Turkey’s Jewish community is one of the few remaining Diaspora communities in a country with a Muslim majority. Despite its apparent dynamism, its long-term viability is doubtful. The community does not have any influence or play any role worth mentioning in Turkey’s cultural, political, or intellectual life. Furthermore, in recent years the entire community has become the target of much resentment and hostile rhetoric from the country’s Islamist and ultranationalist sectors.
Another problem concerns the question of identity. In Turkey, a “Zionist” education-stressing both Jewish tradition and a connection with Israel-is used to prevent Jewish youth from further assimilation. But such an education is extremely difficult to impart under the conditions prevailing in Turkey. Jewish parents counsel their children not to display Star of David necklaces in public, and to remain silent and if possible completely ignore the constant, hateful, often slanderous criticism of Israel in the Turkish public sphere.
The Mavi Marmara incident was an acid test for Turkish Jewry. It came as no surprise that the public perceived the incident as the murder of Muslim Turks by the Jewish army and started asking Turkish Jews whose side they were on. The incident also triggered a wave of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories in the Turkish media and among public figures. For the most part, the Turkish Jewish leadership found itself unable to address the issue publicly.
For the situation to change, Turkish society would have to veer away from the current insular nationalist and Islamist atmosphere and move in a more liberal, democratic, multicultural direction. Turkey could then both come to grips with the darker aspects of its past and work for a different and better future. At present, the indications that such a transition might occur are mixed at best.
A Low Profile and a Shrinking Community
Turkey’s Jewish community is one of the few remaining Diaspora communities in a country with a Muslim majority. For any researcher or journalist seeking information about this community and its current state, two of the most important accessible sources are the community’s sole remaining paper, the weekly Åžalom, and the community’s lay and religious leadership. If such a person were to peruse Åžalom for the cultural activities held by the community’s various organizations and speak with the lay leaders and the Chief Rabbinate, the impression he would receive is that, despite its relatively small numbers, Turkey’s Jewish community is extremely dynamic and has even been undergoing a certain cultural renaissance in recent years.
Yet, for all of the community’s apparent dynamism, a number of factors would dampen optimism for its long-term viability. Among these is that the community does not have any influence or play any role worth mentioning in Turkey’s cultural, political, or intellectual life. Although a small number of Turkish Jews served in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly from 1946 to 1961, since then they have largely disappeared from the political scene. Furthermore, in recent years the entire Jewish community has become the target of much resentment and hostile rhetoric from the country’s Islamist and ultranationalist sectors.
The relations between Turkey’s Jewish community and the state of Israel have, by their very nature, remained ambiguous and highly sensitive. In the current Turkish situation, where anti-Americanism and anti-Israeli sentiment often cross the line into outright anti-Semitism and a popular demonization of both Zionism and Israel, it is inconceivable for a Turkish Jew to express pro-Israeli sentiment openly. As a result, community leaders and others who publicly declare their “Turkishness” are careful to keep all personal and institutional relations with Israel very low-key and far from the scrutiny of the Turkish media.
Another problem concerns the question of identity. In Turkey, the educational approach that is used to prevent the youth from further assimilation and for the preservation of Jewish identity-one of the primary concerns of all Diaspora communities-is a “Zionist” education. Its central tenet is the maintaining of a connection with Jewish tradition on one hand and the state of Israel on the other. But such an education is extremely difficult to impart under the conditions prevailing in Turkey. Because of the strong current of hostility toward Israel and Zionism, Jewish parents counsel their children not to display Star of David necklaces in public, and to remain silent and if possible completely ignore the constant, hateful, often slanderous criticism of Israel in the Turkish public sphere.
Finally, the demography of Turkey’s Jewish population presents little to encourage optimism. In 1927, the year of the Turkish Republic’s first general census, the community numbered 81,872. Eighty years later it had dwindled to somewhere between one-fourth and one-fifth of that figure.
The Reasons for the Present Situation
Turkish Jewry has faced far fewer problems than other Jewish groups living in Islamic lands. Why, then, has this community, which still appears so dynamic in some regards, arrived at such a state? There are a number of clear reasons for the situation.
The first major demographic turning point for Turkey’s Jewish community since the founding of the Republic was the establishment of the state of Israel. From 1945, there was every indication that the Turkish Republic would permit the founding of new political parties and enter a freer period of multiparty democracy. Yet, by the autumn of 1948, close to half of Turkey’s Jews had left for the new Jewish state. Thus, Turkey’s Jewish population fell from 76,965 in 1945 to 45,995 just three years later.
