During a parliamentary meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on July 24, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Israel the "most Zionist, fascist, and racist state in the world." Referring to the recent passage by Israel's Knesset of the "Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People," Erdogan attacked the Israeli government's view as "no different from Hitler's obsession with the Aryan race."
In fact, there is nothing "fascist" or "racist" in Israel's new law. On the contrary, as David Hazony noted in the Forward:
"This law has been in the works at least since the early 2000s, a time when two major forces arose that threatened the Zionist project as it was historically understood. The first was the rise of 'post-Zionism,' a small but passionate intellectual-political movement that explicitly repudiated the idea of a 'Jewish state' and sought to transform the country into a "state of all its citizens" by stripping it of any connection to Jewish history, peoplehood, or symbolism.
"The second, more important factor was the 'constitutional revolution' led by then-Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, which recognized earlier Basic Laws as having constitutional status, and which culminated in the passing of two new Basic Laws (Basic Law Human Dignity and Liberty, and Basic Law: Freedom of Employment) that established the core rights of Israeli citizens, Jewish or not.
"These basic laws were not at all a bad thing. The fact is, Israel is both a Jewish state and a liberal democracy, and basic freedoms must be protected for all."
Erdogan of all people should not be falsely accusing others of practices in which he has been engaging for years -- and which he has increased since the failed coup to oust him from power in July 2016. In fact, a mere few weeks ago, the Turkish government fired more than 18,000 civil servants over alleged ties to organizations that "act against national security."
According to Human Rights Watch's World Report 2018:
"...Under the state of emergency in place since July 2016 [the failed coup], ...[m]any decrees adopted contained measures that undermine human rights safeguards and conflict with Turkey's international human rights obligations.
"Public officials continued to be dismissed or suspended by decree without due process...Hundreds of media outlets, associations, foundations, private hospitals, and educational establishments that the government shut down by decree remained closed in 2017, their assets confiscated without compensation...
"People continued to be arrested and remanded to pretrial custody on terrorism charges...Those prosecuted include journalists, civil servants, teachers and politicians as well as police officers and military personnel...Prosecutions...often lacked compelling evidence of criminal activity...
"Turkey is the world leader in jailing journalists and media workers as they face criminal investigations and trials... Most newspapers and television channels lack independence and promote the government's political line...
"Authorities frequently imposed arbitrary bans on public assemblies and violently dispersed peaceful demonstrations...
"...over 500 lawyers have been jailed pending trial, and over 1,000 prosecuted...
"For a third year, the Istanbul governor's office banned the annual Istanbul Gay and Trans Pride marches..."
Turkey's treatment of minorities has been equally appalling. The recent launch of an "urban transformation" project in Istanbul illustrates one way in which the government actively dismisses both its Jewish and Christian histories.
According to the Turkish media, the Istanbul Municipality has declared the historic Kuzguncuk neighborhood and 16 others as "urban transformation" sites." Judging by previous such projects, which ended up reducing green areas and replacing historical homes with modern high-rise buildings, the same fate awaits Kuzguncuk. This quaint neighborhood was "once a mixed community of Greeks, Jews, and Armenians" with a minority of Muslims, according to the scholar Amy Mills, in her 2010 book, Streets of Memory: Landscape, Tolerance, and National Identity in Istanbul. As Mills writes: "In Kuzguncuk in 1914, there were 1,600 Armenians, 400 Jews, 70 Muslims, 250 Greeks, and 4 foreigners."
This all shifted dramatically starting in 1915, during to the 10-year genocide against Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians. Although approximately 3,000,000 Christians were slaughtered, the Turkish government continues to this day to deny that the genocide took place.
According to a resident historian of Kuzguncuk, Nedret Ebcim, in 1933, the neighborhood's population was still 90 percent non-Muslim.
"The majority [was] Jews, followed by Greeks, Turks, and Armenians... Kuzguncuk's residents who remember old times "describe a culture in which it was not uncommon for every resident to speak a little Ladino [Judeo-Spanish], Greek, Armenian or French.
"But today, Jewish and Christian families resident in Kuzguncuk number merely a handful. And most of them are married to Muslims... The churches and synagogues are maintained largely by people who live in other neighborhoods and return to Kuzguncuk to attend weekend services and maintain the buildings... The Armenian church has a very small congregation that comes from other areas of Istanbul, as there are almost no remaining Kuzguncuklu Armenians."
The same applies to the rest of Turkey, in which non-Muslim citizens remained targets of persecution even after the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. One form this took was the use of "ancestry codes" to register minorities in the Turkish Population Directorate – with the number 1 indicating Greeks, the number 2 indicating Armenians and the number 3 indicating Jews.
According to Mills:
"Since the beginning of the republic, Turkey's leaders wanted to increase the participation of Muslims in the economy and reduce minority influence in the economy, especially in Istanbul... During the teens and early 1920s, boycotts against non-Muslim businesses and the expulsion of minorities from hundreds of jobs where they had dominated resulted in thousands of non-Muslims leaving Istanbul. By 1929, 70,000 non-Muslim people had left Turkey.
