(JTA) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a group of Jewish leaders that he planned to visit Israel, the clearest sign so far that he is intent on resetting a long-troubled relationship.
Erdogan also told a room full of leaders of American Jewish organizations that antisemitism is a “crime against humanity,” a meeting participant told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The meeting Monday afternoon, convened under the auspices of the Turkish embassy and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, took place in New York City, where the United Nations General Assembly has gathered global diplomats this week.
Erdogan did not say when he would visit.
Turkey and Israel last month announced that they planned to restore full diplomatic ties, which have been ruptured since 2010, when Israel carried out a deadly raid on a Turkish vessel attempting to breach an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Turkey in March and Prime Minister Yair Lapid did during one of his last days as foreign minister in June.
The meeting was organized by Ezra Friedlander and his Friedlander Consulting Group, a lobbying organization that works largely with Orthodox Jewish groups but also counts the Turkish government among its clients. Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Friedlander registered in 2022 that he works on behalf of the Turkish government.
According to OpenSecrets, an NGO which tracks spending on U.S. lobbyists, the Friedlander group has received at least $70,000 from the Turkish government this year.
“It was a very wide ranging interview,” Friedlander told JTA. Representatives of some 32 organizations, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations, AIPAC, J Street, the Zionist Organization of America and others, discussed Turkey’s trade relations ship with Israel, its acceptance of Ukrainian refugees and the safeguarding of sites of Jewish heritage in Turkey, among several other topics.
“It was a tremendous opportunity, really a tremendous opportunity,” Friedlander said. “There’s a role for the American Jewish community to play. Turkey is an important NATO ally of the United States. It’s a very, very sensitive area and a regional power, so there’s a tremendous amount of potential for cooperation.”
This was not the Turkish president’s first meeting with Jewish leaders in the last year. In November, he welcomed a delegation of rabbis from Islamic nations to his palace in Ankara for a discussion on the future of Jewish life in the Muslim world .
“I think that the relationship between the Jewish community and Turkey has always been important and has always been strong,” said Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, a rabbi based in Istanbul who leads the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States (ARIS) and was present at both meetings with Erdogan. “Of course, it has had its ups and downs, but I’m happy that there seems to be a general shift in the Muslim world towards better relationships with Jews and the Jewish community. Of course this is something that we are always supporting.”
Critics have alleged that Erdogan has used his warming relations with Jewish communities, at home and abroad, as a means to distract from Turkey’s worsening human rights record, and to ditch a reputation for antisemitism.
As recently as 2021, during the most recent flare up between Israel and Gaza, Erdogan was castigated by the U.S. state department for statements they deemed as antisemitic.
“They are murderers, to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old. They only are satisfied by sucking their blood,” Erdogan had said at the time, referring to Israelis. “It is in their nature.”
At a 2015 rally, he also lashed out at Western media, saying that “Jewish Capital” is behind The New York Times.
When asked about these statements, several of the attendees who spoke with JTA agreed that they were more focused on working towards the future with Erdogan than dredging up his past.
“In this context, I’ll tell you that yesterday is very important, but today is more important, because the future is where it’s at.” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch. “I am not about to forget the past, But I want to see it through the lens of what comes next. Because if no one in the world gets a chance to change, then we can’t expect progress where we need to.”
Shemtov said his biggest interest in meeting with the Turkish president was to build up his relationship with the international Jewish community, and ensure the security and comfort of Turkish Jews.
“I think we have to watch what he does now. And then see what he did before in the context of what he does going forward,” Shemtov added.Harley Lippman, a member of AIPAC’s executive committee as well as former chair of the American Jewish Congress’s Board of Trustees, told JTA that other priorities leaders had included spreading awareness of the Holocaust throughout the Muslim world, and expelling Hamas leadership from Turkey.
As one of the few countries to maintain direct ties with Hamas, the militant group controlling the Gaza Strip, Turkey has proven a valued intermediary for Israel in its quest to ease tensions along its Gaza border.
“You know, people asked tough questions,” Lippman said. “We showed him pictures of him with Hamas leaders in Turkey, and showed him that they’re still left there.”
Turkey reportedly requested Hamas leaders living in Turkey to leave the country this summer, though many remain in the country.
Erdogan is also seeking to tighten ties with the West as Russia drags on its war against Ukraine. He also wants to make sure Turkey is involved in energy exploration development in the eastern Mediterranean, which until now has been led by Israel and Greece.
Israel is seeking to build on the 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and four Arab countries. Israel hopes to add other Arab and Muslim-majority countries to the accords, a goal that enhanced relations with Turkey would facilitate.
On Sunday, the Turkish government’s official Twitter account posted on Twitter a video of Erdogan strolling through Central Park which included a cheerful encounter with a rabbi, Rachel Goldenberg, of Queens.
— T.C. Cumhurbaşkanlığı (@tcbestepe) September 18, 2022