The collapse in June 1997 of the coalition government led by modern Turkey's first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, together with the constitutional ban on his party, Refah Partisi (RP, Welfare Party), which came into force in February 1998, heralded a significant improvement in the situation of the Jewish community. In contrast to the RP, whose leaders and publications were sometimes responsible for encouraging antisemitic sentiment, the new Islamist opposition party, Fazilet, seeks to make a clear distinction between antisemitism and criticism of Israeli policy.

Demographic data

Total population: 64 million

Jewish population: 25,000 (mostly in Istanbul)

Other minorities: the largest ethnic majority are the estimated 8 million Kurds

Other religious minorities: non-Muslims (one per cent of the population) include primarily Greek Orthodox adherents, and also Armenian Christians, Roman Catholics and Assyrian Christians

Political data

Political system: presidential parliamentary democracy

Government: Following the collapse in June 1997 of the coalition government of the Refah Partisi (RP, Welfare Party) and the Dogru Yol Partisi (DYP, True Path Party) (see Parties, organizations, movements) - led by Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, the first Islamist prime minister in the republic's history - a new minority coalition government led by Mesut Yilmaz was formed, headed by the centre-right Anavatan Partisi (ANAP, Motherland Party) and including the Demokratik Sol Partisi (DSP, Democratic Left Party) and the new Demokratik Turkiye Partisi (DTP, Democratic Turkey Party).

Economic data

GDP per capita 1995: US$2,780

Inflation 1997: 90 per cent

Unemployment 1997: 15 per cent

The ancestors of the present-day Jewish community came to the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, although there were Jewish settlements in various parts of Anatolia under Roman and Byzantine rule. In the seventeenth century, followers of the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi converted with him to Islam but retained a secret or passive Jewish identity. Members of this community, known as the Domme, still exist in Turkey.

Jews enjoyed relatively comfortable conditions under the Ottoman administration. Police intervened to quell outbreaks of violence against Jews, in Smyrna (Izmir) in 1872 and Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1874, when Greeks and Armenians accused Jews of kidnapping Christian children at Easter.

In 1872 a synagogue on the island of Marmara was destroyed. At this time Jews became victims of blood-libel accusations. Nevertheless, Ottoman sultans always issued decrees condemning such accusations. In one reported case in Constantinople in 1870 Jewish merchants were forced to open their sacks to prove that they did not contain Christian children.

After the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923, the constitution provided for equal rights for Jews and other religious minorities. There has been little antisemitism since then, except during the Second World War, when neutral Turkey imposed some discriminatory measures, such as a welfare tax, on the non-Muslim minorities, including the Jewish community. During the war Turkey also served as a corridor of safe passage for many Jews fleeing Nazism.

Since the 1960s antisemitic articles have appeared in the Turkish press, particularly in Islamist publications. In September 1986, twenty-two Jews in Istanbul were killed when the Palestinian Abu Nidal terrorist group attacked the Neve Shalom synagogue. In March 1992 Neve Shalom was the target of another attack when terrorists linked to the Turkish Hizbullah group threw two grenades at the synagogue, injuring a Jewish passer-by.

The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne recognizes the status of three religious minorities: Armenian Christians, Jews and Greek Orthodox. Official attitudes towards the Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches are influenced by Turkey's relations with Greece and Armenia.

There are an estimated 12 million Muslim Alawis in Turkey. Some allege informal discrimination in official teachings of Islam and complain of a Sunni Muslim bias in the ministry of religious affairs, which classifies the Alawis as a cultural, rather than religious, group.

Turks of Kurdish origin are mostly well integrated into political and economic life. The government's campaign against the Partia Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK, Kurdistan Workers' Party) - a separatist organization that aims to establish an independent Kurdish state in the south-east of the country, where a state of emergency has existed since 1987 - has, however, influenced the treatment of the general Kurdish community, which is not officially recognized as a minority. Armed confrontation continues between Turkish security forces and the PKK, and the 'Kurdish problem' continues to present a major challenge to the government and determines much of its foreign policy.

Mainstream political life

In June 1997, following the collapse of its coalition with the DYP led by Tansu Çiller, the Islamist RP lost its majority in the 550-seat national assembly, and Necmettin Erbakan, the first Islamist prime minister in the republic's history, resigned (see also General background). The government had come under increasing pressure from the military and other opposition elements over its perceived reluctance to restrict the trend towards radical Islamist policies.

In January 1998 the constitutional court banned the RP, stripping Erbakan and five other RP deputies of their parliamentary seats on the grounds that the party had violated the secular principles of the constitution. Erbakan was prohibited from further political activity, but other leading Islamists, including Recai Kutan, formed a new party, Fazilet (Virtue), which emerged as the largest group in the national assembly.

Islamist groupings

The Islamist organization Bilim Arastirma Vakfi (Foundation for Scientific Research), led by Adnan Oktar (better known as Adnan Hodja), draws support from educated and wealthy young people but, unlike the RP, most of its followers do not adopt Muslim dress or regularly attend mosque.

Oktar is responsible for virulent attacks on Jews and Freemasons. Two antisemitic books are distributed by the foundation: 'Holocaust Lie - The Inside Story of the Secret History of the Zionist-Nazi Co-operation and the Lie about Jewish Genocide' (originally published in 1995, see also Holocaust denial) and 'New Masonic Order'. It also publishes the bulletin Siyasi Cizgi (Political Line), launched in 1994, which is mailed to thousands of prominent Turks. In 1997 the foundation published the book 'Israel's Kurdish Card', which claims that Israel supports Kurdish terrorists.

