Turkey’s Jews are scared – but afraid to talk about it

One high-profile case of hate speech on social media came after a community leader invited people to watch the live streaming of a Jewish wedding in western Turkey.

February 4, 2018 06:30
Turkey’s Jews are scared – but afraid to talk about it

Jewish community members attend the re-opening ceremony of Great Synagogue in Edirne, western Turkey March 26, 2015. A five-year, $2.5 million government project has restored the Great Synagogue in the border city of Edirne, the first temple to open in Turkey in two generations. REUTERS/Murad Sezer. (photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)


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Movie producer Jozef Ercevik Amado sits at a bar in central Istanbul stressing how, as a Jewish Turk, he can live his daily life without any fear.

But the backlash to the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has made some in the Jewish community feel unsettled.
“There are all these Israeli consulate protests and that’s not something that I enjoy… it’s scary,” Amado says.

He says that some of his fellow citizens who talk to him believe he isn’t fully Turkish.

“I think the essence of the problem is with otherness or foreignness… There’s this hospitality in Turkey, incredible hospitality, but then when you hit the wall, for some reason, that you don’t belong in that conversation or there, then it’s something different.”

The Jewish minority – believed to number around 15,000 – has been under threat for decades, including deadly terrorist attacks targeting synagogues in Istanbul. But the Turkish government’s shift toward greater Muslim conservatism has put the minority under the spotlight. That shift has only strengthened since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a strong stance against the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

In December, Turkey hosted a meeting of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, denouncing the decision.

Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College CUNY who focuses on Turkey and Israeli/Palestinian issues, says supporting Palestinians is beneficial for Erdogan because it will play well with Turks across the political spectrum.

“Politically, [Erdogan] doesn’t have much to lose, in the sense it does capture not just his own audience but other audiences.”

However, Turkey still has motivation to protect its relationship with Israel, partly due to their strong economic relations.

Turkish Airlines, for instance, was the most popular airline for people flying to and from Israel last year according to the daily Haaretz.

Fishman, who has lived in both Turkey and Israel, says there has been a sharp rise in antisemitism over the last couple of years.

“It’s not something that’s systematic within the law that you’re going to feel [discriminated] against on a daily basis, but the weight of antisemitism is there.”

A 2015 poll reported that 71% of respondents in Turkey held antisemitic beliefs, a result borne out by a terrorist attack against a synagogue in 1986 that killed 22 people, while a series of deadly bombings in 2003 also targeted synagogues.

Today, in order to enter a Jewish museum in Istanbul, a security guard asks for a password or identification before you go through a metal detector and then enter another room where the artifacts are displayed.

On state-funded television, one scene of a historic drama depicts Jews during the Ottoman Empire conspiring to build A 2015 poll reported that 71% of respondents in Turkey held antisemitic beliefs an Israeli state, pointing to the antisemitic trope that Jews are disloyal.

Betsy Penso, a lawyer who volunteers for an organization called Avlaremoz, which keeps track of antisemitism online and in the media, says hate speech seems to be on the rise.

“I think it’s getting stronger... since there is no punishment, people continue to write it, [and] nobody says anything to them.”

Part of that, she suspects, is the advent of social media, which have allowed people to voice opinions they may already have held but kept to themselves.

Yet, social media have also allowed the small Jewish minority a chance to speak up as well.

“Avlaremoz” means “Let’s talk” in Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish dialect. Penso says it is to contrast a tradition among Turkish Jews called “Kayadez” – to be invisible or unseen – which means people do not speak out on issues – even among their own families.

“They’ve faced lots of things… they believe if they speak, they won’t be welcome anymore, so they don’t speak.”

She says much of the problem for Turkey’s Jews is that many fellow citizens equate them with Israel and blame them for the actions of the government.

“They see us as foreigners for sure,” Penso says.

One high-profile case of hate speech on social media – which included praise for Hitler – came after a community leader invited people to watch the live streaming of a Jewish wedding in western Turkey.

Burhan Dogus, a Muslim Turkish lawyer, filed a criminal complaint in 2016 with a prosecutor arguing that such hate speech goes against Turkey’s penal code, which criminalizes “inflaming hatred and hostility among people” and carries a punishment of up to three years behind bars.

So far, Dogus says, the prosecutor’s office told him one person has been charged while police continue to investigate.

He believes it would be the first case against antisemitic hate speech in Turkey and hopes it is a pilot case for future attacks against Jews, which will force citizens to think twice before they make such comments.

Dogus suspects Jews in the country have been too scared to launch such a case for themselves.

“From the support I received [from] them after the application, it seemed that it was something they were waiting for a long time but couldn’t do it by themselves.”

Most people contacted by The Media Line for an interview declined – from journalists to historians to those with local Jewish institutions.

One member of Turkey’s Jewish community, who works as a consultant in Istanbul, says there is too great a risk of repercussions to speak out. He asked not to be named.

“They could, of course, never come out with the truth to a journalist and explain how they really feel because that would put the community in jeopardy.”

He says antisemitism has strengthened in the last few years and living in Turkey has become so difficult that he is applying for Portuguese citizenship and plans to leave the country.

He is not the only one. The Jewish outlet Forward reported in 2017 that almost 4,700 Jews in Turkey applied for or received passports from Spain, Portugal and Israel. Most Turkish Jews descend from those who came to the region as they fled the Spanish Inquisition.

The consultant stresses that the pressures faced by Jews in Turkey are similar to those faced by other minorities, such as Armenians and Greeks.

That pressure has only increased as the crackdown following last year’s failed coup continues, with about 50,000 arrested and 150,000 suspended or dismissed from their jobs.

“If you’re not a practicing Muslim, if you don’t go and pray in mosques, if you don’t have a wife who’s covered… then you’re not the kind of Turk that is desired, so many people are left out,” the consultant says.

Amado, the movie producer, fears the Jewish community is dwindling as people leave the country and the older generation gradually dies off.

He stresses, like others, that while times have gotten tougher, everyday life goes on and that he does not feel an imminent threat to the community. But concerns of whether that will continue to be true linger under the surface.

“There’s this conservatism, don’t get me wrong, it’s just there’s this other part which I think we take it for granted, which is nobody’s spray-painting swastikas on the synagogue walls – yet.”

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