Recent anti-Semitic incidents in Türkiye have outraged the public. The first incident occurred during a high school football game between Ulus Jewish High School and Üsküdar American High School.
Ulus Jewish High School is the oldest and only school of the Turkish Jewish Community. The Turkish Jewish Community and Üsküdar American High School both confirmed the sad rumour that players from Üsküdar American High School gave the “Nazi salute” when they scored goals in the football game in question. While the administration of Üsküdar American Academy issued a public statement of apology, they also announced that the school had withdrawn from the Friendship Football League tournament, that the necessary investigation had been initiated, and that sanctions had been imposed in accordance with the Ministry of National Education’s disciplinary regulations. In addition to stating that they adhere to a zero-tolerance policy regarding anti-Semitism, the high school administration scheduled a visit to Ulus Jewish Private High School with the principal, instructors, and a student delegation to apologise.
More cases emerged
While discussions regarding this case continued, the news website Avlaremoz published an even more shocking story. According to a citizen who reached Avlaremoz newspaper, during a trip to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum last year, seventh-grade students from Tarhan College posed for a souvenir photo while giving the Nazi salute on the stairs at the museum’s entrance. The management of Tarhan College said that the teachers in the photo stated that they were unaware of the situation and that they had been warned. One-on-one interviews were conducted with all students and their parents. The pupils, on the other hand, claimed to be unaware of the meaning of their actions and to be grieved by the incident.
Following these developments, photos of a person carrying a Nazi-inspired flag with the inscription “Kurden Nationalist” on a black background giving a Nazi salute during the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)-led Nowruz celebrations in Diyarbakır in 2023 were revealed on the internet. It is also reported that this group assaulted supporters of the Workers’ Party of Türkiye (TIP) at the rally area, and tore up LGBT-themed flags.
While these three incidents involving youths from diverse social and economic backgrounds raise concerns about hate crimes, the first question that comes to mind is the origins of anti-Semitism in Türkiye. These incidents in Türkiye may be viewed as a reflection of the worldwide increase in anti-Semitic hate incidents. However, unlike in Europe, anti-Semitism in Türkiye is relatively new. It is, in some ways, an imported poison.
Jews in Türkiye between 1452 and 1934
At the invitation of Sultan Bayezid II, many Sephardic Jews immigrated to Ottoman lands following the unification of Castile and Aragon and the Spanish Catholic Monarchy’s Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) against the Jews. This exile in 1492 was the final link in the chain of anti-Jewish animosity. The Ottoman Navy, which opened up access to the Mediterranean, brought thousands of Sephardic Jews to Ottoman territory, freeing them from persecution in Spain. Sephardic Jews, who had settled in numerous Turkish cities, especially Thessaloniki and Izmir, began a peaceful life in this region. They have made significant contributions to the culture, art, and architecture of the city in which they reside.
Jews, one of the greatest allies of Ottoman and Turkish identities, suffered the same devastation as their allies upon the disintegration of the empire. The Balkan Wars and the First World War had a profound impact on Turks and Jews. After all the difficult times, they joyfully welcomed Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s new Turkish Republic.
With the adoption of the Turkish Constitution of 1924, they were accorded full equality before the law.
The early years of the Turkish Republic
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s young Turkish Republic became a safe haven for Ashkenazi Jews as well as Sephardic Jews fleeing Europe’s rising tide of anti-Semitism and racism. The rise of the Nazis to power in Germany in 1933 and the acceleration of reforms in the Republic of Türkiye in areas such as education, culture, and health occurred at the same time.
As the Nazis gained power, people saw the first of the crimes against humanity that would eventually lead to the Holocaust. Jews were expelled from universities and public institutions in Nazi Germany due to racism and discrimination, as a result of the anti-Semitic wave that swept the country. During this time, many Jewish academics who had fled to Switzerland from Germany formed a small association to support one another. Professor Albert Malche, who was appointed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1932 to head the university reform in Türkiye, informed the Turkish authorities about the association and the work of the Jewish academics who are members of the association.
During the initial phase, thirty Jewish academics were hired by Turkish universities. Between 1933 and 1939, approximately 600 Jews, including academics, artists, civil servants, and private sector workers, who were persecuted by the Nazis settled in Türkiye at Ankara’s invitation. The Jews who settled in the young Turkish Republic made significant contributions to every area of Atatürk’s reforms, including education, health, and universities.
1934 Thrace pogroms
Despite all of these positive developments, the first alarm bells were rung in 1934 for actions aimed at undermining the historical Turkish-Jewish friendship.
Between June 21 and July 4, the Jewish population in Edirne, Çanakkale, Tekirdağ, and Kırklareli was subjected to widespread violence and looting. The security forces were insufficient to prevent the incidents. The 1934 Thrace Pogrom, also known as the “Thrace events,” should be regarded as the first incident in which an attempt was made to import anti-Semitism into Türkiye and among the Turkish people.
