In his ponderously titled book Contributions to the Correction of the Public’s Judgement Concerning the French Revolution (1793), the German philosopher and political leader Johann Gottlieb Fichte took time out from his defense of the Reign of Terror to compose what has been called by Daniel Johnson “the most notorious footnote in history.” It warned his German countrymen of the Jewish menace in their midst. The Jews, he told them, constituted “a state within a state. . . . I see no way of granting [the Jews] civil rights, unless it be by chopping off all their heads one night and replacing them with new ones in which there would be not a single Jewish idea. And I see no way to protect ourselves from the Jews, unless by conquering their promised land for them and sending them all there.”
This classic text of secular European anti-Semitism, which told the Jews, “You have no right to live among us as Jews” (though, perhaps, not yet “you have no right to live”), was recently echoed (just how intentionally we may soon find out) by Turkey’s embattled prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Under attack and investigation for massive corruption, and facing millions of angry street demonstrators, Erdogan has accused his prosecutors of being the agents of a global conspiracy to undermine him and to create in Turkey “a state within the state.” He and his minister of economics also blamed the international “interest-rate lobby” for the assault on the Turkish government.
Erdogan has not (yet) gone beyond these familiar euphemisms of European paranoia regarding the Jewish conspiracy, although his deputy, Besir Atalay, explicitly blamed “the Jewish Diaspora” for the assault on their regime. Erdogan is not a highly educated man, but in Europe one need not be an intellectual to appreciate the resonance of Fichte’s depiction of the continent’s Jewish minority, even in its pitifully reduced post-Holocaust condition, as “a state within a state.”
In fact, everything we know of Erdogan indicates that he is one of those Europeans who believe that the Holocaust gave anti-Semitism a bad name, and that it deserves yet another chance. In the first three months of 2009, over a year before the attempt by the Turkish “flotilla” to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza exploded relations between the two countries, and four years before Erdogan declared that Israel had engineered the suppression of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Turkey was the scene of the fiercest anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation in all of Europe.
The competition for this dubious distinction was intense: The Religion of Perpetual Outrage had been expressing its anger over Israeli actions in Gaza by staging violent pro-Hamas demonstrations throughout the old (and increasingly post-Christian) continent. Muslim Brotherhood members and their followers had taken to the streets of European cities screaming, “Death to Israel! Death to the Jews!” Muslim mobs had intimidated policemen in London and Malmö, and smashed up the Place de l’Opéra in Paris. But nowhere was the agitation of the mob more aggressive than in Turkey, where it extended from streets to schools, newspapers, and TV stations. The very good reason for this was that it had been encouraged by Erdogan, who declared that “Israelis know very well how to kill” and—of course—that “Jews control the media.”
It was about a week after these demonstrations that Barack Obama took his first presidential grand tour of Europe—and showed the icy indifference to Jewish fears that has marked his entire presidency. Not a single word about this riotous unpleasantness made its way into Obama’s speeches to Turkish parliamentarians and university students. Rather, they were full of his usual calls for “respect” for Islam plus assurances that America is not and “never will be” at war with Europe’s rapidly growing religious minority.
Nor was this all. It was subsequently revealed that Erdogan is Obama’s favorite foreign leader, and indeed a friend with whom he had created “bonds of trust.” The Washington Post reported that he had spent more time on the phone with Erdogan than with any other “ally leader.” He had, to be sure, spent a great deal of time on the phone with Benjamin Netanyahu also, but much of it consisted of hectoring the latter to apologize to Erdogan for the deaths of nine of the flotilla’s Hamas marauders. Erdogan, on the other hand, is considered by our president to be a friend whom he trusts and in whose presence he feels secure and comfortable.
Will Obama feel the resonance of Fichte’s words about “a state within a state” now that they come from his friend’s mouth, and right alongside words including America itself? Erdogan included, in addition to “the interest-rate lobby,” our ambassador to Turkey and unspecified journalists and financiers among the conspirators against his government. Obama has had a much more expensive education than Erdogan, and may even be familiar with Fichte’s notorious words and their lethal history. Will they stir his conscience?
Edward Alexander’s most recent book is The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal (Transaction Publishers, 2012).