My Friend Mr. Erdogan // A Turkish Jew discusses his long relationship with the controversial president of Turkey

Outside the classroom overlooking the Bosporus the wind was howling and the rain was beating down against the window, but inside the room the students were enthralled by the speaker, one of Turkey’s leading economists. It was the early 1970s, and Turkey’s political system was undergoing changes as wild and unpredictable as the storm raging outside.

It was a time when new political parties and alliances were being formed, and they were all competing for the hearts of the Turkish people. ‘I just want to tell you,” the speaker addressed his audience at Istanbul’s Aksary School of Economics and Science, “that you are the future of Turkey. In this very class there might be a future political leader, a prime minister or perhaps a president of the country. I want to you to know, future president, what the people really want. How do you earn the public’s love and devotion? Well, everything is right here,” the professor continued, pointing to the book on his desk. “Here is the secret.”

Rafael Sadi sits in his Tel Aviv office, a bright red Turkish flag over his head and a big smile underneath his large graying mustache. “I was one of the students in that class. But I guess I wasn’t such a good student because I’m here, just a businessman and a journalist. But there was another student in that room who listened very closely to our professor. I’ve been following that student for years; I’m still in touch with him. And I can tell you that he is doing exactly what our teacher recommended.

“He’s actually a childhood friend. We grew up in the same neighborhood and even shared a desk in school. But you probably know him as the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”

Sadi left his native Turkey a long time ago, but it’s hard to forget one’s formative years. In fact, to the casual eye it’s as if he still lives in Istanbul, with its alley-filled bazaars and turquoise beaches. Today, Sadi is a journalist who writes for a Turkish newspaper about Turkish art, culture and poetry. He also runs a trading company between Israel and Turkey. “I’d rather run a trading company between Japan and Germany,” he laughs, “but I’m a Turk living in Israel, so it is what it is.”

Over cups of coffee (Turkish, of course!) he talks about his old friend, the Turkish boy who now rules what’s left of the Ottoman Empire. Sadi refers to Erdogan as “Sultan” as he begins to recount his youth. His speech is full of colorful images; he doesn’t hesitate to harshly criticize his friend when he thinks it’s necessary. “This is the language of Erdogan, straightforward and coarse. It is the language of the Kasimpasha neighborhood of Istanbul where we grew up.”

Istanbul, the historical and commercial capital of Turkey, is the only city in the world that spreads across two continents—the Bosporus Strait separates Europe from Asia. Actually, the city is divided into three parts: the new, the old and the ancient. The new sector is located on the eastern side of the Bosporus, on the Asian continent. To reach it one must take a train or a ferry, or drive across one of three long bridges or through a tunnel.

The western half of the city, on the European side of the strait, is divided into two sections by the Golden Horn, an estuary penetrating the city’s core at the entrance to the Bosporus. To the north of the Golden Horn is the old sector, which includes the Galata and Beyoglu districts, and Taksim Square. On the south side is the oldest part of the city—the location of ancient Constantinople.

Here you will find the domes of Hagia Sophia, now a museum, which has dominated its surroundings ever since it was built as a church in Byzantine times. Across from the Roman hippodrome is the iconic Blue Mosque with its cluster of slender minarets piercing the sky; then a few minutes away is the famous Grand Bazaar, the largest indoor marketplace in the world. Today, the covered narrow alleys are filled with more than 4,000 shops selling gold jewelry, copperware, carpets, spices and clothing. And souvenirs. The rest of the area is a jumble of mosques, hammams (Turkish baths), fountains and shops, with houses perched above them. Some buildings have been converted into modern hotels. From the central street, smaller alleys curve away in all directions.

In olden days, Constantinople had dozens of communities living side by side. Here in “Kushta,” as it was called in the local Jewish dialect, one could find yeshivos and great chachamim known across the Jewish world, including the Maharit and the Mishneh Lamelech.

But in the 16th century a fire broke out in a storage room in the Jewish quarter. The flames spread in all directions and destroyed entire neighborhoods, most of which were filled with wooden houses. Two-thirds of Istanbul was consumed by the flames and tens of thousands of people died.