"In 1922, the National Turkish Trade Association was founded to determine which businesses were Turkish. The association discovered that 97% of the import-export trade in Istanbul, and all shops, stores, restaurants, and entertainment centers in Beyoğlu, were owned by minorities. This survey was a precursor to actions taken with the aim of Turkifying the city's economy; in 1923, non-Muslims were expelled from trading jobs and insurance companies. In 1924 minorities were barred from service jobs, bars, restaurants, coffeehouses, as well as trades such as boat captain, fisherman, and streetcar driver, jobs previously dominated by non-Muslims. In 1934 a law identified further minority-dominated professions to be prohibited to foreigners.
"Turkification policies in the 1920s and 1930s in Istanbul targeted not only property and economic rights, but also non-Turkish language and culture."
In 1928, for example, a campaign to force minorities to speak Turkish was begun by a student association in Istanbul. The public use of languages other than Turkish was prohibited, and those who did not comply were threatened, beaten, arrested or fined.
In 1941, Armenian, Assyrian, Greek and Jewish males in Turkey were forced into labor camps -- under a policy referred to as the "conscription of the twenty classes" – were forced to work under terrible conditions to construct roads and airports. Some of them lost their lives to disease and other factors.
In 1942, the Turkish government enacted the Wealth Tax Law, as a way of removing Armenians, Greeks and Jews from Turkey's economy. Those who could not pay the tax were sent to labor camps or deported, or their properties were seized by the government. According to historian Corry Guttstadt:
"Many families were forced to sell their shops and businesses, their houses, even their carpets, furniture, and other household articles, to raise the tax money. Some people committed suicide in despair."
On September 6-7, 1955, the Christian Greeks of Istanbul became the target of a government-led pogrom, in which Armenians and Jews were also victimized. Turks attacked everything belonging to Greeks -- homes, businesses, churches, cemeteries and schools, among others. A British journalist reported that the Greek neighborhoods of Istanbul "looked like the bombed parts of London during the Second World War." The savagery of the mobs created such an atmosphere of fear that, following the pogrom, tens of thousands of Greeks left Turkey.
In this photo from September 1955, a mob of Turks in Istanbul is destroying stores owned by Greek Christians. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
In 1964, Greeks in Istanbul -- including the disabled, the elderly and the infirm -- became victims of a mass expulsion at the hands of the Turkish government. The deportees were given 12 hours to leave Turkey, and were only permitted to take 20 kilograms [44 lbs.] of possessions and the equivalent of $20 with them, leaving behind the rest of their property, much of which was then confiscated by the Turkish state and private citizens. In the aftermath of the deportation, many members of Greek Orthodox communities outside Istanbul also left the country, bringing the total to 45,000, according to researcher Salih Erturan.
According to a 1992 report by Helsinki Watch, even in 1991, the tiny Greek minority in Istanbul lacked freedom of expression, being continually censored by Turkish authorities. The two remaining Greek-language newspapers in the city were forced to submit five copies every day to the office of the governor, and were not allowed to criticize the Turkish government.
In 2008, an Armenian journalist wrote that many Armenians in Turkey used two different business cards -- one for their fellow Armenians and another, using a Turkish name, for Turks who might be hostile to Armenians. "Armenianness is visible only within the [Armenian] community; it is not visible in public sphere," she wrote. "Particularly 20 or 30 years ago, this 'invisible' Armenian phenomenon was even more widespread." Apparently, it was a safety precaution for many Armenians not to reveal their true identity in public.
The current population of the Armenian community in Turkey is about 60,000. There are fewer than 15,000 Jews and as few Assyrian Christians. According to a 2005 news report, there were only 1,244 Greeks left in Istanbul at that time. In addition, even those tiny minorities are reportedly leaving Turkey in increasing numbers, to escape the instability and aggression they suffer in the country.
Meanwhile, Turkey is ruled today by a jihad-supporting government that tries to crush whatever crumbs of freedom remain in the country. Many Muslim Turks who are on the receiving end of Erdogan's human-rights abuses seem shocked by the current undemocratic events in Turkey. They should not be; such abuses have been going on in the country for decades. The Turks are likely to continue living under the oppression that they themselves have created.
Erdogan's verbally violent reaction to Israel's nation-state law, then, is not only hypocritical, but utterly unwarranted. There is nothing in the legislation that is offensive to minorities, or as Jonathan Tobin writes in National Review:
"...there is nothing offensive unless you happen to think the Jews deserve to be denied basic rights of settlement, sovereignty, and self-defense in their own country — rights that no one would think of denying to anyone else. That is why such anti-Zionist bias is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism."
"... a closer look reveals nothing that would in any other context be controversial. Stating that Israel's national language is Hebrew while recognizing Arabic's special status is no more discriminatory than the priority given to Spanish throughout Spain."
Erdogan needs to be reminded that it is not Israel -- a vibrant and flourishing democracy with equal rights for all its citizens -- whose behavior is reminiscent of dark chapters in history. It is Turkey.
Uzay Bulut, a journalist from Turkey, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute. She is currently based in Washington D.C.