Less than a month before Hamas launched the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust, Israeli customs authorities discovered 16 tons of explosive material hidden in a shipment of construction supplies. Its origin was not Iran, but Turkey. This was no surprise. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may still be the world’s top Hamas supporter, but for almost two decades, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been a close second.
The irony is that many of the same mainstream Jewish leaders who hold Khamenei in contempt have long since embraced Erdoğan.
Prior to Erdoğan’s rise to power, former Reagan administration official Richard Perle introduced him around Washington. He described Erdoğan as the future of Turkey and a man who could merge Islam and democracy. Jewish leaders flocked to meet Erdoğan, even though just a few years before, he had described himself as a “servant of the sharia” and the “Imam of Istanbul.”
After Erdoğan’s rise to power, Jewish community leaders flocked to embrace him, dismissing ample warnings of his antisemitism. For example, Erdoğan believed in conspiracy theories about Jewish cabals that mirrored The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I experienced this firsthand in 2005 when, soon after leaving the Pentagon, I angered Erdoğan by exposing his secret Saudi-Qatari slush fund. Rather than ask diplomats to protest, Erdoğan asked Turkish Jews to intercede. His underlying assumption was that Jews around the world act in concert.
Turkey’s Islamist press, meanwhile, publishes blood libels and antisemitic conspiracy theories. A subsidized translation of Mein Kampf became a best-seller in Turkey. (Erdoğan aide Murat Mercan, today Turkey’s envoy and lead on outreach to American Jews, excused it.) Erdoğan also ranted against Jewish finance. Long before “Jewish space lasers” became a byword for antisemitic derangement, an Erdoğan aide accused Israel of seeking to kill the Turkish leader by telekinesis.
Any subtlety on Erdoğan’s part disappeared in 2006 when Hamas won the Palestinian elections. The West sought a united front: There could be no legitimization of Hamas until it foreswore terrorism and its genocidal covenant. Three weeks later, Erdoğan welcomed Hamas’s most militant leader to Ankara with red carpet treatment. What drove Erdoğan’s embrace of the group was less the Palestinian cause and more its Islamism. Arab states recoiled when Hamas killed hundreds of Palestinian rivals and seized autocratic control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, but Erdoğan supported the coup.
Turkey’s embrace of Hamas only increased in subsequent years. In 2009, Erdoğan berated Israeli President Shimon Peres over counterterrorism efforts in Gaza. “When it comes to killing you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you killed children on the beaches,” Erdoğan told a shocked audience at Davos. Soon after, Turkey sponsored the ill-fated Mavi Marmara flotilla that challenged Israel’s lawful blockade of Hamas. Today, Erdoğan calls Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “the butcher of Gaza,” denies Hamas atrocities and hails the terror group as liberators.
Many leaders of major American Jewish organizations have condemned Erdoğan’s recent outrages, but they fail to mention how long they covered for him. They repeatedly flocked to meet him on the sidelines of the United Nations and in Ankara. Either naïve or arrogant, they saw his outreach as sincere and believed in their powers of persuasion. Engagement has a cost, however. Erdoğan was not seeking their input but using them as a fig leaf to avoid accountability for his actions.
Erdoğan did not invent such tactics. In the 1980s, Iraqi Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon feted Jewish leaders in an attempt to convince Washington that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a moderate. Hamdoon approached Jewish leaders for the same reason Erdoğan did: He believed they held the keys to power.
There are two differences, however. First, while Hamdoon fooled Jewish leaders once, with Erdoğan these leaders were like Charlie Brown with the football. Second, the cost of Hamdoon’s deception was SCUD missiles fired on Israel that killed two people. Erdoğan’s deception empowered a terror group that killed more Jews by several orders of magnitude.
Rather than rush to Erdoğan’s side, Jewish leaders should instead have lobbied for Turkey to be designated a state sponsor of terrorism and demanded Magnitsky Act sanctions on Erdoğan himself. It is impossible to ignore the magnitude of their error. Judgment matters. Denouncing Erdoğan now is not enough. Those who made themselves Erdoğan’s useful idiots should resign.