Two authors played a role in provoking events. Cevat Rifat Atilhan was the first of these names. As revealed in “Musa’nın Evlatları Cumhuriyet’in Yurttaşları (Sons of Moses, Citizens of the Republic)” by the historian and author Rifat N. Bali,* who has written extensively on the history of the Turkish Jewish Community, Atilhan, the owner and editor-in-chief of the “Milli Inkilap” (National Revolution) magazine, regularly published anti-Semitic and racist articles. The other name was Nihal Atsız, who published the magazine “Orhun” and was to be tried (along with the young officer Alparslan Türkeş and his friends) in the Turanism Case opened in 1944, when it was clear that the Nazis would lose the war, and who would face the wrath of the İsmet İnönü government for the foreign policy developments. At that time, Atsız was a teacher in Edirne, and his articles on anti-Semitism were published in the local “Paşaeli” newspaper and the National Turkish Students’ Union’s “Birlik” magazine.
As a result of the Thrace pogrom, also known as “Furtuna,” it is estimated that between 13,000 and 15,000 Jews left Thrace, with some also leaving Türkiye.
Atilhan, his anti-Semitism and Nazi connections
Cevat Rifat Atilhan’s journey to Germany in 1933, just one year prior to the Thrace Pogrom, is quite remarkable.As pointed out by the historian and author Rifat N. Bali in his book titled “Yaşam Öyküsü, Yayımları ve Düşünce Dünyası ile Cevat Rıfat Atilhan (Cevat Rıfat Atilhan with His Life Story, Publications and World of Thought)“**, Atilhan was a guest of Julius Streicher, one of the most prominent Nazi demagogues and the owner and publisher of the virulently anti-Semitic newspaper, “Der Stürmer”. During these years, Streicher sought out various partners to create a new international wave of anti-Semitism. One of them was Atilhan, whom he invited from Türkiye. Streicher would become a multi-millionaire when “Der Stürmer” became one of the central elements of Nazi propaganda.
According to information found in the same book of Bali***, Atilhan’s commercial disputes with the Jewish businessman Albert Saltiel in the late 1920s and his subsequent bankruptcy transformed his animosity towards Jews into a de facto conflict. It is believed that his obsessive anti-Semitism is a result of past commercial failures similar to these. After meeting with Streicher and bringing various anti-Semitic German publications to Türkiye, Atilhan’s anti-Semitism intensified to such a degree that he became known as the “Hitler of the Middle East.”
From past to today
With the publications he brought from Nazi Germany, it is believed that Atilhan deeply involved in anti-Semitic propaganda. Thrace Pogrom taught the Turkish government a hard lesson, so they banned Atilhan’s book “Judaism and Freemasonry in World Perspective,” which came out in 1936, and the “Needle-studded Barrel” leaflet, which came out as pamphlets in 1937.
Anti-Semitism increased in Türkiye during the implementation of the Wealth Tax in 1942, while the Second World War was in progress. It was not only Jews who were targeted, but all religious minorities, though Jews were primarily targeted in public.
Here, mention must be made of the “needle-studded barrel”. According to one of the oldest anti-Semitic fabrications of mediaeval and Renaissance Europe, where anti-Semitism was intensified, Jewish rabbis kidnapped Christian children and threw them into barrels filled with needles, then drank their blood from a tap at the bottom of the barrel. Nazis purposefully recirculated this hateful fabrication. In his leaflet, Atilhan also denied the oppression, persecution, and slaughter in the Nazi concentration camps. According to him, these were just Jewish myths.
It is worth noting that the “barrel with needle-studded” hoax is still being promoted by some political Islamist publications in Türkiye today. Since the 1950s, Atilhan’s anti-Semitism propaganda publications have had an impact on Turkish politics, particularly among political Islamists.
Education: an important tool to prevent anti-Semitism and racism
We must unite against anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred, which are increasing unconsciously among our youth. The curriculum of Türkiye’s secondary and high schools should be structured so that students learn about the suffering caused by Nazi ideology and the Holocaust.
The darkness created by anti-Semitism should be made known to young people. Young people who are unaware of the 1993 deaths of five Turks in Solingen, due to the arson of neo-Nazis should be educated about the filthy beliefs of the Nazis. We cannot allow this imported poison of hatred to affect our Turkish youth.
*On July 17, 2023, the text was modified in response to a legal notice from Rıfat N. Bali’s agents, who informed YetkinReport of intentional or accidental plagiarism and requested the inclusion of Mr. Bali’s related study in the lines that were highlighted.
**On July 17, 2023, the text was modified in response to a legal notice from Rıfat N. Bali’s agents, who informed YetkinReport of intentional or accidental plagiarism and requested the inclusion of Mr. Bali’s related study in the lines that were highlighted.
****On July 17, 2023, the text was modified in response to a legal notice from Rıfat N. Bali’s agents, who informed the YetkinReport of intentional or accidental plagiarism and requested the inclusion of Mr. Bali’s related study in the lines that were highlighted.
**** YetkinReport hereby acknowledges editorial mistake and appologises for any inconveniences occured as a result.