Turkey’s test with the Holocaust

Turkey’s test with the Holocaust

This week, Jan. 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz exterminatiom camp by Soviet soldiers. It was also a historic day for Turkey since for the first time its capital, Ankara, hosted a Holocaust commemoration ceremony.

In 2005, the United Nations designated Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year, however, was a first in Turkish history, not only because Turkey hosted the ceremony in Ankara, but also because high-level officials attended it, such as Turkish Parliamentary Speaker Cemil Çiçek.

Çiçek also joined the ceremony held in the Czech Republic this week while Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu attended the gathering at the Auschwitz camp in Poland.

Since 2011, the ceremonies used to be held in a synagogue in Istanbul under the auspices of Turkey’s Jewish community. The first step toward this year’s “officialism” was taken last year when the ceremony was organized for the first time in a public place, at Kadir Has University, and was attended for the first time by a Turkish official, Deputy  Foreign Minister Naci Koru.

After all, Turkey has been an “observer member” of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) since 2008. As its only Muslim member, it seeks to become a full member as soon as possible. However, to this end, Ankara needs to comply with two criteria: inserting the Holocaust into its curriculum and opening up the archives of the Foreign Ministry from the World War II era.

But why is the Holocaust in Turkey’s particular interest?

First of all, today Turkey’s biggest nightmare is Islamophobia in the West. And this phenomenon is not different at all than anti-Semitism which prevailed in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. In those days, Jews were considered a threat to Europeans’ future and treated as the “other.” Today, Muslims are going through the same experience. In other words, today Muslims are the “new Jews.”

Moreover, anti-Semitism is still prevalent in the West. According to the “Global Attitudes Project” conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014, both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are rapidly on the rise in Europe. Furthermore, the survey reveals that there is a strong correlation between the two phenomena. The more the antagonism toward Islam grows, the more anti-Semitism rises. Better said, Jews and Muslims share the same destiny today.

Another crucial aspect is the rising antagonism between Muslims and Jews. This emerged with the Israel-Palestine conflict in the region and turned in time from being a nationalist into a religious conflict. Increasingly as well, criticism of Israel is turning into anti-Semitic sentiment, which can eventually result in Holocaust denial.

In Turkey, on the other hand, there has never been an organized anti-Semitic movement. Moreover, the Turkish state has always emphasized the historical fact that the Jews expelled from Spain in the late 15th century found refuge in the Ottoman Empire.

Yet, anti-Semitism is prevalent in public rhetoric. According to the “Media Watch on Hate Speech Project” conducted by the Hrant Dink Foundation in 2014, hate speech in the Turkish media mostly targets Jews.

Remembering and shedding light on the Holocaust is of existential importance for Turkey, not only because it would reduce anti-Semitism in the country, but also because the struggle with xenophobia needs to be total, without making any distinction between different faiths. Moreover, today fighting against anti-Semitism means fighting with Islamophobia. This would also prove wrong the allegations that Turkey is anti-Semitic. There is no need to mention that the struggle with anti-Semitism would also strengthen the fight with Islamophobia.

In addition, having the Holocaust in the curriculum is extremely important since this would enlighten people about the possible consequences of anti-Semitism in Turkey, which did not experience the tragedy first hand.

As Karl Marx said in his famous article titled “On The Jewish Question” in 1844: “The Jewish question is a test for the Enlightenment. The success or failure of the Enlightenment is dependent on the acceptance or rejection of Jews into the new Europe as free and equal human beings and citizens.”

Today Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are still serving as a test for democracy, modernity and humanity. And Turkey’s struggle with discrimination is a step toward passing this test – and not one to underestimate.