After the fire, the Jews were forbidden to build new synagogues. The sites of the destroyed synagogues were nationalized and rebuilt as mosques. Only a few synagogues existed beyond the center of the city. So the Jews took their walking sticks and possessions in hand and crossed the Golden Horn. Galata became the new Jewish neighborhood, and thousands of Jews began to open shops there. Even today, Magen Davids are visible on some houses. On a hill in the center of town is the stone Galata Tower, used as a fire observation station to make sure that there is never another fire like the one destroyed much of Istanbul.

North of Galata, down the hill towards the sea, lies Kasimpasha, a shabby neighborhood of crooked alleys, shacks and hovels, where Rafael Sadi was born 65 years ago to a Jewish family.

“We spoke Ladino at home,” he says. “My father was a lamp merchant but the economy wasn’t very good, and we lived in the crowded Jewish neighborhood near the nicer Galata area.”

Not far away, a small boy named Recep Tayyip was born into the Erdogan family. His father served in the Turkish coast guard. “But ironically,” says Rafael, “we were the ones living up on the hill so we had a view of the Mediterranean Sea and the Bosporus. The Erdogans didn’t have even that. They were a poor family whose son went to a Muslim school and sold lemonade and rolls for pocket money.”

Later, the Sadi family became well-established and moved to Galata itself. “We weren’t far from the Galata Tower,” says Rafael.

On a side street across from the tower is the central beit knesses of Istanbul, Neve Shalom. A long line of Magen Davids clearly marks its location, as do the holes in the façade, reminders of the massacre that took place in Elul of 1986, when a squad of terrorists from Abu Nidal’s organization stormed the building on Shabbos and opened fire. Twenty-two people were murdered in the tragedy. A black memorial tablet marks the terrible event. A guardhouse was built there afterwards, and dozens of cameras surround the building. The shul, which has a beautiful interior, now looks like a fortress.

“We used to daven in there regularly,” says Rafael, who remembers that terrible day. “We lived 200 meters from the synagogue. Fortunately, I was on vacation in Izmir, and my father didn’t feel well and stayed home that morning. The whole community went into shock. There was a lot of grieving.”

School Years
After graduating from high school in 1974, Rafael attended the local School of Economics. There, he met up again with the boy from the neighborhood, young Erdogan.

“He was a diligent student. His grades were good, and he was what we called effendi, a gentleman with gracious manners who was always dressed elegantly in a suit. You would never catch him without a stylish tie. I wasn’t such a conscientious student and there were many days when I didn’t show up in school. But Recep? He came to school like clockwork.
“He was very quiet and calculating in everything he did and said,” Rafael recalls. “He didn’t talk about himself very much, but he was a very sociable guy and had many friends. He already had a certain charisma and showed leadership qualities. He was the head of the Muslim club at the university and participated in the political activities of the National Salvation Party of Necmettin Erbakan, the Islamic leader. The school was secular, so religion was a very sensitive subject and wasn’t really spoken about. I, by contrast, was the head of the Jewish club. I was already interested in politics and journalism and was writing articles for the Jewish newsletter Shalom. I was also its editor for a while.

“I didn’t feel hatred against Jews in school per se, but issues involving Israel often provoked confrontations and hostility. One of my friends was of Palestinian origin. His parents had escaped from Haifa during the 1948 War of Independence and fled first to Syria and then to Turkey. We had quite a few arguments on the subject of Israel.
“I used to distribute the Jewish newsletter on Wednesdays. I would bring a bundle of them to school to give to my friends. Some people objected and threatened me if I didn’t stop. I ignored their threats. But one day I was suddenly attacked by three thugs as I was leaving school. One of them stuck a gun in my mouth and said, ‘You were warned about your Jewish leaflet and you didn’t listen. Now you will pay.’

“I was terrified. I really thought I was about to die. Fortunately, my Palestinian friend was passing by. He saw what was happening and shouted, “He’s my friend—leave him alone! He’s okay.” He kept screaming until they let me go and ran away. Imagine, a Palestinian saved my life! Sometimes you never know who your real friends are.

“There were some occasions when Erdogan expressed Islamic religious sentiments against Jews, but I don’t think that he is personally anti-Semitic. For him it was political; he believes that anti-Jewish or anti-Israel remarks are politically expedient so he says these things. That was something he picked up in university. But I really don’t believe that he hates Israel and he certainly doesn’t hate Jews.

