28/04/2012

Anti-Semitism and Shampoo

Some of the most inconspicuous things can become the source of polemics in Turkey. I've had people warn me against the evils of Islamist supermarkets, nationalist moustaches and imperialist, western birthday cakes. This month it's been shampoo. Well not the shampoo itself, rather the back-and-forth in the press specifically about the "Hitler commercial" promoting said shampoo on TV.

The short 15-second commercial shown on the right, aims to promote a men-only shampoo by showing archive footage of Hitler dubbed over in shouty, German-accented Turkish saying:

"You wouldn't wear a woman's skirt, so why use a woman's shampoo! Here it is, the 100% male shampoo, Bioman!" (pronounced "Be-A-Man," ha ha... ugh...)

The reaction has been mixed, but I'm inclined to say that although critics have been vocal, to the majority were either entertained or didn't bat an eyelid.

Most positive feedback on Youtube tended to focus on the fact that the advert took a brave step making light of such a serious hate figure.

One Turkish user expressed joy that Turkey was "not like other (countries) that live in fear. Actually, any time Turkey is the first that is free to do something is wonderful". Another user commented that "The ad is smart as it grabs your attention. Maybe there was a time when taking this man extremely seriously was called for, but nowadays he can be joked about quite easily. I'd like to have seen the same kind of mockery performed in the 30s and 40s".

However, not everyone could take the same relaxed position. The Chief Rabbinate of Turkey issued a press statement to condemn the advert as damaging to "society's conscience". According to Hürriyet daily, Chief Rabbi İshak Haleva said using Hitler, who massacred more than 6 million people – most of whom were Jews – in an advertisement for any reason is categorically unacceptable.

Despite some valid criticisms of folk like Norman Finkelstein, (author of the "Holocaust Industry") who argue that the Holocaust has been eched onto the global consciousness with the contemporary political motives of Israel in mind, it is contemporary political motives in Turkey which inspire the "let's break the mold and stop taking this seriously" back-lash against anything to do with the Holocaust.

Turkey has seen a rise in anti-semitism in recent years across the political spectrum. To the religious establishment this has come from opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but to secular Turks alerted by the ferocity of the Mavi Marmara attack supported by the former, the new anti-Semitism combines with the Kemalist passion for conspiracy theories - many of them homegrown.

"Bless your hands" is an expression used to thank someone who
has prepared you a meal. 
Due to recent football scandals, I've heard more and more the old cliche "there is no racism in Turkey". Again, from both sides this article of believe is held by those who would at the same time hold outrages opinions about Jews. Any accusation against which is instantly batted away by a statement affirming that the speaker is only concerned about Israel, or against capitalism or some-such.

Lip-service to political correctness seems to fall under little scrutiny. In Hatay last year I asked a book shop owner if "Mein Kampf", Hitler's racist prison diary/autobiography was selling alot, noting a vast new shipment piled up at the front of the shop. "Oh yes" he replied, indulging me with the explanation that although "he did some bad things, we can still say he was a very clever man".

Such statements dance around racism itself, but in the last year I have seen two students aged around 15-16 avidly reading a copy. Once I asked why, they simply told me they were curious, but when one considers the Stalinist rigidity in Historical interpretation taught in Turkish schools one should not assume a degree of critical thought appropriate to dissecting such a the book, especiailly in the current climate. Last week, I bumped into one of those students in the masjid. We were talking about how school was going when he joked that I should come and teach at his high school, as he always got away with not doing work in my class. I joked back, half-curious as to the response, that if I had him as a student again he wouldn't get away with anything I "will become Hitler" I said. He duly responded that if so, he would like that very much.

Other examples are plentiful, and more horrifying. One staunchly CHP friend in Izmir, who had even visited Auschwitz whilst inon a Poland trip, told me that Hitler "was right about them". A teacher in my school, showing a rare exemplary knowledge of Medieval European history and Jewish culture, concluded that "they cause trouble everywhere they go" and went on to explain, as I had heard that Saudi Arabian text books taught although hadn't quite believed, that the Jews come from monkeys! I may have blanked out the context but I also remember the phrase hain ırkı, "treacherous race" coming up more than once.

Racism, as Turks understand it, is a western concept tied-up with not-long dead Eugenics and Racial Darwinist theories and apartheid laws. In this sense, racism does not exist in Turkey. But in people's attitudes it is very much alive and well.

Racism is not how it used to be. When I first arrived in Turkey in 2008, the book "Children of Moses" by Ergün Poyraz was the number one paperback. The book explained how the leading members of the AKP were in fact crypto-Jews aiming to bring about the downfall of Turkey with the help of Israel. The crypto-Jew has, long before recent events, been ever-present in the minds of conspiracy theories in Turkey. Although staunch Kemalist Poyraz found himself locked-up in the Ergenekon investigation not long after, political Islamists in Turkey tend to throw the secret Jew accusation back to the other side by accusing Atatürk and his Salonican contemporaries of the same charge: Being Jews, and therefore most probably Masons.

The story is an interesting one. Anyone with an interest in Jewish history in the late Ottoman empire should have a look at Marc David Baer's book The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslims Revolutionaries and Secular Turks, which looks at the continuation of anti-Semitism through the early Republican era, and gives particular attention to the situation of the Dönmes, Jews who nominally converted to Islam and were sent to Turkey from Salonika during the population exchange. Despite the heroic work of some Turkish diplomats during World War II, such as Selahattin Ülkümen, these examples have been presented as exemplary Turkish statemenship  reminiscent of the Ottoman rescue operation to ship Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition,despite opposition from the state at the time.

Against this back-drop, the ironic, twenty-first century shock value of Hitler advertising Shampoo, should be judged. The advertisers themselves should have known this, although they themselves are probably dupped.

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