As Turkey grappled with one of the biggest coronavirus outbreaks in the world, a group of Jewish Turks was noticing another outbreak in the country: one of anti-Semitism spreading through the media.
Dani Albukrek, 21, a Jewish Turk living in Istanbul, says Turkish social media users have been promoting conspiracy theories against Jews and Israel, such as the theory claiming Israel and the Jews invented the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.
When Israel declared its first confirmed COVID-19 infection, Twitter accounts in Turkish celebrated the announcement. When the Turkish interior minister temporarily resigned over a botched lockdown, tweets accused Jews of being behind the scandal.
In another incident, a video posted online showed the driver of a minibus speaking with passengers about Jews creating viruses. Meanwhile, a prominent columnist has been writing conspiracy-filled articles on the pandemic and its connection to a wealthy Jewish family.
“In Turkey, we can see constant anti-Semitism in social media, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram,” Albukrek says.
He insists that he and his family were not living in fear, but recognized the Jewish community in Turkey has several security concerns, as evidenced by the tight security at synagogues, which were closed due to the pandemic.
“Most of my friends, if they’re meeting someone that they don’t know in the street, will not say their names or reveal their Jewish identity," Albukrek says, "they'll simply say that they are from Spain, because we are Sephardic Jews."
Albukrek has been helping keep track of hate speech as part of a group in Turkey called Avlaremoz, which reports about anti-Semitism in the media.
Nesi Altaras, an editor with Avlaremoz, has noticed an increase in conspiracy theories in the media targeting both Jews and Israel.
“I think it’s because there’s been a general rise in conspiracy theories due to the pandemic, a lot of those end up going to an anti-Semitic place,” Altaras says.
An article on vaccine development in Israel, says Altaras, was followed by comments on social media that the country would find a vaccine because it was the one that created the virus.
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Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in the city of Ankara, says conspiracy theories can be used to rationalize crises and instability that has marked Turkish politics for the last two decades.
“These [events] are quite difficult to digest, if you will, for ordinary citizens. … Many people go for these kinds of quick, shortcut answers,” he says.
“It’s a much easier answer than to come up with sophisticated political analysis.”
While conspiracy theories targeting Israel appeared in the media during the pandemic, Esen argues that the majority of Turkish society did not believe them because the pandemic’s impact on every country made it difficult to blame one in particular.
“The mainstream media is no longer mainstream and the sort of people who are invited to these kinds of programs … they come from the fringes of society,” he says.
Jewish Turks are not the only minority targeted.
A man reportedly told police that he tried to set an Armenian Orthodox Church on fire in Istanbul because he believed they started the pandemic.
Altaras fears a similar attack could happen against a synagogue.
“The media and Twitter heightening of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories increases [the likelihood of] attacks materializing so that’s, I would say, quite a major concern,” he says.
According to Altaras, when people in Turkey want to present the country as tolerant, they promote the presence of the Jewish community, estimated at 15,000 in the country. However, when there is a crisis or people need a scapegoat, Altaras says, it's the Jewish community that becomes a target.
Altaras moved to Montreal, Canada last August to study for his master’s degree and says anti-Semitism was one of the reasons he decided to leave Turkey.
Albukrek was also doing his studies abroad, in Jerusalem, but came back to his hometown of Istanbul in February.
He says Jews he knows hide their kippot under baseball caps in Turkey, fearing to be identified as Jewish by strangers.
“They’re not wearing it without a cap; it won’t be comfortable for them,” he says, “you always need to be cautious when meeting with someone or telling your identity to him or her.”
Article written by Kristina Jovanovski, reprinted with permission from The Media Line