“Nonetheless, he was also a follower of Necmettin Erbakan, who later became Turkey’s first pro-Islamic prime minister. Turkey is a secular state and Erbakan was removed from office. Erbakan taught Erdogan to exploit hatred of Israel in order to gain political sympathy. But Erbakan was refined and spread his beliefs gracefully whereas Erdogan is rough around the edges, a boy from a tough neighborhood. So those were his two influences, our economics teacher and the anti-Semitic Erbakan.

“In college,” he recalls, “we learned modern liberal economic theories that Erdogan later adopted. At the time, various political parties were forming. The custom was for each one to choose an animal—a lion, rooster, horse or sheep—as its symbol. I remember the words of our teacher: ‘One of you might be president of the country someday. You have to know that Turkish citizens aren’t interested in either the name of the party or whether its symbol is a horse or a rooster. All they want to know is whether water will come out of the faucet if they turn it on.’ Back then, running water was only available four hours a day. The average citizen was concerned about having electricity. Would there there be bread in the bakery? Would the roads be paved or full of potholes? That was what people cared about.

“Erdogan was sitting next to me and was obviously listening intently to the lecture because years later he implemented that lesson when he assumed power. He looked out for the welfare of the average citizens. Nowadays everyone has electricity and running water, and the whole infrastructure has advanced. He invests in a better life for the people, and they love him for it.

“The West thinks that the Turks are stupid extremists who chose Erdogan because they are radical Muslims, but it isn’t true. Erdogan revolutionized Turkey by taking care of its citizens. Today, everyone has free health care. He also passed a law creating pensions, so of course everyone supports him. A Jewish man told me, ‘Erdogan sends me a pension of several hundred dollars a month. Why should I be against him?’ That’s the secret of his power.”

After graduation, Sadi and Erdogan went their separate ways. Sadi went into business and stayed involved in journalism. Erdogan sought a career in politics.

“One day,” says Sadi, “I saw his face plastered on the walls of our neighborhood. He was running for district leader of Kasimpasha. By 1994 his picture was up throughout the city. He was running for mayor of Istanbul and won.”

By then, however, Rafael Sadi had already made plans to make aliyah. His family and parents have already moved, and he followed them. He settled in Tel Aviv and was appointed spokesman for the Turkish-Israeli Friendship Society. He opened a trading company and continued to write for OdaTV, a Turkish media orgaization.

In the meantime, Erdogan joined the pro-Islamic Welfare Party and continued to climb the political ladder. He turned out to be a successful mayor who oversaw the construction of the city’s first subway system. He also acquired a reputation as an efficient and skilled manager who greatly improved the quality of life in the city through development.

At a party conference in 1998 Erdogan quoted some lines from a poem: “The minarets of the mosques are our guns, the domes of the mosques are the helmets, and the Muslim believers are the soldiers, our fighters.”

Following that speech he was arrested on charges of incitement and removed from his post. Erdogan was tried and sentenced to ten months in prison, and was banned from serving in public office for five years. Nevertheless, he returned to political life after his release but resigned from the party. Instead, he worked for the establishment of the new Justice and Development Party. He ran in the parliamentary elections, and in 2002 the party won a majority of seats mainly due to its social platform.

“Many people follow him blindly because of the social revolution he brought about, but he’s not really that concerned about the poor. He built himself a magnificent palace and stole a billion dollars that he transferred to his personal bank account in Indonesia. He and his children steal, but his supporters believe he’s hiding the money in reserve for the state’s use. He’s a good businessman, both politically and personally. That’s all I’ll say.”

Erdogan in Israel
From the safe distance of Tel Aviv Sadi continued to speak his mind about his old friend and published his views in the Turkish press. In 2005 Erdogan made his first and only visit to Israel. As spokesperson for the Friendship Association, Sadi was invited to come to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem when Erdogan visited it. “Erdogan was there with his wife. When he saw me, he stopped what he was doing and said to her, ‘This is my Jewish friend, the journalist.’ It was obvious that he’d read everything I’d written about him over the years and had told his wife about me. It was years since we’d seen each other last but we immediately reconnected. After that brief chat he said to me, ‘Rafael, don’t go anywhere. We need to talk.’ During the ceremony at Yad Vashem he showed me what he wrote in the guest book, committing himself to fighting anti-Semitism by all means. I have since reminded him of those words.

