turkey talk

American Jewish leaders denounce Erdogan for defending Hamas

Turkish president claims that Hamas is not a terrorist organization but a liberation group waging a battle to protect its land and people

ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends his party's group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, on October 25, 2023.

American Jewish leaders are forcefully denouncing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after he canceled a previously planned visit to Israel and claimed that Hamas is not a terrorist organization but a liberation group waging a battle to protect its land and people.

Speaking to members of his Justice and Development Party on Wednesday, the Turkish leader also called Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza an “intentional massacre” and accused the Israeli government of taking advantage of his “good intentions” amid a recent renewal of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

“I shook the hand of this man named Netanyahu one time in my life,” Erdogan said of his first in-person meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, where the two leaders agreed to coordinate mutual visits to Ankara and Jerusalem. “If he had continued with good intentions, our relations might have been different, but now, unfortunately, that will not happen.”

Erdogan’s comments — a sharp reversal from his recent, friendlier rhetoric toward Israel — sparked an immediate uproar among American Jewish leaders who had met separately with the Turkish president last month for an hour-long conversation that several participants had characterized as encouragingly cordial.

“When Erdogan embraces Hamas and criticizes Israel for defending itself, what we are seeing is the real Recep Erdogan,” William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told Jewish Insider on Wednesday. “We now know that he is a charlatan who is much more interested in promoting the murder of Jews than he is in being a man of peace who’s interested in engaging in a positive way in the Middle East.”

Abe Foxman, the former longtime national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was one of several Jewish leaders to meet with the Turkish president last month, echoed that assessment, claiming it was “sad to see the old, hateful Erdogan surface again.”

“I have personally experienced the cynical up-and-down relations with Erdogan over the years — when he needed you he was your best friend, and in a moment would turn on you,” Foxman told JI. “Several weeks ago we talked about Netanyahu’s trip to Turkey and Erdogan’s to Israel in a tone of deep friendship and celebration. It seems he was never a real friend — but used his relationship cynically when it fit his personal political needs.”

During his meeting with more than two dozen American Jewish leaders last month in New York, Erdogan reiterated that he would make his first visit to Israel as soon as possible and affirmed his commitment to combating antisemitism, which he referred to as a “crime against humanity,” according to attendees.

But Jewish leaders who were cautiously encouraged by Erdogan’s engagement indicated that his new remarks — which drew rebukes from Israel and Italy, a NATO ally — had largely extinguished that goodwill. 

“He was saying all the right things, all the right platitudes,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the vice chair and former CEO of the Conference of Presidents, said of the meeting with Erdogan in mid-September. “He has manipulated back and forth over time with his views, but it’s especially disappointing, given his recent comments toward Israel, that he would take such drastic action. The consequences of Erdogan’s decisions are very serious and should be taken as such.”

Turkey’s support for Hamas was a particularly memorable source of tension when Erdogan met with Jewish leaders during the UNGA in 2022, according to Daroff, whose organization has long been involved in discussions with the Turkish leader. “We had a very touchy session where he denied that there was a Hamas presence in Turkey,” Daroff said, noting that when Erdogan was presented with evidence to counter his claims, “he pledged to look into it.”

Last month, meanwhile, Erdogan declared “there was no Hamas presence in Turkey,” according to Daroff. The Turkish president, he said, told the group of attendees that he had been working with Israeli intelligence and was looking forward to “a new chapter” in his relations with Israel and Jewish leaders.

Now, however, “Erdogan is reverting to his actual character and his true beliefs,” Daroff told JI. 

Erdogan has frequently attacked Israel and made statements seen as antisemitic. In 2021, during the last major flare-up of violence between Israel and Hamas, he called Israelis “murderers to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old,” adding: “They only are satisfied by sucking their blood. It is in their nature.” 

The State Department condemned Erdogan’s comments as antisemitic.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch, said he found Erdogan’s new comments “severely troubling.” 

“While, like many others, I was encouraged by his more recent efforts to reestablish and even strengthen his relationship with Israel and the Jewish community in America and beyond — and the prospects going forward were bright — the terminology of his most recent comments leads me to believe that a serious reconsideration of that relationship is in order,” Shemtov said in an interview with JI on Wednesday. “Such words are simply unacceptable. Terror is terror, and there simply are not two ways about it.”

Harley Lippman, a longtime AIPAC lay leader who was also among the attendees at last month’s meeting with Erdogan, said it was “not believable that” the Turkish president “could say Hamas is not a terrorist organization.”

“What does he call their own actions that they boasted about online?” Lippman told JI. “What would he call it? I’d like to ask him.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.