There were several factors behind this large-scale emigration. First and foremost, because of a series of bitter experiences over the first two and a half decades of the Turkish Republic’s existence, Turkish Jews had lost all hope of being considered equal Turkish citiziens. Second, they realized that they could fully live their Judaism only in Israel. The Turkish government had always required a single unambiguous loyalty of its citizens, one that brooked no whiff of external affiliation to a religion, ethnicity, or even a voluntary organization. Lastly, many young Turkish Jews who had received a Zionist education saw Israel’s establishment as fulfilling the national dream of the Jewish people.
Conditions during the Single-Party Period (1923-1945)
Around the time of Israel’s establishment, the prospects both for Turkey and its Jewish population looked favorable. For many of Turkey’s Jews, however, this was not enough to erase the memory of twenty-two years of single-party rule under the Republican People’s Party. During that time they were repeatedly exposed to anti-Semitism, discrimination, and chauvinism on the part of the intellectual elites or the authorities. They were subjected to heavy pressures toward “Turkification”-assimilation into Turkish society-from the Kemalist political and intellectual elite. This elite claimed to regard all who lived within the new Republic as Turkish citizens possessing equal rights, regardless of language, religion, and race; at the same time, they expected the various non-Turkish and non-Muslim inhabitants to wholeheartedly adopt Turkish customs, language, religion, and culture. Moreover, Turkey’s Jewish bourgeoisie was constantly forced to contend with the jealousy and resentment-sentiments that often morphed into anti-Semitism-resulting from their far greater economic success than their Muslim counterparts.
One of the reasons for the ongoing pressure to assimilate and speak Turkish, which was directed at non-Muslims in general during those years, concerned the special situation of the country’s Jewish population. From the viewpoint of the Kemalist elites, the “national language” of the Jews was Hebrew. In actuality, the principal languages of most Turkish Jews were the Judeo-Spanish dialect known as Ladino and, as a result of several generations of educating their youth at Alliance IsraÃ©lite Universelle schools, French. Only those fervent Zionists intent on immigrating to Palestine had some grasp of spoken Hebrew.
Nevertheless, those Jews who failed to sufficiently devote themselves to learning and speaking Turkish became, along with their distinctive accents, an indispensable subject for satire in the popular press, and more seriously, the subjects of ongoing public pressure to do so. Coupled with their economic success, the relative failure of Turkish Jewry to fully “Turkify” themselves led much of the country’s elite to view them as an ungrateful minority. Some four hundred years after the Spanish Expulsion, they still refused to learn the language of their tolerant and magnanimous hosts, preferring to continue speaking the language of their former oppressors or even French, all the while exploiting the true sons of the nation, the Turks.
The reality underlying such a notion was the impossibilty of abruptly transforming the collective attitudes of the Turkish Republic, built as they were on the ashes of six hundred years of Islamic rule. Regardless of the Western concepts of citizenship and secularism enshrined in the Turkish Constitution, Turkey’s Muslim majority continued to look upon its Jews not as Turks but as Jews and, therefore, dhimmis, persons by definition not entitled to the same privileges as its Muslim inhabitants. Because of this perception non-Muslims in general were considered inherently unreliable, fostering discrimination during both their military service and daily life.
Although the existing legislation specified that a public servant needed only to be a “Turk,” those responsible for applying it consistently acted in line with the aforementioned perception. That is, while the state required unswerving loyalty from its citizens, the loyalty of non-Muslims was always closely monitored for any sign of divergence. Despite the demand that they thoroughly behave as Turks, they were never truly considered as such. For the authorities and most of the public, the term Turk was understood as synonymous with Muslim and/or “ethnic Turk,” inevitably producing discrimination against non-Muslims.
Thus, in the public sphere non-Muslims were unable to obtain employment as public servants, police officers, or noncommissioned officers in the Turkish army. A more proactive form of discrimination against non-Muslims in the early years of the Republic was the imposition of strict legal quotas on the number or percentage of non-Muslims whom foreign-owned companies could employ. Until that time these companies had almost exclusively employed non-Muslims, since they had the requisite lingustic and commercial capabilities. In the summer of 1923, the Commerce Ministry ordered foreign companies to fire 50-75 percent of their non-Muslim staff and replace them with Muslims.