“After the ceremony I accompanied him to his meeting with the president of Israel. That was followed by a festive dinner held at the King David Hotel in his honor, after which we sat down to talk for 45 minutes. We reminisced about the old neighborhood and our time in the university. We talked about what had happened to both of us and he was very candid. I joined him throughout the rest of his visit.

“I accompanied him to various ceremonies where he signed agreements with Israel. He said they were very important. When I asked him if he had read them he said yes. ‘Why are you lying to me?’ I asked. ‘Each document is 300 pages long. You didn’t read them.’ He laughed and told me that he has advisors and consultants who do the reading and told him to sign them. That is how openly we spoke with each other.

“After that, he returned to Turkey, but we kept in touch and spoke on occasion. I didn’t expect to hear from him too often because he’s a busy head of state with a country to run. But we spoke from time to time whenever he needed advice. Either he or a secretary would call me with a question. Since beginning his frequent attacks on Israel I have often criticized him. I have no problem doing that.

“I’ve written about this in the Turkish press. Right now it serves his interests, so he’s attacking Israel. For example, Israel buys oil from Kurdistan. But the oil company is owned by Erdogan’s son, who’s making money off the transaction! So I have an interest in defending Israel and pointing out the hypocrisy. I know he reads my articles. The day after I attacked him he spoke in parliament and said, ‘My Jewish friend wrote this article, but he is wrong.’

“Sometimes he asks someone to summarize what I have written. I write mostly about Israel and the Palestinians. I always give concrete examples to refute his statements against Israel. Sometimes it annoys people in Turkey. Recently the prime minister of Turkey said that in Israel people don’t know how to sing, they only now how to kill. I wrote about that, too.

“One day, the former foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, attacked Israel and said that Israel was causing starvation in the Gaza Strip. I wrote an article for the OdaTV newspaper containing official data on the hundreds of trucks carrying food and humanitarian goods from Israel every day. Sometime later, the editor and owner of OdaTV were arrested and sent to prison for two years on various false charges, such as supporting terrorism.

“Democracy no longer exists in Turkey. Neither is there freedom of the press or of expression. I hope that in some way my articles moderate him a bit. But I am aware that his political interests will prevail. It is important for Muslims to read and know the truth. The Israeli Foreign Ministry is very supportive of my articles.”

Jewish Life in Turkey
Erdigan’s rise to power is partly due to the extremism of the secular Republican People’s Party, the oldest party in the country. The secularists prohibited public displays of religion in Turkey. In fact, it was forbidden for women to enter a public place wearing a veil. There was also no religious education. This made it difficult for the Muslims as well as for the Jews, who were also barred from religious studies. It was forbidden to enter a public place with a kippah. It was this idiotic extremism that helped Erdogan rise to power.

“Turkish secularism also led to a rise in intermarriage between secular Jews and Muslims. Erdogan brought back freedom of religion, which helped the Jews develop their Jewish identity and institutions. The Jewish community is led by the chacham bashi, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Haliba, who was actually my Jewish studies teacher. We were both much younger in those days.

“On the other hand, the rise of Muslim extremism has been harmful to the Jews economically. Erdogan has carried out a policy of transferring capital to religious Muslims by various means. For example, in the past the garment industry was entirely in Jewish hands. Today, this has been transferred to Muslims, who have taken control of the entire textile industry, everything from spinning the yarn to sewing the clothes. There are also extremist elements urging people to buy things only from Muslims and quietly boycotting Jewish merchants, so many Jews are harmed economically.

“With regards to security and physical safety, Erdogan makes no differentiation between Turks. There are Turkish Christians, Turkish Muslims and Jewish Turks. Jewish Turks who love Israel are still Turks. Everyone receives equal treatment. Erdogan knows that if Jews are harmed he will pay a price, so he protects them and does everything he can to prevent attacks. But the Jews aren’t comfortable with the Muslim extremism and the economy is declining. That’s why the rate of aliyah has risen. In the past there would be maybe 100 people a year who moved to Israel, but last year there were 400.”

