- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2005

ISTANBUL — The hidden face of Turkish anti-Semitism — all in a name.

In New York recently to accept an award on behalf of Turkish diplomats who saved Jews from the Holocaust, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described anti-Semitism as “a crime against humanity.”

“We will persist in our struggle against it,” he told his audience at the Anti-Defamation League.

Judging by recent accusations leveled at his foreign minister, Mr. Erdogan has his work cut out for him.

Born into the provincial lower middle-class, a senior figure of Turkey’s Islamist movement, Abdullah Gul, seems an unlikely target for anti-Semites.

That hasn’t stopped one prolific and popular author from claiming that the foreign minister and his family could be hidden Jews. The evidence? Yalcin Kucuk explains in his latest book that the final part of Mr. Gul’s wife’s name “means ‘bud’ in Hebrew.”

The reasoning may be laughable, but Mr. Gul wasn’t laughing. “The allegations are lies,” he wrote in an open letter to Mr. Kucuk. “I would have expected you, as an intellectual, to have approached such sensitive matters in a more serious manner.”

To many, it seemed an excessive reaction, but Mr. Gul is just the latest public figure to be tarred by a conspiracy theory that dates to the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

At its heart is the belief that the replacement of the Ottoman caliphate with a secular Turkish republic was the work of a secretive Jewish sect, the Sabbateans.

“No Turk, not even an atheist Turk, would have done so much harm to Turkey,” claims Mehmet Sevket-Eygi, columnist for the Islamist daily Milli Gazete. The Sabbateans, he believes, continue to have “a monopoly over Turkish society.”

Rifat Bali, author of several iconoclastic books on Turkey’s Jewish minority, sums it up bluntly: “The controversy boils down to the Islamists’ belief that Ataturk himself was a Sabbatean.” Gen. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a World War I Turkish military hero, founded the Turkish Republic and was its first president.

Sabbateanism dates from 1665, when Rabbi Shabbetai Zvi proclaimed himself the Messiah. Forced by the sultan to choose between conversion to Islam or death, he chose Islam. After his death, a community of his followers flourished in Salonica, once in the Ottoman Empire, now Greek. Muslims in appearance, they secretly practiced an unconventional version of Judaism.

Anti-Semitism and anti-Sabbateanism have long existed in Turkey, despite official denials. In their outspoken form, they used to be largely the preserve of religious hard-liners, but now they appear to be spreading.

Mr. Kucuk, the author, is an ex-communist turned leftist nationalist. Journalist Soner Yalcin, whose version of the Sabbatean conspiracy theory has sold 120,000 copies since publication late last year, is a pillar of the establishment.

Mr. Bali, the author of books about Judaism, thinks the transformation is mercenary: “Conspiracy theories have become a disease in Turkey since the second Gulf war,” he said. “If you write about Sabbateans, you’re sure of a market.”

Others see a connection between the Sabbatean fad and Turkey’s European Union accession process.

At first glance, said political scientist Ihsan Dagi, nobody could be further apart than Turkey’s radical Islamist minority and its arch-secular pro-state elite. By playing on nationalist obsession with foreign interference and old-fashioned anti-Semitism, Sabbatean myths offer both groups “an ideal propaganda weapon in their war to keep Turkey away from the West.”

“Being branded a Jew is a serious stigma in Turkey,” Mr. Dagi said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Yalcin Kucuk was trying to undermine Abdullah Gul’s credibility in the eyes of his conservative support base.”

Judging by media reactions, it is Mr. Kucuk, not Mr. Gul, who has suffered most from the exchange.

Writing in the centrist daily Milliyet, Taha Akyol compared Mr. Kucuk’s book to “the ravings of a madman.”

“The worst conspiracy against Turkey,” he wrote, “is the poisoning of its people with suspicions of treachery.”

Hurriyet chief editor Ertugrul Ozkok, probably Turkey’s most influential journalist, also waded into the fray with an article titled “Yes, I’m a Sabbatean.”

“The truth is that we live in a country where such idiocies make best-sellers,” he lamented.

Mr. Bali, for one, is not convinced by this explanation.

“The Dogan media group [which owns the newspapers Hurriyet and Milliyet] should be given an Oscar for doublespeak,” he said, noting that Mr. Yalcin is a Dogan employee and that his book was brought out by a Dogan-owned publishing company.

In his column, Mr. Ozkok suggested that rather than responding to accusations of his Jewishness, Mr. Gul would have done best to laugh them off.

Nonsense, replied Mr. Bali: “Gul should have added that the claims made were the same as those of the Nazis in the 1930s.”

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