Structural discrimination against Jewish people was a norm from the Middle Ages to the19th and 20th century Europe, but such institutional practices weren't common in the Middle East. We examine the origins of anti-Semitism.
ISTANBUL— Rifat Bali, a 70-year-old Istanbulite, worked behind a photocopier, printing out copies, at the office of Libra Books, a publishing house in Istanbul's affluent Osmanbey neighbourhood on a recent April afternoon.
Bali belongs to Turkey's minority Jewish community. His publishing house supplies academic journals, series and monographs to several university libraries, research centres and private individuals across the country.
As Israel celebrates its 70th year of establishing its nation state on Palestinian soil, Bali told TRT World that anti-Semitism was not prevalent in much of the Middle East prior to World War II.
“Anti-Semitism has emerged in Christendom with accusations like the blood libel and a belief that Jews crucified Jesus Christ,” Bali said.
The term anti-Semitism means the feeling of hatred, prejudice or structural discrimination toward Jewish people. And the phrase 'blood libel' dates back to the Middle Ages, when Christians falsely accused Jews of killing Christian children and using their blood for one of their religious rituals.
“During the Ottoman period, there had been no anti-Semitism whatsoever. In the Republican period, there was also no solid [historical] reason for anti-Semitism.”
Before the creation of Israel, he said, Jewish people in European countries used to live in ghettos, even in cities like Paris, London and Berlin.
Contrary to that, there were no Jewish ghettos located in the Ottoman territories or Muslim-dominated areas in the world. “There was nothing equivocal to ghettos [in the Ottoman Empire]. There were [Jewish] neighbourhoods. Yes, there were no ghettos,” Bali said.
But Bali thinks that soon after the formation of Israel, traces of 'anti-Semitism' began to appear in the Middle East as well.
Referring to Turkey’s conservative movements that emerged in the1950s, after the country’s one-party rule ended, Bali said whenever there was a war fought over the Israel-Palestine dispute, there would be "a jump in media coverage of Israel," increasing what he called anti-Semitic sentiments in the Middle East.
But a century ago, many historians argue, Jews and Muslims neither engaged in full-fledged wars or conflicts nor subjected each other to systematic extermination or massacres.
“During the Islamic rule in Iberia, Jewish-Muslim relations were close and cooperative. There was plenty of Christian anti-Semitism. There were many expulsions, burnings during the Inquisition [in Europe], massacres and [finally] Hitler’s Holocaust,” said, Ivo Molinas, the editor-in-chief of Salom, which is Turkey’s only Jewish weekly newspaper.
Molinas is also a member of Turkey’s Sephardic community which had largely migrated in the Ottoman Empire in 1492 when Muslim rule in Spain was completely eliminated at the hands of Europe’s Christian forces as a result of Europe’s Reconquista (reconquest) movement.
For centuries, members of the Reconquista movement killed and expelled both Muslims and Jews in the name of "rechristening" territories such as modern-day Spain and Portugal. The Ottoman sultans earned appreciation for sending ships to rescue persecuted Jewish people from the Iberian peninsula and granting them asylum in the Ottoman territories.
Europe's failure to assimilate Jews
“Essentially, Europe has exported its classical racist and Nazi anti-Semitism to Arab countries, which they then applied to Israel and Jews in general,” observed Daniel Goldhagen, a Jewish American author and a former Harvard professor, in one of his widely circulated articles published in Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Goldhagen is also a strong defender of Israeli policies in Palestine.
At the peak of Western enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century, which championed rationality and free thinking against Europe’s church-centric hardline code of conduct, western societies still could not break away from anti-Semitism.
Though the enlightenment eventually created modern nation-states on the principles of democracy, secularism and pluralism, some Jewish intellectuals say Jews are yet to be fully integrated into Western societies , amongst Christian-majority populations.
Jews have long been accused of resisting the nature of Western societies because of their own "secret agendas" to cultivate deep states within nation-states and rule the world from behind the curtains.
Such fears and beliefs have been fuelled with books like "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", which was first published in Russia in 1903. The book was widely circulated by the Czarist Russian secret police, and it was nothing but a notorious piece of propaganda that claimed Jewish leaders were plotting to destroy Christianity and turn every non-resisting Christian into a slave.
The hostility towards Jewish people in Europe is well documented by Theodor Herzl who was originally an Austrian-Hungarian journalist. In 1894, Herzl was sent by Neue Freie Presse to cover the burning Dreyfus Case in Paris.
Dreyfus, a French captain with Jewish origins, was blamed for collaborating with Germans during the French-German War in 1871. As a result, he was tried and found guilty of spying for Germans. He was later acquitted.
During the court trials, Herzl witnessed French Christians leading city-wide protests against Jewish people. The most common slogans he came across were “Death to the Jews!” and “Death to the traitor!”
In his previous writings, Herzl, who was also a Jew, defended the idea of living alongside Christians. But soon after the Dreyfus trials, his worldview changed. “The Dreyfus trial, which I witnessed in Paris in 1894, made me a Zionist,” Herzl later wrote.
Two years later, Herzl wrote "The Jewish State", qualifying himself as the founding father of Zionism, outlining the road map for Israel. The book is considered one of the most influential Zionist texts.
Three decades later, the Holocaust began. Adolf Hitler carried out the most infamous human massacre against Jews across the European continent, most of which his German forces executed over the course of the World War II.
“The one reason that Israel was established is Europe and the US owing Jews a debt of honour. Which is what? Nothing was done while 6 million civilian Jews, including one-and-a-half million of them children, were killed at ovens and ditches with no gunfights or conflicts involved, and they all watched – including the US, including the Vatican,” Molinas told TRT World.
“Nothing could be done. This great feeling of shame – of being able to do nothing – should be regarded as a debt of honour.”
Aware of their failures to address anti-Semitism across Europe which translated into the Holocaust, Western leaders knew that "assimilation [of Jews in Europe] never worked." They shrugged off the responsibility of dealing with the Jewish people by simply sending them off to “a Jewish homeland” on another nation’s land.
“‘Despite all the enlightenment, we cannot solve this problem and because of this, you too have great losses. 'You should set up your state on your own so we can get some relief’ is the overall psychology,” Molinas said.
The Jewish migration to Palestine turned out to be disastrous for the Palestinian Muslims.
The Jewish Question
As the West intended to resolve anti-Semitism and secure the future of Jews by exporting them to the Middle East, the move disrupted the centuries-old peace and harmony among Jewish and Muslim people in the region.
“With the rise of anti-Semitism in the years following 2000, we have returned to the cycle that was prominent in the 1910s. We can say that anti-Semitism is having its strongest moment since WWII. We can say this is a trend both in the Christian and in the Muslim worlds,” Molinas said.
After the creation of Israel on Palestinian soil, tens of thousands of Palestinian people were uprooted from their homes. The process continues till today. As a result, Muslim-Jewish relations now stand at a historic low.
Israel's brutal occupation of Palestine has resulted in serious human rights abuses. Killings, kidnappings and torture of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli police have become norms, evoking strong condemnation from across the world, mainly from Muslim-majority countries.
In return, Israel has often misused the term anti-Semitism, deploying it against those who criticise its military aggression against Palestinians and conflating it with anti-Semitism.
Molinas, however, sounds pessimistic about the prospect of ending anti-Semitism.
“The anti-Semitism issue hasn’t been solved in 2,000 years,” he said. "It’s in our make that we have a tendency to blame others for our mistakes or find scapegoats."
Molinas said today's anti-Semitism will be tomorrow's Islamophobia in Europe.
"You can’t fix the flaws in human nature.”
Melis Alemdar contributed to this article