Even Sadi hasn’t returned to Turkey since he left, even though he misses it. “Turkey is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and has a special culture. The people are warm, wonderful and generally fine people, even if there are some anti-Semites. But the safest place to be is Israel.

“There are many reminders of Turkey in Israel. Don’t forget that the Ottomans were in charge for hundreds of years. The father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, lived near my old office. In 1918 he served as an Ottoman officer in Eretz Yisrael.”

The Case of Gülen
Two years ago an event occurred that sowed the seeds of the current geopolitical crisis: a failed coup attempt by secular elements that resulted in a huge internal purge. This was an opportunity for Erdogan to extend his authoritarian regime over all opposition elements, especially those of his rival, the popular imam, Fethullah Gülen.

“Gülen is more of a radical Islamist than Erdogan, but what Erdogan really likes best is money. Money is control. Gülen was Erdogan’s partner in the politicization of Islam, but it’s just like in the crime stories: When two people rob a bank, they inevitably quarrel with each other because they both want all the money.”

After their political infighting, Gülen fled to America. Erdogan has accused him and his followers of fomenting a revolution, and has demanded his extradition from the US. When the United States refused, Erdogan arrested an American pastor named Andrew Brunson and accused him of aiding what Turkey considers to be Kurdish terrorists, hoping to trade him for the imam. Again, the US refused.

Immediately after the failed coup, Erdogan called Sadi and asked for his help. “He needed to strengthen his international standing, so he asked me to send him an Israeli journalist to interview him. I arranged for a reporter from the main news channel in Israel to go to Turkey and interview him. It was the first interview by an Israeli journalist ever to take place in his 101-room palace.

“Watching the interaction between Erdogan and Trump is like watching a play, but they both need each other. Turkey needs the United States and the United States needs Turkey. While Turkey isn’t like North Korea or Iran, because of its location it cannot be ignored.”
Turkey is a member of NATO and has a long-standing alliance with the United States. In fact, America uses an air base in southern Turkey for its coalition fighting in Syria. They cannot give up this base. As for Turkey, the country needs the United States economically. But economic threats won’t break Turkey’s resolve. It needs the United States but is not dependent on it, as most of its trade is with Europe.

Moreover, most of its economic problems aren’t related to the recent conflict but to the continued weakness of the economy. Turkey suffered a severe economic crisis in the 1980s. Then, like today, there was a sudden devaluation of the Turkish lira. The government immediately imposed high tariffs and announced that any imported electrical products would be charged a duty of $15. So virtually overnight Turkey went from a country that imported electrical goods to a country that manufactures them.

“I used to sell hair dryers,” says Sadi. “I imported them from China for $10 and sold them at a small mark-up. Now they cost me $25 apiece. What did I do? The dryer is made up of 43 parts. Within a few weeks I found local manufacturers who made all but one of them. So instead of Chinese hair dryers I began to sell Turkish hair dryers!”

As a result of the tariffs, Turkey has undergone a real revolution and produces much more on its own, becoming the China of the Middle East. It is now producing all sorts of electrical items from refrigerators to flashlights. Turkey may very well emerge from this economic downturn strengthened in the end. And if it does, Erdogan will remain in power for the rest of his life. But in the meantime there is a dance between the two parties.

“I believe that the Jews of Turkey can be the bridge between the United States and Turkey because they have good relations with America,” he offers. “In 1974, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus and incensed the international community, which imposed harsh sanctions and a military embargo on Turkey. The Turks had no spare parts for their planes. Those who mobilized to ameliorate the situation was a group of Turkish Jews headed by the owner of a large refrigerator factory in Turkey. Through his intercession, the embargo was quietly lifted. Today, the Jews could do the same but they are choosing not to. After the way Erdogan treated Israel like a villain, no one wants to help him.”

What would happen if Erdogan called his old friend for support?

“It would depend on what he wanted, but yes, I would try to help him because I know that he would feel indebted to a Jew. And in my experience he isn’t an ungrateful man.

“Look, he’s a clever fellow. He knows what he wants and how to get it. I tip my hat to him. I know him, and I have no doubt that he will emerge from this mess. I believe that he will come out ahead.”

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