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Turkey’s Erdog(an: the insult and the fury

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses the U.N. General Assembly in September 2009. Credit: U.N. Photo/Marco Castro.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses the U.N. General Assembly in September 2009. Credit: U.N. Photo/Marco Castro.

By Ben Cohen/

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was at his repellent best when he was interviewed by Israeli television journalist Ilana Dayan this week.

Although the interview was pegged to the restoration of Turkish-Israeli bilateral ties this past summer, Erdoğan used the occasion to spit his usual invective against Israel and Jews more generally. Many of Erdoğan’s favorite topics—the supposed symbiosis between Nazi Germany and the Jewish state, Israel’s insulting intransigence in the face of his personal attempts to negotiate a solution to the Palestinian question, Israel’s alleged desire to change the religious status of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (known to Muslims as Al-Haram al-Sharif)—arose in the conversation, and he addressed them in the fanatical, embittered tone that has come to symbolize his ascendance as a Turkish dictator.

Like the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Erdoğan has developed a reputation for offensive quotes that shore up, at the same time, his aloofness from and contempt for the morals and values of the West. And as with Ahmadinejad, the Nazi Holocaust and its 6 million Jewish victims provide an ideal tool in this regard.

In the summer of 2014, when Israel went to war in Gaza to bring an end to the barrages of missiles and rockets that Hamas terrorists fired over the border, Erdoğan declared that the actions of the Israel Defense Forces constituted “barbarism that surpasses Hitler.” Ponder that for a moment: the president of a European Union (EU) candidate country and NATO member state sounding off like some anonymous lunatic on Twitter by leveling the ugliest insult imaginable against the state of Israel and the Jewish people.

That wasn’t the first time that Erdoğan gave voice to his deep-seated anti-Semitism. In 2009, appearing on a panel in Davos with the late Israeli President Shimon Peres, Erdoğan stormed off the stage screaming insults as he exited the room. “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” he told Peres. Even more bizarrely, Erdoğan cited Gilad Atzmon, a leading U.K.-based anti-Semite, saying that “Israeli barbarism is far beyond even ordinary cruelty.”

The Ilana Dayan interview, perhaps, was regarded as an opportunity for Erdoğan to make amends to both Israel and the Jewish people. But when asked about his notorious 2014 statement, Erdoğan simply reasserted the moral equivalency between Nazi Germany and Israel. “I don’t approve of what Hitler did, and neither do I approve of what Israel has done,” he growled. “When it’s a question of so many people dying, it’s inappropriate to ask who was the more barbarous.”

Yet again, this profoundly anti-Semitic insult, which places the Jewish state in the same soiled universe as the Nazis, has been spread around the public domain by one of the world’s most well-known heads of state. As tempting as it is to conclude that while political rhetoric is one thing, political action is another—an impression increasingly conveyed in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election—in Erdoğan’s case, such a distinction isn’t really possible.

That’s because Erdoğan really is a dictator. In the months that have passed since Turkey’s failed and rather murky coup attempt against Erdoğan this past July, more than 40,000 people have been arrested or detained, including many journalists and opposition politicians. The civil service and the higher education sector have been purged, and hundreds of independent NGOs, such as the Association of Lawyers for Freedom, have been “temporarily” shut down. The strategy here was captured well by Thor Halvorssen, the president of the Human Rights Foundation.

“Erdoğan has transformed Turkey from a democratic country to an authoritarian regime,” Halvorssen said. “He has done this by abusing the state of emergency powers he claimed after an attempted coup that, by the hour, looks more like a very convenient justification for the total dictatorial takeover of Turkey by his nationalist political party.”

Sure enough, Erdoğan has now laid out his plan to execute those ambitions. The president is now preparing a bill for a referendum on Turkey’s constitution. A “yes” vote in that referendum would mean the abolition of the prime minister’s office and the transformation of Erdoğan into an executive president empowered to stay in office until 2029.

The internal crackdown in Turkey is mirrored in Erdoğan’s aggressive strategy for Turkey’s “near abroad.” As Burak Bekdil of the Gatestone Institute think tank recently pointed out, Erdoğan is complaining aloud that Turkey lost the borders of the Ottoman Empire under duress in the years following World War I—during which the Ottoman rulers systematically exterminated more than 1.5 million Armenians. Turkey’s imposed borders, Erdoğan says, “are the greatest injustice…done to the country and the nation.”

At the same time, Turkey is pushing deeper into Syrian territory, using the offensive against Islamic State as a cover to defeat the Syrian Kurds, who have proved themselves to be the most reliable and courageous allies in the fight against Islamic State barbarism. Now the U.S. and its allies are holding off support for Turkey’s push on the town of Al-Bab, uncertain as to what exactly Erdoğan’s intentions are.

That is why clarifying America’s policy on Turkey is such an urgent task for the incoming American administration. Erdoğan has praised President-elect Donald Trump, projecting ever so slightly when he told Ilana Dayan, “A country without a strong leader will go down.” But that embrace has the potential to be poisonous. One can only hope Trump understands that a Turkish dictatorship closely aligned with Russia—Erdoğan has been talking about spurning Turkey’s EU membership bid in favor of the Moscow-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organization—is neither in America’s interests nor in the interests of regional U.S. allies, among them Israel and the Kurds.

That needs to start from the realization, as Ilana Dayan amply demonstrated during her interview, that Erdoğan is not going to change.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of“Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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