Sevki Yilmaz, a former RP parliamentarian, has expressed antisemitic views several times in the past, although other RP leaders have always attempted to distance the party from such statements. In May 1997, for example, Yilmaz alleged that Cem Boyner, a prominent Muslim businessman, was the descendant of a Jewish convert. Similarly, he reportedly claimed that the former prime minister, Tansu Çiller, was of Jewish parentage.

In June 1997 the RP mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made antisemitic statements during a meeting organized by the municipality to celebrate the city's conquest by the Ottoman Turks. Praising the tolerance shown by the Ottomans towards the Jews, he said: 'The Jews started to oppress the Muslims of Palestine in the name of political Judaism which is called Zionism. Today the image of the Jew is no different from that of the Nazis.' In September 1998 Erdogan was stripped of his position and banned from all political activity after an appeal court upheld a sentence of eight months' imprisonment passed by a court in Istanbul for publicly inciting opposition to the secular constitution.

Controversy over the book 'Holocaust Lie - The Inside Story of the Secret History of the Zionist-Nazi Co-operation and the Lie about Jewish Genocide' continues to attract media attention. In March 1996 Bedri Baykam, a prominent painter and intellectual, published a critique of the book in the Ankara daily Siyah Beyaz (Black and White). Baykam was subsequently sued for slander by Nuri Özbudak, who claims to have written the book under the pseudonym of Harun Yahya. At the trial Baykam exposed the real author as Adnan Oktar (i.e. Adnan Hodja), leader of the Islamist group Bilim Arastirma Vakfi (see Parties, organnizations, movements). In March 1997, however, Özbudak withdrew the case.

The Turkish translation of Les Mythes fondateurs de la politique israélienne (Founding Myths of Israeli Politics) by the French Holocaust-denier Roger Garaudy (see France), published in Istanbul in 1996, continues to circulate. In May 1997 the ultra-nationalist Ankara weekly Turkeli included a page of 'arguments' in favour of Holocaust denial. Another Islamist magazine, Tarih ve Medeniyet (History and Civilization), published a five-page article in May 1997 entitled 'The myth of the Jewish massacre: a lie designed to exploit the feelings of humanity'. In June 1998 the most militant Islamist daily Akit (see Publications and media) distributed a 98-page supplement entitled 'The Holocaust Lie'.

Several militant Islamist organizations are actively engaged in violence against secular Turks and the police. The most prominent is the Islami Bükük Doyou Akincilar Cephesi (IBDA-C, Great Eastern Islamic Raiders Front). Other underground groups include the Turkish branch of Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad and the Islami Kurtulus Orgutu (Islamic Salvation Organization). In Istanbul and Ankara these groups have recently organized demonstrations after prayers on Fridays at which they burn Israeli and US flags, and distribute anti-Israeli and sometimes antisemitic material.

The most typically antisemitic newspapers are the RP's semi-official daily organ, Milli Gazete (National Gazette, circulation 150,000), and militant Islamist papers such as Akit (Covenant, circulation 70,000), Yeni Safak (New Dawn), Selam and Siyah Bayrak (Black Banner). But the leading Islamist daily Zaman (circulation 350,000), which has been known to publish antisemitic comments in the past, has shown a shift towards moderation. In 1997 it carried sympathetic reports about the Jewish community, including articles about the visit of American Jewish organizations to Turkey. Zaman is published by the religious movement of Fetullah Gulen (see Countering antisemitism), which has initiated dialogue between religious groupings in Turkey.

In spite of limited reforms to address continued human rights violations, the government has recently eased restrictions on private broadcast media allowing reports about, for example, the high number of journalists arrested or imprisoned and the treatment of Kurdish activists in the south-east.

In June 1997 Ahmet Burak was deported from Pakistan to Turkey where he was arrested for his role in the attempted 1993 murder of a leading Jewish businessman, Jack Kamhi. The trial, which is being held in the state security court, is in progress.

Frequent co-operation between US Jewish organizations and Turkish government officials, both in Ankara and in Washington DC, appears to have had a positive effect in countering antisemitism. Leading Turkish journalists have also welcomed the links between Turkish officials and international Jewish organizations, stressing that Turkey has traditionally denounced antisemitism.

At the beginning of 1997 Turkish historians, political commentators and journalists condemned, on its forty-fifth anniversary, the introduction of the discriminatory wealth tax levied on religious minorities between 1942 and 1944. (The tax was deliberately kept high and Jewish and other minority business-owners unable to pay were sent to labour camps.)

The moderate Islamic order Nurcu, led by the former Iman Fetullah Gulen (popularly known as Fethullah Hodja), initiated a campaign in 1997 to improve inter-faith relations. The order sponsors some 200 Turkish schools in forty-five countries and 125 schools in Turkey. It runs an organization called Gazeteciler ve Yazarlar Vakfi (Journalists' and Writers' Foundation), which holds inter-faith seminars and supports the daily newspaper Zaman (see Publications and media), as well as various television channels and radio stations throughout Turkey. At the beginning of 1997 Gulen held several meetings in the USA with leaders of US Jewish religious and lay organizations. In Turkey he established contacts with the chief rabbinate and communal leaders, and made numerous public statements, at rallies and on television, advocating tolerance among religions. Jewish communal representatives and intellectuals have attended conferences and seminars organized by Gulen's movement.

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Institute for Jewish Policy Research

© JPR 1999