Jeremy Corbyn’s loyalists might howl at the suggestion that his style is similar to President Erdogan’s. But they would do well to pay heed to the parallels. The Turkish strongman, like the Labour leader, puts great effort into polishing his image as a pluralist and an ally of the minorities. On Friday he sent his customary Passover message to Turkey’s Jewish community, telling them that he regards them as ‘an inseparable part’ of the country. He did the same for Turkey’s Christians as they celebrated Easter on Saturday, adding that ‘(our) diversity is our treasure’.
A day later, though, Erdogan stood in front of a crowd of his faithful and boomed that Israel is a ‘terrorist state’. It is a line he has hammered, to various degrees, since 2009 when he stormed out of a panel discussion on Gaza at Davos following a spat with the Israeli president Shimon Peres. Having accused Peres of killing Palestinian children, Erdogan was greeted back in Istanbul by ecstatic crowds waving placards declaring ‘we are proud of you’. He wasted little time in turning his Swiss outburst to his domestic political advantage; the bulk of his base are, after all, pious Muslims who had long felt uncomfortable with Turkey’s traditionally close relations with Israel.
But there is a price to pay for such rhetoric, and it is borne by Turkey’s Jewish community. Like the Jews of Britain, their numbers are tiny – an estimated 15,000, mostly living in Istanbul. They trace their roots here back to the 15th century, when the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II offered sanctuary to the Jews who had been booted out of Spain during the Inquisition. Turkey’s Sephardic Jews, as they are known, have been part of Istanbul’s fabric far longer than most other Turkish citizens. Yet every time Erdogan’s rows with Israel flare, their synagogues are attacked, the number of death threats dropping through the letterbox of their organisations soars and yet more think of leaving the country. Thousands have taken up the offer of citizenship extended by the Spanish and Portuguese governments in 2015.
At his roots Corbyn – like Erdogan – is a populist. He tells his people what they want to hear, rather than leading from the front with moral consistency. In his north London constituency with its large Kurdish population, that means lending his support to groups linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a listed terrorist organisation that is waging a bloody insurgency in eastern Turkey and killed sixty-six civilians in two car bombings in Ankara in 2016. In the Labour Party more widely, it means placating the anti-Israel sentiments of the hard left with overtures to Hamas and Hezbollah – militant Islamist groups that cause as much agony for Muslims as they do for Israel. Meanwhile, he scratches the itch of the followers who believe that US imperialism lies at the heart of the world’s evils by offering only the coolest of criticisms of Russia and Iran, whose own imperialist urges are currently tearing the Middle East apart. Corbynites would prefer that we forget about his paid appearances on the Iranian state’s mouthpiece Press TV – a virulent disseminator of homophobia, conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism. But how can Britain’s Jews – or anyone who truly opposes bigotry in our politics – be asked to overlook that?
It is possible to criticise Western policy without cosying up to brutal regimes, as it is possible to take a stand against Israeli policy without making friends of terrorist groups. But Corbyn consistently chooses the easy, populist path, and that prises open a moral vacuum at the heart of his politics. Like Erdogan, he finds it good currency to pay lip service to defending the Jewish community – many, or most of his supporters would be horrified if they were accused of being anti-Semites. But the cynical calculation of both Corbyn and Erdogan is that their Jewish communities are too small, too weak and too electorally insignificant to defend in any real, tangible sense. That is why Erdogan will continue to stoke anti-Jewish hatred among his base even as he strokes the feathers of the Rabbis, and why Corbyn will defend a mural that wouldn’t have looked out of place in 1930s Germany even as he claims to be a peace activist.
In the end, it comes down to fear, polarisation and personality-led politics. Both men know that they have gathered their base around a sense of ‘us-and-them’ – a tactic that inevitably leads to indignation, hatred and finally dehumanisation of the other. Corbyn may, on the surface, appear to be a kinder, gentler type of politician than Erdogan. But a rabble-rouser is a rabble-rouser, whether he is dressed in military fatigues and menacing shades or scruffy corduroys and flat cap.
Hannah Lucinda Smith is Turkey correspondent for The Times