LONDON — One of the things revealed about Turkey's ruling AK Party during last month's demonstrations was how brittle and thin-skinned its leadership is.
Even though the protests have died down, that quality is still on display. Earlier this week Deputy Prime Minister, Besir Atalay made the astonishing claim that the demonstrations in Taksim Square and elsewhere were the work of the "Jewish Diaspora" and reported without question by their allies in the international media.
Atalay made the comments at a meeting in the central Anatolian city of Kirikkale on Monday. They have caused a storm.
The Anti-Defamation League immediately condemned the remarks. Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, issued a statement demanding that Atalay apologize, adding, "His remarks are an insult not only to the Jewish people but also to the many Turkish citizens who took part in the protests and who have real grievances."
The pressure may have had some effect. Atalay said his remarks were taken out of context although videotape (available here with translation) contradicts that assertion.
In any case, his excuse only makes things worse.
"I made no accusation against Jews," Atalay said, "but I drew attention to the equity holders behind a foreign news corporation, which exaggerated the events. Otherwise, I would not say a word to hurt the Jews."
But the equity holders he was referring to were Diaspora Jews, presumably.
The most measured response to the Deputy Prime Minister's comments came from the Office of the Chief Rabbi and the Turkish Jewish Community, the organization representing the majority of the country's Jews.
It issued a statement saying it was seeking clarification on the remarks before making a judgment but added, " … based on the fact that Turkish Jewish citizens as well as other Jewish people living all around the globe may be affected and pointed as a target of such a generalization, we wish to express our concerns, and share our apprehension and worry of the consequences that such perceptions can cause."
The Jewish community in Turkey has a very long history. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in the 15th century many moved to Constantinople — as Istanbul was called then.
Around 23,000 Jews live in Turkey today, although there are reports that that number has declined to closer to 20,000 over the last few years. Ninety-five percent of Turkish Jews live in Istanbul. Most are Sephardic and their lives are generally peaceful. But in recent years tensions in other parts of the Middle East have challenged that tranquility.
Ten years ago, two synagogues were bombed in Istanbul as part of a brief terrorist campaign against Jewish and western targets by al-Qaeda linked groups. Twenty people were killed in the synagogue attacks, although the majority were not Jewish.
The AK Party was still in its honeymoon period then and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the attacks forcefully.
But in 2010, the Israeli Navy mounted an assault on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship leading a relief convoy to Gaza. Nine Turkish citizens were killed. The Erdogan government's anti-Israel rhetoric ratcheted to white-hot over the next few years. The distinction between criticism of the Israeli government and criticism of Jews in general got lost.
This has led Istanbul's Jewish community to feel more isolated, although following a telephone call between Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brokered by President Obama earlier this year, the tension had started to ease.
It's not clear whether Deputy Prime Minister Atalay's statement will have a long-lasting effect, and it looks unlikely to. But it is one more self-inflicted wound on the Turkish government's international standing.