During the first decades of the Republic, three landmark events in particular marked the collective memory of Turkey’s Jews. The first of these was the anti-Jewish riots and looting of June-July 1934, which have come to be known as the “Thrace Incidents” (Trakya OlaylarÄ±). The events of the last days of June and first days of July that year, in the cities and villages of Turkey’s European provinces of Edirne, Ã‡anakkale, and KÄ±rklareli where there were large concentrations of Jews, began with a boycott of Jewish artisans and merchants. In subsequent days the Jewish neighborhoods of these areas were besieged by Turks from the surrounding villages, local residents, and students. The mobs threw rocks at Jewish houses and shops and harassed Jewish women and young girls.
As events unfolded, the local Jews fell into panic and sold their businesses, houses, and possessions for next to nothing, or simply abandoned them in attempting to flee the area for Istanbul. Despite the flood of Jewish refugees into that city, Prime Minister Ä°smet Ä°nÃ¶nÃ¼, in a speech to the Turkish parliament on 5 July, would only publicly make mention of these events to condemn them and announce that an investigation had been launched. Until that point the Istanbul press had not run a single story on the incidents. Even after Ä°nÃ¶nÃ¼’s speech they were portrayed as minor, or used as pretexts to call on the Jews to assimilate more quickly and to learn and speak Turkish.
Following the prime minister’s statements, a committee was formed headed by Interior Minister ÅžÃ¼krÃ¼ Kaya. It was to investigate the locales where the disturbances had occurred and submit a report to the Council of Ministers. In light of the report, an official communiquÃ© was issued on 14 July 1934. It presented a full account of the events and declared that the guilty parties would be brought to justice.
In light of the available archival documents, one can tentatively conclude that the incidents occurred for a number of reasons. One was the accumulated resentments and jealousies of the local population toward the Jews of Thrace, who had not learned Turkish and whose merchants dominated the region’s economy. In addition, the Turkish regime and army increasingly desired to remilitarize the Bosphorus Straits and surrounding area-which the 1923 Lausanne Treaty 1923 had demilitarized-and to reestablish Turkish military bases and presence there. Both the politicians and military chiefs tended to view both the local non-Muslim inhabitants and those with foreign citizenship who lived in the region as unreliable, and hoped somehow to relocate them. The method ultimately employed was a slow but constant campaign of attacks, harassment, and intimidation against the area’s Jews in the hope of compelling them to leave. Yet the hatred against the region’s Jews proved harder to keep on a low heat than supposed, quickly generating the large-scale disturbances that finally erupted.
The second event was the formation of “labor batallions” out of non-Muslim conscripts in May 1941. In that month it was suddenly decided to draft all non-Muslim males aged 27-40 and station them in the various provinces of Anatolia. Even so, these recruits were segregated from their Muslim fellow recruits and provided with neither weapons nor uniforms, instead being ordered to work in the construction of roads and air bases.
In essence, this was a reprise of the old Ottoman practice. During the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), for instance, the Ottoman state, facing the rising tide of ethnic and regional nationalism, began to view its non-Muslim soldiers as a potential fifth column. Hence they were given picks and shovels instead of weapons and sent off to build roads. These units composed of non-Muslim recruits became known as the “labor battalions.”
Thus, the actions of May 1941 were a repeat of a thirty-year-old practice. The German army, having conquered most of the Balkans, was now threatening to attack Turkey. The Turkish Council of Ministers, fearful that in the event of a German invasion the country’s non-Muslim minorities (particularly the Armenians) would serve as a fifth column for the Nazi-led forces, decided to intern the entire male populations of the respective minority communities. The soldiers in question were decomissioned in July 1942, barely one year into their service.
The last of these incidents was the Capital Tax Law (VarlÄ±k Vergisi Kanunu), along with its discriminatory implementation against non-Muslims. Even after the decomissioning of the country’s non-Muslim males, they would receive a second blow only four months later, this time an economic one. In response to the excessive profiteering and wealth of the black marketeers and speculators who emerged as a result of Turkey’s wartime economic conditions, on 11 November 1942 the Turkish legislature passed the Capital Tax Law, which was intended to tax these profits. While not discriminatory in its conception or wording, in its arbitrary and selective implementation that is what it became.
The committees formed to determine the amount of taxes that the country’s citizens would be obliged to pay divided the taxpayers into four categories: M (Muslim), GM (gayri MÃ¼slim, or non-Muslim), D (DÃ¶nme), and E (Ecnebi, or foreigner). The rate at which those non-Muslim-Turkish professionals, merchants, and industrialists were to be taxed was set at four times that of their Muslim counterparts. In the event that they were unable to pay the full amounts assessed, they would be legally obligated to work off their outstanding debt through physical labor.
