An organization of Jewish Turks says commentators have used the coronavirus outbreak to promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories
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, said Turkish social media users have been promoting conspiracy theories against Jews and Israel, such as claiming they 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 a wealthy Jewish family.
“In Turkey, we can see constant anti-Semitism in social media, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram,” Albukrek said.
He insisted that he and his family were not living in fear but recognized there were safety concerns for the Jewish community in Turkey, as evidenced by the tight security at synagogues, which were closed due to the pandemic.
“Most of my friends, if they’re meeting with someone that they don’t know in the street, they’re not explaining their names with their Jewish identity, they’re just saying that we are from Spain because we are Sephardic Jews,” Albukrek said.
Albukrek has been helping keep track of hate speech as part of a group in Turkey called Avlaremoz, which writes about anti-Semitism in the media.
Nesi Altaras, an editor with Avlaremoz, said he has noticed an increase in conspiracy theories in the media targeting Jews or Israel.
“I think it’s because there’s been a general rise in production of conspiracy theories because of the pandemic and a lot of those end up going to an anti-Semitic place,” Altaras said.
He said that an article on vaccine development in Israel was followed by comments on social media that the country would find a vaccine because it was the one that created the virus.
“The pandemic has just fueled the fire of pre-existing Turkish anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories about Jews,” said Altaras.
Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, said 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 said.
“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 argued 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 said.
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 feared 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 said.
Altaras argued that 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 said, the Jewish community becomes a target.
Altaras moved to Montreal, Canada last August to study for his master’s degree and said 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 said 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 said.
“You always need to be cautious when meeting with someone or telling your identity to him or her.”