Turkey says ‘never again’ for Holocaust victims

Jan. 27 is designated by the United Nations as International Holocaust Remembrance Day and coincides with the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by Soviet troops during World War II.

The day was marked in Ankara last week with a ceremony attended by EU Minister Volkan Bozkır, members of Turkey’s Jewish community and foreign diplomats.

It was the second time such a ceremony has been held in the capital with high-level official representation.

In contrast to then-Parliamentary Speaker Cemil Çicek’s remarks last year which emphasized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this year’s focus was on forging a struggle against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia altogether, which the government considers as equal threats to peaceful coexistence and multiculturalism.

In his speech, Bozkır highlighted the worrisome trend of increasing anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia across Europe in parallel to the rise of right-wing parties. “We witness that the disease of anti-Semitism has new companions today in the form of Islamophobia and xenophobia. Doubts over multicultural society and coexistence and the rise of far-right parties raise concerns for the future. Unfortunately, we see that anti-Semitism is still prevalent in some marginal circles in our country, together with Islamophobia and xenophobia. We cannot tolerate any form of hate speech, regardless of the religion, sect or ethnicity it targets.”

Indeed, in an attempt to eliminate hate speech targeting minorities, the EU Ministry recently concluded a project called “Social Media and Minorities” under the program of the Civil Society Dialogue in cooperation with religious minority groups that comprised workshops, seminars and research to create awareness on the topic.

However, the fight against any kind of discrimination, including hate speech, is a long journey that requires a change in mindsets along with concrete legal sanctions.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Turkey is higher than Iran when it comes to the level of anti-Semitism, with 69 percent of its population holding anti-Semitic sentiments. Again, according to the “Media Watch on Hate Speech Project” conducted by the Hrant Dink Foundation in 2014, Turkish Jews suffer the most from hate speech.

In fact, it was just last week that the wall of the recently reopened Balat Synagogue in Istanbul was targeted in a graffiti attack; a Turkish intellectual called Noam Chomsky “an old leftist Jew;” while a media outlet disclosed the fact that the spouse of a signatory of the controversial “Academics for Peace” petition was a Sephardic Jew as if it was a scandalous detail.

Nevertheless, looking at the glass as half-full, one must note that 2015 marked a watershed for Turkey’s Jewish community, owing to the government’s sincere initiatives which deserve praise, such as the commemoration of the Holocaust and the Struma Incident and the renovation and reopening of the Great Edirne Synagogue, as well as the first outdoor celebration of Hanukkah.

Thus, the ceremony held in Ankara for International Holocaust Remembrance Day is significant in many aspects. First, it conveys a message to the international community that, while a Muslim country, Turkey shares the agony of the Jewish people who perished in Nazi death camps. Particularly at a time when Turkey aims to reinvigorate its EU membership process despite facing criticism over freedom of expression, the ceremony serves to polish a democratic and pluralist image for Turkey. And amid negotiations to normalize ties with Israel, Ankara’s gestures toward its Jewish community are likely to strike a positive chord with Tel Aviv as well.

However, aside from the message to the international community, there is a more important message to the domestic audience. Given the worrisome levels of anti-Semitism in Turkish society, the attendance of government officials at a ceremony to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust sets an example for conservative segments of society.

It is important to be cognizant that anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia all stem from the same source of hatred and that the Holocaust is indeed a manifestation of how far this hatred may reach, namely total annihilation of the other.

As Turkey’s chief rabbi, İshak Haleva, said at the ceremony: “We shall all take a lesson from the Holocaust so as not to let this ever happen again!”