As a result, over the course of the law’s existence hundreds of non-Muslim males were sent to the small eastern Anatolian village of AÅŸkale to labor under severe winter conditions. In constrast, not a single tax delinquent from the M or D categories (i.e., Muslims or DÃ¶nmes) was ever sent east, while the tax burdens assessed to those in the E category (foreigners) were usually lowered retroactively through the intervention of their respective diplomatic missions.
In 1943 Cyrus L. Sulzberger, a New York Times reporter, published a four-part series on the tax and its discriminatory implementation. Three months after these reports and only a few days before the Cairo meeting between the Allied leaders Roosevelt and Churchill, Prime Minister Ä°nÃ¶nÃ¼ announced that the delinquent taxpayers then in AÅŸkale would be freed. A new law pardoning them and releasing them from their outstanding debts was passed on 1 March 1944. Yet, ultimately, the Capital Tax Law was a great economic blow to Turkey’s non-Muslim bourgeoisie. As a result of the huge and often impossible tax burdens it placed on them, a great number of non-Muslim merchants and industrialists went bankrupt or had to liquidate their businesses or sell them for next to nothing to Muslim counterparts.
These three events have assumed an almost mythical quality among Turkish Jewry. Each is representative of the general discrimination that they constantly faced during the single-party period.
Despite the initial mass wave of emigration in 1948-1949 that came in response to these harsh experiences, there was no further out-migration of such a scale. Nevertheless, the country’s Jewish population, which stood at 45,995 in 1955, kept declining over the next decade to 38,267 in 1965, a trend that would continue unabated to the present, with the community now numbering approximately seventeen thousand. One difference between then and now is that, whereas the preferred destination of Turkish Jewish youth was once Israel, these days, like their Muslim fellow citizens, they prefer to both study and live in the United States. There are also many Turkish Jews to be found in Turkey’s business, media, and academic sectors. Nevertheless, while the discrimination of the single-party period has not returned, the community continues to live with something like a siege mentality. Emigration, if at a lower rate, continues, and the issue is why.
The answer lies partly in how Turkey’s population and its political, social, and intellectual elites view its Jewish citizens. The struggles between the country’s various ideological streams have also had repercussions on the Jewish population.
The Situation During the Multiparty Years (1946-)
During the first two decades of the Republic, one of the principal goals of the Kemalist cadres was to secularize a society that had for centuries been run on the basis of Islamic shari’a law. This was an encouraging development for the country’s non-Muslims, who saw the prospect of being treated for the first time as full members of society, possessing rights and duties on par with those of the Muslim majority.
Despite the failure of this promise to materialize during the single-party period, the transition to multiparty democracy following the Second World War gave renewed hope. The years from the establishment of the Democratic Party in 1946 to its coming to power in 1950 fostered an optimism reminiscent of the initial enthusiasm following the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. There were grounds for believing that the equality promised by the 1924 Constitution but never fulfilled would finally be implemented, ensuring that non-Muslims would be both viewed and treated as full members of Turkish society and allowed to participate in all areas of Turkish life.
It is ironic, then, that Turkey’s march toward greater democratization and liberalization has brought such meager long-term benefit to the country’s Jewish community. In fact, the multiparty period has witnessed a clear, if uneven, veering away from the staunch secularism of the early Republic. Political parties jockey for the support of Turkey’s largely uneducated rural voters by using populist tactics and appealing to their more traditional and religious sentiments.
The Rise of the Islamist Movement
Within the new democratic paradigm even the ruling Republican People’s Party (CHP), the steadfast proponent of an authoritarian, top-down secularization of Turkish society, found itself forced to soften its approach to Islamic tradition in an attempt to cater to voters’ wishes. During the last CHP government (1946-1950) this trend was already apparent. Courses for new imams and Islamic preachers began to be held again, faculties of divinity were reopened, parents were given the option of religious education for their children at the primary- school level, persons going on the Hajj were granted special appropriations, and the tombs of twenty of Turkey’s most famous saints were reopened to visitors by a law passed on 1 March 1950.
This would turn out to be insufficient, however, as the party was decisively defeated in the first truly democratic elections of 14 May 1950. But this was not merely an electoral tactic, as once in office the first measure the Democratic Party took was to allow the ezan, or Islamic call to prayer, to be read in Arabic again for the first time in almost three decades. Subsequently the new regime also revoked the previous ban on broadcasting religious programs on the state-run radio station, effectively allowing, among others, Qur’anic and other religious recitations.
