Turkey ties

Erdogan meets with Jewish leaders, amid warming relations with Israel 

The Turkish president fielded questions on a range of topics, including renewed Turkey-Israel ties, rising antisemitism, Holocaust education, Russia’s war in Ukraine and Iranian nuclear capabilities

Adam Gray/Getty Images

President of Türkiye Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at U.N. headquarters on September 19, 2023 in New York City.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that he intends to visit Israel as soon as possible in a private discussion with American Jewish leaders in New York City on Wednesday afternoon, according to participants who were present for the conversation, a day after his first in-person meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

Erdogan, who made a similar pledge last year, offered no clear timeframe for a potential trip to Israel, which restored full diplomatic ties with Turkey in 2022 after years of strained relations.

Instead, he confirmed that he would first host Netanyahu in Ankara before his own trip to the Jewish state, two attendees told Jewish Insider on Wednesday.

Neyanyahu had been scheduled to meet with Erdogan, who recently won reelection to a third five-year term, in Turkey this summer but postponed the trip due to health concerns following a pacemaker implant. The two leaders, who had only spoken by phone before the U.N. meeting, agreed during Tuesday’s conversation to coordinate mutual visits, according to a senior Israeli diplomatic source. Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Turkey in March 2022.

During Erdogan’s meeting with approximately 30 Jewish leaders in Manhattan, which went on for more than an hour at the Turkish House across the street from U.N. headquarters, the Turkish president fielded questions on a range of topics, participants said, including renewed ties between Turkey and Israel, rising antisemitism, Holocaust education, Russia’s war in Ukraine and Iranian nuclear capabilities.

“I’ve been attending these meetings for about 20 years since he’s been president, and I would say this is the most cordial meeting that I remember,” Abe Foxman, the former longtime director of the Anti-Defamation League who was among the participants who met with Erdogan, said in an interview with JI. “The rhetoric on both sides was respectful.”

Foxman said there were a few reasons for increased cordiality, citing the presence of Turkish Jewish leaders who were included in the meeting and the recent rapprochement between Israel and Turkey. “He’s always had time for the American Jewish community because he understands that it’s part of his relationship in this country,” Foxman said of Erdogan. 

In his introductory remarks, Erdogan delivered greetings recognizing the Jewish new year and emphasized that during “all of his visits” to the U.S. he has “always attached great meaning to meetings with Jewish leaders,” recalled Ezra Friedlander, an Orthodox Jewish lobbyist whose clients include the Turkish government.

William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, described the meeting as “warm and engaging” in a statement to JI. The Turkish president “reaffirmed his commitment to a stable and fruitful relationship with” Israel as well as “his resolve to combat antisemitism, which he referred to as a ‘crime against humanity,’” Daroff said.

The Jewish leaders who attended the meeting, Daroff added, “pledged to welcome” Erdogan’s upcoming visit to Jerusalem “and to work to ensure the relationship” between Turkey and Israel “continues to improve and flourish.”

There were some points of tension, according to participants who asked to remain anonymous to discuss more sensitive elements of the conversation. “There are issues,” said one participant, who noted that some attendees had privately raised concerns over hostages held by Hamas, which has maintained a presence in Turkey.

Meanwhile, Erdogan was somewhat vague in addressing a question about the prospect of Iran securing a nuclear weapon, according to another participant. “His response was, ‘We are against countries in the region acquiring nuclear weapons,’” the attendee told JI.

The attendee said that Erdogan was also asked if he would pray at the Western Wall during his visit to Israel, after he had reportedly expressed interest in praying at the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In response, the Muslim president insisted that he would “never force anyone” to pray anywhere, suggesting that the Western Wall was not on his agenda, according to the attendee. “But he didn’t say, ‘I will not pray at the Western Wall,’” the attendee told JI.

Participants also included Amb. Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism; Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League; Malcolm Hoenlein, the vice chair and former CEO of the Conference of Presidents; Harriet Schleifer, the chair of the Conference of Presidents; Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch; and Harley Lippman, a longtime AIPAC leader.

During last September’s UNGA, Erdogan first promised to visit Israel while meeting with representatives from the Conference of Presidents, AIPAC and J Street, among other groups, for an hour-long discussion that one participant recalled as “conciliatory.”

Erdogan did not appear to have made any additional commitments on Wednesday, even as attendees tried to lobby him on some causes. Foxman, for instance, said he encouraged Erdogan to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on his next visit to Washington. “My feeling is it’s an easy ask,” said Foxman, who is a Holocaust survivor.

The Turkish president “didn’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Foxman said, noting that Erdogan had instead emphasized his opposition to antisemitism. Still, when Foxman said he would personally accompany him to the museum — and to Israel, if preferable — Erdogan seemed more receptive. “He said ‘OK,’” Foxman recalled.

Additional reporting contributed by JI’s senior political correspondent Lahav Harkov.

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