliance, they have done so precisely because the alliance is unpopular. That being said, the marriage has proven remarkably durable and the AKP has, for all of its efforts to expand relations with its Arab neighbors and Iran, not taken any significant steps to diminish its economic and security ties with Israel. Under the AKP, trade and tourism have both increased and Turkish – Israeli military relations remain, despite recent grousing over Gaza, remarkably strong. If the AKP has been publicly critical of Israel, it has been so without taking any concrete actions to change the status quo. And in this, at least, it is maintaining a longstanding aspect of Turkish – Israeli relations.

For some observers, the AKP's increased ties with Iran and its Arab neighbors are part of a zero-sum game that means Turkey's alliance with Israel is crumbling and, more broadly, that it is pulling away from its western allies. There is, I think, something particularly weird and perhaps a little disingenuous about this portrayal, which attempts to frame the AKP as "anti-Western" in character. The AKP has shown a remarkable willingness to overturn long-held foreign policy taboos and has gone further than any previous Turkish government in addressing the outstanding problems of Cyprus and relations with the Republic of Armenia. For all the many failings of its political liberalization efforts, the AKP has moved further towards meeting EU criteria than any previous government and has done so under withering criticism from both the political opposition and the Turkish military. To be sure, the AKP has also been aggressive in building its ties with the wider Middle East and taken an increasingly active role in the region. For some this, in and of itself, is suspect. But if the AKP has been aggressive in reaching out to its neighbors, it is also continuing a process that began more than a decade ago and, from my perspective, stems from the collapse of the Cold War system in the Middle East. I have seen many op-eds arguing that this is "scary." I do not believe I have yet to read one that has argued it is disadvantageous to Turkey's security or economic interests.

Finally, I think it worth while to consider the question of what Erdogan's outburst at Davos says about anti-Semitism in Turkey. A number of writers have argued that the AKP has nurtured anti-Semitism in Turkey. While Erdogan has made public statements against anti-Semitism in the past, calling it a "crime against humanity," his own words at Davos, in which he quoted the sixth commandment and Gilad Atzmon (identified, not as an Israeli, but as "a Jew"), demonstrate a not particularly unusual conflation of Jewish and Israeli identity. If this conflation is hardly limited to anti-Semites, it is also one that gives the Jewish community of Turkey little reason for comfort. There is no question that the recent crisis in Gaza has left Turkey's twenty-thousand or so Jewish citizens feeling even more targeted than normal.

That being said, the trope of "Turkish tolerance" is more myth than historical reality and the question of anti-Semitism is not limited to the religious right. Research by Corry Guttstadt has largely deflated the image of Turkey protecting European Jews during the Holocaust, while work by Rifat Bali and others have shown the extent to which Jews were actively pushed out of public life. European anti-Semitism was already part and parcel of Turkish nationalism at the founding of the Republic and – more importantly - was woven into the fabric of a nationalism that defined Muslim identity as a prerequisite to membership in the nation even as it rejected outward religiosity. In this sense, the key issue for Turkey domestically is less anti-Semitism per se, than a general sense that non-Muslims are "native foreigners."

This has, I think, become more pronounced in recent years but the blame lies as much with militant secularists as it does with Islamists. Militant Kemalists, particularly, have used denial of the Armenian genocide as a means of demonstrating that they are better defenders of the national honor than the AKP. Accusations that political opponents are "secret Jews or Armenians," long a staple of the Islamist fringe are now used against AKP politicians as well. Observers who point to a growing culture of intolerance in Turkey are certainly correct. Suggesting that this is simply the outcome of a secret Islamist agenda on the part of the AKP is, however, deeply misleading.

Howard Eissenstat is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandies University.





14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's outburst at The World Economic Forum meeting in Davos You make it sound that Erdogan was behaving like a spoiled child. Well I think this article is not worth the space it is being shown!

Anonymous said...

What a trashy trashing of Turkish values, an astonishingly stupid and arrogant essay justifying the Israeli massacre in Gaza at every turn and ridiculing Turkish decency and concern.

Shameful but no surprise.

Anonymous said...

"Finally, I think it worth while to consider the question of what Erdogan's outburst at Davos says about anti-Semitism in Turkey."

This is the way in which Israeli bullying works, moral concern about the destruction of Gaza and massacre of a people becomes a question of whether anti-Semitism is the issue. No, the issue is the immoral Israeli war on Gaza.

Anonymous said...

"That being said, the trope of 'Turkish tolerance' is more myth than historical reality...."

What arrogance and cultural hatred, here is what shameful prejudice is all about. Shameful, but the writer is obviously beyond all shame.

All this for justifying the terrifying savaging of a people by an Israeli government beyond morality.

Anonymous said...

As soon as I read the part fretting about the situation of the "Jews of Turkey" I immediately looked at the name of the author.

Yep. Jewish.

Of course Erdogan was right in referring to "Jews" rather than "Israelis." It would be wrong to blame, for example, Israeli Arabs for the Gaza massacres. On the other hand, Jews elsewhere overwhelmingly support the Jewish state, even when they disagree with its policies.

