Where a good Jew is an anti-Zionist Jew

In 1927, Turkey's Jewish community numbered 81,872. Eighty years later it had dwindled to somewhere between a quarter and a fifth of that number. It’s not hard to see why.

israeli flag burning in Turkey_311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
israeli flag burning in Turkey_311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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 Salom, and the community’s lay and religious leadership.
If such a person were to peruse Salom 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?
The first major demographic turning point for Turkey’s Jewish community since the founding of the Turkish Republic was the establishment of the state of Israel. From 1945, there was every indication that the 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 citizens. 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.
The Jewish population kept declining – to 38,267 in 1965, a trend that would continue unabated to the present, with the community now numbering approximately 17,000. 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 many Turkish Jews to be found in Turkey’s business, media, and academic sectors, but the community continues to live with something like a siege mentality.
The Islamist Movement and 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.
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 September 12, 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, Dönmes, 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 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.
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 Yalçin’s books Efendi (2004) and Efendi II (2006) by Dogan Book Publishers, a subsidiary of Turkey’s largest media group Dogan 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 Dönmes 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 Dönmes.
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 Yalçın Küçük, 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 US 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 Baskın Oran. In concluding this piece, which appeared simultaneously in July 2004 in the Turkish leftist daily Birgün 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.”
The Mavi Marmara incident
The acid test for the Turkish Jewish community was the IDF’s attempted interdiction of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla on May 31, 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 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 Erdogan 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 liberalleftist faculty of the Istanbul Bilgi University.
The Turkish media immediately demanded a statement from the only Jewish newspaper, Salom, 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 Yalnız, 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 Çakiroglu of the daily Bugün, 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 Bulaç, a writer and an Islamist intellectual for the Zaman daily, which is known for its support of Fethullah Gülen, 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 Marmara incident 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’s 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. Yalçın Akdogan, a top political adviser of Prime Minister Erdogan, the Islamist press (Yeni Safak, Milli Gazete, and Yeni Akit), Interior Minister Besir Atalay, Hüseyin Çelik, deputy chairman for media and publicity of the AKP, and Mehmet Ali Sahin, 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 US diplomatic mission in Ankara did not trust Erdogan and regarded him and his colleagues as potentially dangerous Islamists. Some of the reports were prepared while Eric Edelman, an American Jewish diplomat, was US ambassador in Ankara (August 2003-June 2005). In addition, a report prepared by Richard H. Jones, US 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 Erdogan 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, Salom, 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 everpresent 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 Yürüm, 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.
The author, a graduate of Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Religious Sciences Division, in Paris, and a research fellow of the Alberto Benveniste Center for Sephardic Studies and Culture (Paris), has written numerous books and articles on the history of Turkish Jewry. This article was written for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs / Changing Jewish Communities, and has been edited and reprinted here by permission of the JCPA. www.jcpa.org