In addition to the greater social latitude permitted to Islam, the liberalization also eventually led to the phenomenon known as political Islam. This initially took the form of the National Order Party (MillÃ® Nizam Partisi), founded in 1970 by a professor of mechanical engineering, Necmettin Erbakan. Over the following three decades Erbakan promoted his National Viewpoint (MillÃ® GÃ¶rÃ¼ÅŸ) ideology through a series of political parties, the most recent of which was the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi, SP). All of these, apart from the Felicity Party, were closed down by the Constitutional Court for acting contrary to the principle of secularism.
Upon the closure of the SP-predecessor Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi, FP) in 2001, the movement founded by Erbakan split into two factions. One was the SP, which faithfully continued its founder’s ideology. Other SP members, however, left it to found the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve KalkÄ±nma Partisi, AKP). It depicted itself as a “Muslim democratic” party, something akin to Europe’s various Christian Democratic parties, while in fact still largely adhereing to Erbakan’s National Viewpoint ideology.
The Islamist Movement and the Turkish Jews
The steady growth of Turkey’s Islamist movement that accompanied the country’s transition to multiparty democracy has brought with it a growing trend of public anti-Semitism. Over the past decade this has appeared constantly in the ultranationalist and the Islamist press, gradually becoming a defining tenet of both ideologies.
Whereas during the single-party period the main catalysts for anti-Jewish sentiment were a certain class resentment and a perceived resistance to full assimilation on the part of the Jews, during the multiperiod the phenomenon would continue while undergoing certain transformations. From 1946 to 1980, resentments over income and wealth disparities continued to foster anti-Semitism. However, the birth, survival, and even prosperity of the state of Israel, despite attempts to destroy it in 1948, 1967, and 1973, added to the mix a general Muslim frustration and humiliation at their inability to do away with such an entity in their midst.
In the period from the military coup of 12 September 1980 to the present, Turkey’s liberal economic policies have largely eliminated the financial and monetary gaps between Muslim and Jewish entrepreneurs and businessmen, and hence also the economic motivation for Turkish anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, while this resentment at least had some basis in the material world, it has been replaced by a more virulent strain, intractable in nature: the widely held belief that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the establishment of the secular Turkish Republic, and the creation of Israel were all part of a vast Jewish plot to weaken Islam, the Muslims, and the mighty Turkish nation. Zionists, DÃ¶nmes, and Freemasons, all seen as branches of Judaism or “Jewish World Government,” are believed to play a greater or lesser role in this enterprise.
As elsewhere in the world, this brand of anti-Semitism has intensified in parallel with growing Islamic radicalization. Two of the more recent manifestations in Turkey were, first, the murder of the Jewish dentist Yasef Yahya (1964-2003) in August 2003-by his assailants’ admission, for the crime of being Jewish. Second, three months later Islamic radicals carried out suicide bombings against two of Istanbul’s main synagogues, Neve Shalom in the Galata district and Beth Israel in the Osmanbey neighborhood. These and other acts have proved the physical threat that this form of anti-Semitism poses to the individual members and institutions of Turkey’s Jewish community. The lack of further acts in the succeeding years, however, has allowed both the authorities and the media to largely ignore the phenomenon. They claim that the attacks were isolated events carried out by extremist individuals (preferably portrayed as foreigners), and dismiss the ongoing anti-Semitic diatribes as marginal rhetoric.
The Situation in the Wake of the Second Iraq War
A major development in Turkey since the First Iraq War has been the rise in both anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment. This is usually accompanied by conspiracy theories featuring American Jews or Israelis as the operation’s main planners, usually on Israel’s behalf. This conspiratorial anti-Semitism achieved a new level of respectability with the publication of Soner YalÃ§Ä±n’s books Efendi (2004) and Efendi II (2006) by DoÄŸan Book Publishers, a subsidiary of Turkey’s largest media group DoÄŸan Holding.
According to the first work, which had record sales for nonfiction in Turkey with almost 150,000 copies sold, all of the important positions in Turkey have been occupied by the DÃ¶nmes since the founding of the Republic-including even the founders themselves, effectively making Turkey a “Jewish Republic.” The sequel, which was less well received, went further, claiming that even the country’s dervish orders and religious institutions had been completely infiltrated by the DÃ¶nmes. Although any criticism of the secular regime and its founders was liable to win favor with the country’s conservative elements, this allegation proved a bit excessive. But these books, and to a lesser extent those of the Marxist economics professor YalÃ§Ä±n KÃ¼Ã§Ã¼k, almost single-handedly brought anti-Semitism out of the Islamist and ultranationalist circles to which it had been largely confined and made it an acceptable part of the broader parlance.