Jews suffer (or rather, benefit) from a kind of moral blindness which relativizes the suffering of others in such a way that Jewish suffering is seen as far more significant.

Here's my Middle East peace plan: let the Jews divide Israel / Palestine in any way they want.

Then let the Palestinians pick which half they want. (Note that the two population groups are more or less similar in size.)

Isn't it shameful that such a fair solution is so obviously unrealistic?

Anonymous said...

It's sad to think such a misinformed view of Turkish and Israeli society is being propped by a U.S. institute of higher education. He deserves neither the postdoc or the this venue to spew such spurious racial and cultural ideas. Obviously this person, whoever he is, does not know the first thing about Turkish society or Middle Eastern politics for that matter. Mr. Cole, allowing such blatant and biased dissimulation to be posted on your site, which honorably stands for fairness, equality, and social justice, is disappointing. He is a charlatan at best, whose knowledge of the region is apparently commensurate with the crony appointees we so often witnessed in the last administration.

lostdoggie said...

How typical! A Jew criticizing enemies of Israel and ignoring the Jewish guilt. Even more importantly, he widens the discussion to criticize the Turks - by quoting 2 Jewish studies. Oy veh!

Anonymous said...

"The first thing to note regarding Erdogan's outburst is that it is very much in keeping with his public persona. Erdogan's famous temper is both a remarkable tool for cowing political opponents and journalists and a fundamental aspect of his charisma, which borrows much from his urban, working class roots."

What offensive pretentious rubbish. Line on line is crude but typical propaganda. The writer's roots are far clearer and assuredly meaner than the roots so easily stereotyped. The writer's roots are in crafting apologetic propaganda. The transparency is offensive but laughably crude.

dailysketch said...

Reads like an Israeli Ministry of Information statement.

Anonymous said...

This article says: 'European anti-Semitism was already part and parcel of Turkish nationalism at the founding of the Republic and – more importantly - was woven into the fabric of a nationalism that defined Muslim identity as a prerequisite to membership in the nation even as it rejected outward religiosity. In this sense, the key issue for Turkey domestically is less anti-Semitism per se, than a general sense that non-Muslims are "native foreigners.'

This is simply not true. I wonder why you are spreading such lies. European anti-semitism have never reached Turkey in founding of the Republic as you falsely claimed. Turkish nationalism has nothing to do with anti-semitism. The founder of Turkey, Ataturk, himself invited Jewish academics who were persecuted in Germany to Turkey. During the WWII Turkish diplomats risked their own lives to save Jews from France, Greece and Germany. Turkish Jews have always respected Ataturk dearly, even called him 'our father'.

Finally and very importantly, Turkish nationalism have never defined Muslim identity as a prerequisite to membership to the nation. This is lie. Republic of Turkey defines anyone as a Turk who has citizenhip bond with Turkey no matter what religion, ethnicity, language they come from.

It looks like your article and intentions don't deserve the institution you are currently working. I suggest you to read Avigdor Levy from Brandeis, and Stanford Shaw on Turkey, Ottomans and Turkish Jews.

Once again, why are you writing such lies? What's your intention?

Andras said...

"Anonymous" has an awful lot to say. But I think he protests too much. To take just one example -- the one "Anonymous" calls the most important:

While Muslim identity as a prerequisite to membership of the nation is not explicitly stated as such in Turkey's Republican-era constitutions, such an equation exists both in the public's perception and in official practices. Throughout the Turkish Republic's 86-year history, official identity cards have specified the card-holder's religion -- for Muslims, the official term used until recently was "Türk-Müslüman". That equation, and what it implies (i.e. that non-Muslims are not part of the Turkish nation), has also been reflected in discriminatory state policies.

Among these was the shameful 'capital tax' (varlik vergisi) of the 1940s, when non-Muslim citizens were taxed at a rate several times that of Muslim citizens; those who could not pay the extortionate tax were sent to do brutal forced labor in Anatolia, from where many did not return. That discriminatory tax is now history (though still a 'sensitive' subject). But other invidious distinctions have endured -- a non-Muslim Turkish citizen can be drafted into the army, can even serve as a reserve officer (yedek subay), but cannot become part of the elite Turkish officer class. A non-Muslim can become a lawyer, but cannot in practice hope for appointment as a judge. And one could go on with other examples.

Admittedly, Turkey's record in this regard is far from being the worst in the region (neighboring countries, such as Greece and Bulgaria, have done worse). But Turkey's record is far from exemplary, and it's pointless to deny that fact.

At the same time, while Prime Minister Erdogan's outburst at Davos may have been undiplomatic, it would be wrong to characterize it as anti-Semitic. Israel's actions in Gaza have been widely condemned in many countries and by independent human rights organizations. The charge that criticism of the acts of Israel's government is in itself prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism is a canard that is often used to silence critiques of the Jewish state, no matter how well justified such criticism may be.

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