Ostensibly, it was a merry event. A week before Passover, hundreds of Turkish Jews from Istanbul gathered in the western city of Edirne for the reopening of the Great Synagogue, which had closed its doors in 1969 and had remained a ruin since then, until it was recently restored.
In the days after the high-profile ceremony, the Great Synagogue would go back to its quieter days, as there are no longer Jews in Edirne, and only 17,000 in the whole of Turkey.
Turkey's notoriously anti-Semitic and Islamist government did its best to entertain the congregation by sending two bigwigs to the ceremony. One of them, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, made a speech that, otherwise, could have caused bursts of laughter at the synagogue. "Thank God," he said, "There is no anti-Semitism in Turkey." His next remarks showed even darker humor. He said: "There is no racism in Turkey; it has never found a base for its roots. When we look at Europe and other countries we see how far behind us they are, and we feel really sorry."
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc speaks at the reopening of the Great Synagogue Edirne, where he declared, "There is no anti-Semitism in Turkey." Many so wished to believe him.
The second official guest at the ceremony, Governor Dursun Sahin, is no stranger to readers of this journal. Last November, Sahin threatened to forbid post-restoration prayers at the Great Synagogue and turn it, instead, into a museum.
He said he would not allow prayers at the synagogue because Israeli security forces had attacked the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Then he admitted his "huge hatred:"
"While those bandits [Israeli security forces] blow winds of war inside al-Aqsa and slay Muslims, we build their synagogues. I say this with a huge hatred inside me. We clean their [Jewish] graveyards, send their projects to boards. But the synagogue here will be registered only as a museum, and there will be no exhibitions inside it."
Selin Nasi, a journalist from Salom, a Jewish newspaper in Istanbul, who covered the reopening, wrote that: "Unfortunately, Turkish Jews, who have been considered as having organic ties to Israel, are labeled as foreigners. Thus, they are subject to hate speech and threats almost on a daily basis whenever there is a crisis between Israel and Palestine ... The crowds that filled the synagogue genuinely wanted to believe in Arinc."
How could they? Only a few months ago, a schoolteacher was caught having hung a signpost at the gate of the Neve Salom synagogue in Istanbul that read: "Building to be destroyed." The man was not prosecuted.
So, there is no racism in Turkey. Nice. But Google will produce 12.2 million results if one types "Turkey" and "racism." Wikipedia has a rich text on "Racism in Turkey," with facts, figures and a couple of photos. One photo, for instance, shows the slogan "Long Live Racist Turkey" spray-painted by unidentified people on the walls of an Armenian church in Istanbul. Another reads, "You Are Either a Turk, or a Bastard," near the wall of another Armenian church in Istanbul. In February, banners "celebrating" the Armenian genocide were spotted in several cities throughout Turkey. They declared: "We celebrate the 100th anniversary of our country being cleansed of [Christian] Armenians. We are proud of our glorious ancestors."
A 2004 dispatch penned by an official from the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, leaked by WikiLeaks, observed that a campaign against a Turkish Armenian journalist (who would be murdered in 2007) "exposed an ugly streak of racism in Turkish society."
Just last August, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (then Prime Minister), in a televised interview on NTV news network, clearly remarked that being Armenian is "uglier" than even being Georgian. He said: "You wouldn't believe the things they have said about me. They have said I am Georgian... they have said even uglier things -- they have called me Armenian."
There is credible research, too. In 2011, the Pew Global Attitudes and Trends survey found that only 6% of Turks had a favorable opinion of Christians, and 4% of them had favorable opinion of Jews. A few years earlier, in 2006, the numbers had been 16% and 15%, respectively.
The Pew survey also found that 72% of Turks viewed Americans as hostile, and 70% of them viewed Europeans as hostile. When asked to name the world's most violent religion, 45% of Turks cited Christianity and 41% cited Judaism, with only 2% saying it was Islam. Not surprisingly, 65% of Turks said the Westerners were "immoral."
Deputy Prime Minister Arinc may enjoy his time in his make-believe world where "there is no racism" and "we are sorry for the Europeans." But facts are facts. And they often ridicule politicians who speak claptrap.
Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.