Moreover, Turkey’s Jews have had to face almost wholly negative rhetoric about Israel and Zionism from Turkish society and its elites, where the terms are often used in conjunction with such descriptors as “imperialism” and “rogue state.” Nor is this rhetoric limited to the rightists and Islamists; it is found with equal frequency in leftist and even traditionally sympathetic Kemalist circles. Numerous claims in the Turkish press that Mossad agents were active in northern Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion have greatly augmented the tendency. So has the perception that, particularly in Iraq, Turkish and Israeli interests were increasingly at odds.
Today it is virtually impossible to find someone in Turkey who will give even a neutral view of either Israel or Zionism, much less a favorable one. For public figures in particular, such a statement would be tantamount to political suicide, evoking accusations that the person had “sold his soul to the Zionists.” Faced with the prospect of even more extreme reactions including violence, Turkish Jews prefer to remain silent.
The Dual-Loyalty Accusation
Historically, Turkey’s non-Muslim (and certain Muslim) minorities have often been suspected of disloyalty to the Turkish state and, in the case of the Jewish population, of dual loyalty or, more precisely, greater loyalty to Israel than Turkey. In such a situation of constant suspicion, the Chief Rabbinate and most Jews have feared to utter any positive public statement about Israel. Perhaps the most cogent manifestation of this can be found in an article by Ankara University political science professor BaskÄ±n Oran. In concluding this piece, which appeared simultaneously in July 2004 in the Turkish leftist daily BirgÃ¼n and the Turkish Armenian weekly Agos, and which strongly criticizes the antiminority and anti-Semitic publications in Turkey, Oran offers this admonition to Turkish Jews:
Israel’s disgraceful actions have made it easier for some of our racists to attack the Jews of Turkey. These [actions] must unquestionably be prevented…and will be.
Nevertheless, our own Jews may undertake efforts to excuse Israel, which is a “pariah state” in the full sense of the word, whether because of their “blood ties” [with its inhabitants] or [their] kneejerk reaction [to any criticism of Israel]. Now, hold on just one minute! Let’s call a spade a spade!
Our task is to protect our own innocent Jews from our own racists, not to defend racist Israel. There [should be] no tolerance for that.
Similarly, whereas it is legal for a Turkish NGO either to operate internationally, collaborate with a foreign organization, or establish a Turkish branch of such an organization, in such a climate it is unthinkable in practice for any specifically Jewish organization to set up shop and be active in Turkey. Hence, Turkish Jewish religious and lay leaders avoid speaking of the intensive collaboration they have undertaken in the United States-and in response to the Turkish regime’s urging-with Israel and American Jewish organizations to block the annual Armenian-genocide resolutions submitted to Congress.
The Acid Test for Turkey’s Jewish Community: The Mavi Marmara Incident
The acid test for the Turkish Jewish community was the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) attempted interdiction of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla on 31 May 2010. The flotilla was organized by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief (IHH). The IDF’s intervention on the largest ship in the flotilla, the ferry called the Mavi Marmara, resulted in the deaths of eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish American. It was inevitable, regarding the Turkish Jewish leadership, that the Turkish media would inquire “whose side they were on,” with its implied questioning of where their loyalties lay.
The Chief Rabbinate reacted succinctly a few hours after the reporting on the incident began:
We are distressed to learn of the military intervention carried out against the ship Mavi Marmara, which was heading toward Gaza.
The fact that, according to the first reports we have received, there have been dead and wounded in the intervention, has increased our sorrow all the more.
We fully share our country’s reaction generated by the stopping of the aforementioned [relief] effort in this manner and our sorrow is the same as that of the general public.
The incident was extremely serious, since it was the first time in history that the IDF had killed Turkish nationals. In a country where widespread anti-Israeli resentment and anti-Semitism already exist, it came as no surprise that the public perceived the incident as the murder of Muslim Turks by the Jewish army and started asking Turkish Jews whose side they were on. The incident triggered a wave of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories in the Turkish media and among public figures. These conspiracy theories included the motif that Israel was behind the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (Parti Karkerani Kurdistan, PKK) latest attack on a Turkish military base in Iskenderun, which coincidentally occurred a few hours after the IDF’s intervention on the Mavi Marmara.
A poll in Turkey shortly after the latter incident found 45.2 percent believing the IDF had attacked the ship to “put PM ErdoÄŸan in difficulty in Turkey and abroad and wear him out,” with 60.7 percent affirming that “Turkey’s reaction to Israel was insufficient.” Another development was the siege and blockade of the Israeli consulate in Istanbul and of the Israeli embassy in Ankara by Islamist activists, both of which went on for a number of days. The Mavi Marmara incident caused such an uproar in Turkey that the producer of the famous film Valley of the Wolves decided to produce an episode exclusively devoted to it.
