An ultranationalist-cum-Islamist group attacked Istanbul’s Neve Shalom Synagogue with stones and kicked its gates Thursday night. Attackers carried signs threatening to “besiege temples without warning one night” and vowed to “prevent worship” at the synagogue. Turkish authorities allowed the violent anti-Semitic protest, despite the government’s brutal crackdown even on peaceful demonstrations during the country’s ongoing state of emergency. The attack and the government’s failure to respond is yet another sign of the alarming rise in anti-Semitic incitement and hate crimes in Turkey, and the further erosion of religious freedoms under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
At the outset of the violent protest, the Foundation of the Chief Rabbinate of Turkey, which represents the country’s dwindling Jewish community, urged the authorities to take action. Government agencies, regrettably, added fuel to the fire. Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency and state-run television network, TRT, now run by a high school classmate of President Erdogan’s son, used photos of the Istanbul synagogue attack to promote the next day’s anti-Israel protests. Turkey’s Jewish community reacted by stating that the government media’s coverage amounted to “making Turkish Jews” a target. Both outlets later deleted the incendiary tweets and removed the photo from their reports. A Turkish columnist warned today that the ongoing incitement resembles the provocations that led to the Istanbul pogrom of 1955, where government-orchestrated attacks destroyed 73 churches and a synagogue.
The synagogue attack also led to an outburst of anti-Semitic hate speech and incitement online. A self-identified “Enemy of the Jews” account echoed Nazi propaganda in referring to Jews as “Untermenschen” and “dogs,” and vowed that Istanbul’s Jews will “suffer the pain” while also adding “You think you are untouchable. We will touch you.”
Alperen Ocaklari, the ultranationalist and Islamist youth group behind the synagogue attack, has a track record of incitement and violence. The group’s members threatened to “beat degenerates” in the run up to Istanbul’s gay pride parade in 2016. The Turkish government not only turned a blind eye to the group’s threats, but even appeased it by banning the parade out of “concern for public order.” The assailant who attacked Turkey’s main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu at the parliament in 2014 was reportedly also a member of the organization.
Alperen Ocaklari is affiliated with the ultranationalist and Islamist Great Unity Party (BBP), a splinter faction from Turkey’s ultranationalists in parliament. The BBP leader endorsed granting Erdogan enhanced powers via referendum this past April, sparking unrest within the party ranks. Since then, the BBP has grown closer to Erdogan, offering full backing to the Turkish president’s support to Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Qatar.
The Turkish government’s complicity in hate speech and incitement, and the country’s deeply ingrained culture of impunity, is alarming for the future of Turkey’s religious minorities. The Neve Shalom Synagogue already suffered two deadly terror attacks in 1986 and in 2003. Yesterday’s blatant incitement, on and off-line, makes Istanbul’s iconic synagogue and Turkish Jews both potential targets of a repeat attack.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.