Although Turkey is marked by sharp ideological divisions, antagonism toward Israel and Zionism, which are perceived as the source of all evils, is one of the few matters where Islamists, nationalists, liberals, leftists, and Kemalists agree. Thus it was no surprise when petitions circulated against Israel and Zionism, which was called “another form of racism” by Turkish pundits and intellectuals and by the liberal-leftist faculty of the Istanbul Bilgi University. The Turkish media immediately demanded a statement from the only Jewish newspaper, Åžalom, and from the community’s spokespersons on how Turkish Jews felt about the incident. The community’s leadership limited itself to the above-noted Chief Rabbinate’s statement and decided to make no further comment. This sharply contrasted with its decision a year earlier to reach out to Turkish society in the hope that this might change the widespread negative perception of Jews.
This reticence by the community’s leadership of course attracted media attention. Murat YalnÄ±z, editor in chief of Newsweek‘s Turkish edition who a year earlier had run a cover story on the community’s attempt to reach out, mildly criticized the leadership for “closing up” at a time when it was even more necessary to open up to Turkish society as a whole. Another journalist, Perihan Ã‡akÄ±roÄŸlu of the daily BugÃ¼n, wrote that none among her many high-level Jewish friends wanted to speak out on this subject as they did not know what to say. She claimed that the community leadership had imposed a ban on them.
The void created by this unofficial ban would be filled by two Turkish Jewish public figures: the Trotskyite poet and columnist for the Taraf daily, Roni Margulies, and the well-known novelist Mario Levi. Margulies’s attitude toward Israel was by then familiar to the Turkish media: he considers Israel a racist and illegal state. The media rushed to ask his opinion as it had in similar situations. In a lengthy interview to the liberal-leftist daily Radikal, Margulies stated that he approved of the Gaza Flotilla, disapprove of Israel’s raid, and wished he could have been there. He also remarked that “for a Jew, Israel is the most dangerous place to live in the world and Israel is a danger to world Jewry.”
As for Levi, in an interview to the Italian daily La Repubblica he declared that “as Jews of Istanbul, we are in solidarity with the people of Gaza.” He added that “personally, I have no impression that anti-Semitism exists in Turkey” and that “Netanyahu is a chauvinist prime minister, Lieberman a fascist foreign minister, Ehud Barak a stupid defense minister.” Naturally his words were immediately translated and published in the Turkish press.
Both Margulies’s and Levi’s statements were very well received by the Turkish media. Ali BulaÃ§, a writer and an Islamist intellectual for the Zamandaily, which is known for its support of Fethullah GÃ¼len, a Turkish Islamist leader living in Pennsylvania, applauded Levi’s words and reiterated the false but widely believed notion that Islam is free of anti-Semitism, which is a product of Christianity.
In reaction to the wave of anti-Semitism in the Turkish press, several articles in the international press asserted that Turkish Jews feared physical attacks against individuals or the community’s institutions. This obliged the government to state forcefully that the Islamist activists protesting against Israel should differentiate between the Israeli government and the Israeli people, and between Turkish Jews and the state of Israel.
The Mavi Marmaraincident showed once again that for the Turkish public and media, a good Jew is an anti-Zionist Jew critical of Zionism and Israel, while a bad Jew is a “Zionist Jew.” It was, therefore, impossible for the leadership to keep reaching out to Turkish society unless they adopted the rhetoric of “good Jews.” However, adopting such rhetoric was in itself problematic, since Zionism and an attachment to Israel are the two main themes taught to Turkish Jewish youth to help them preserve their Jewish identity.
Wikileaks, Israel, and Conspiracy Theories
The release of the diplomatic correspondence of the American embassies and consulates with the State Department by Julian Assange of the nonprofit media organization Wikileaks, created another wave of conspiracy theories where the “villain hero” was again the state of Israel and the “Jewish lobby dominated by neocons” in Washington. Dr. YalÃ§Ä±n AkdoÄŸan, a top political adviser of Prime Minister ErdoÄŸan, the Islamist press (Yeni Åžafak, Milli Gazete, and Yeni Akit), Interior Minister BeÅŸir Atalay, HÃ¼seyin Ã‡elik, deputy chairman for media and publicity of the AKP, and Mehmet Ali Åžahin, president of the Turkish parliament, all concurred that Israel was behind the leaked documents that concerned Turkey.
The “logic” behind this assumption was that all the released diplomatic correspondence showed that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Ankara did not trust ErdoÄŸan and regarded him and his colleagues as potentially dangereous Islamists. Some of the reports were prepared while Eric Edelman, an American Jewish diplomat, was U.S. ambassador in Ankara (August 2003-June 2005). In addition, a report prepared by Richard H. Jones, U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv, described a meeting where Under Secretary for Political Affairs William H. Burns and Mossad chief Meir Dagan were present, and Dagan asked “how long Turkey’s military-viewing itself as the defender of Turkey’s secular identity-will remain quiet.” These facts were used as “ultimate proofs” that these leaked documents were a conspiracy engineered by Israel with the aim of discrediting ErdoÄŸan and the AKP.
The claim that a given community is disappearing cannot be proved merely through demographic evidence. Even if this community is clearly small and getting smaller all the time, if its cultural and community life remain vital-perhaps even more so than in previous years-then it is in no way “dying” as a community. When looked at in this light, Turkey’s Jewish community is still far from disappearing demographically-yet close to doing so culturally and sociologically.
If one examines the manner in which Turkey’s Chief Rabbinate and the community’s only remaining press organ, Åžalom, have responded to the series of crises that have beset the community over the past half-century, two things are readily apparent. First, the community’s leaders have regularly had only limited options both socially and politically. Second, the only solution they have found is simply to continue their traditional low-profile policy and wait for the various storms to pass.
These Turkish Jewish leaders have concluded that, in the eyes of the Turkish Republic, they have no real significance apart from collaborating with the Turkish Foreign Ministry and various American Jewish organizations to block the annual resolutions submitted to Congress calling for official recognition of the events surrounding the 1915 Ottoman deportation of its Armenian population as a genocide. Recently the Anti-Defamation League, after decades of opposing these resolutions, declared that the events in question “were indeed tantamount to genocide.” This is an alarm signal that the battle to define what happened as massacres and not genocide, which has long been lost among the American and European intelligentsia, is on the way to being lost among the American Jewish organizations as well. Should this happen, it will be a serious blow to the perceived “added value” of the Turkish Jewish community for the Turkish establishment.
Furthermore, the present climate in Turkey of mounting anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Israeli sentiment, buffeted by the ever-present Turkish ultranationalism, Islamic radicalism, and growing antiminority and anti-Semitic rhetoric, have all led to increased violence against the community as a whole and, in some cases, as individuals. Among such instances are the attempted assassination of Quincentennial Foundation president Jak V. Kamhi on 28 January 1993; the aforementioned murder of the Istanbul dentist Yasef Yahya on 21 August 2003; the attempted assassination (by bomb) of the president of Ankara’s small Jewish community, Prof. Yuda YÃ¼rÃ¼m, on 7 June 1995; and the aforementioned suicide-bomb attacks against two Istanbul synagogues on 15 November 2003. Christian and Armenian figures have also been murdered.
In such a milieu, the prospects for a small minority community to continue leading a dynamic cultural life are meager indeed. Thus Turkey’s Jews, who more and more feel forced to isolate themselves from the larger society, and dare not speak publicly of any general Jewish concerns pertaining to Zionism, Israel, or world Jewry, are leading a truncated and, in many ways, conditional existence.
For this to change, Turkish society would have to veer away from the current insular nationalist and Islamist atmosphere, and the resulting “culture of conspiracy” that dominates its public space, and move in a more liberal, democratic, and multicultural direction. Turkey could then both come to grips with the darker aspects of its past and work for a different and better future. At present, the indications that such a transition might occur are mixed at best.
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RÄ±fat N. Bali, an independent scholar, is a graduate of Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Religious Sciences Division, in Paris. He is the author of nine books and numerous articles on the history of Turkish Jewry. His most recent publication is The “VarlÄ±k Vergisi” Affair: A Study of Its Legacy-Selected Documents (Istanbul: Isis Press, 2005).
The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs is an independent non-profit institute for policy research and education.
Israel’s growth and survival are dependent on its winning the war of ideas. The challenges that Israel faces today are not only military. They extend to the United Nations, the mass media, foreign universities, and non-governmental organizations. In many cases, the assault on Israel is aimed at its very legitimacy as a Jewish state. A direct by-product of the attacks on Israel is a clearly detectable rise in anti-Semitism, especially in Europe. In this environment, what is needed is not just better public relations, but also a rigorous analysis of the issues being exploited by Israel’s adversaries who question Israel’s legal rights. In response, the Jerusalem Center seeks to present Israel’s case and to highlight the challenges of Islamic extremism and global anti-Semitism.